When I was in high school, I took a course in short story writing. One day I read aloud my own about a man who died in an accident. He is shown around heaven by an angel and it was much as he had expected. Still he was depressed. At his request, the angel arranged for him to meet with God.
The class ended and the teacher, delighted with the story, asked me to continue the next day. So I did: The man told God that it was cruel to make his wife a widow and cause such unhappiness. Also, he also missed her terribly and the separation made him miserable. God offered unsatisfactory consolation. The man then cursed God.
At which point my teacher, spitting anger, ordered me to sit down and lectured me about the offensiveness of the story. In her mind, I had crossed the line into sacrilege
What prompted this memory is the jailing of 17-year-old Sami Ullah, in Karachi, Pakistan, who faces possible execution for writing a blasphemous remark on a test. Authorities can’t repeat what Ullah said because that, too, would be committing blasphemy.
Executions and torture for heretical thoughts and blasphemous words were begun in earnest by the Roman Catholic Church during the Inquisition and continued by Protestants during the Reformation. Britain executed an 18-year-old in 1697 for saying “I wish I were in that place Ezra calls hell so I could warm myself.”
That was the last blasphemy execution in Britain but not the last persecution. Those who denied the literal truth of New Testament miracles or made disrespectful remarks references to God or questioned eternal damnation of the wicked continued to be punished.
Linked as it was to secular authority, an attack against religion, verbally or even in thought, was enough to bring down the wrath of law. But as the tie between religious and secular was severed, sedition laws replaced those of blasphemy. The idea was the same: speech that undermined the ideological underpinnings of authority could not and would not be tolerated. This is why, less than a decade after adopting the constitution, John Adams, the United States’ third president, signed the Alien and Seditions Act into law, making it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government or its officials.
To this day freedom of thought and expression regarding religion and state aren’t totally free. Can a presidential candidate not wear an American flag lapel and expect to win? Is it possible for the president, whose legitimacy to hold office is questioned by many, not to end a speech with “God bless America”? Can a candidate for high office say that she doesn’t believe in God?
Not winning office isn’t the same as facing the death penalty and the United States isn’t the same as Pakistan or those places where those who think or say improper or heretical thoughts may be physically imprisoned or tortured.
So I think about young Ullah in Karachi and remember my high school experience in New York City. Such memories are one reason I have been worked as a volunteer for Amnesty International for more than 35 years.