Sermon: The Theology of Torture

The Theology of Torture
Rev. Fred L Hammond
15 June 2008 (c)
29 June 2008
Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson
Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church

Several months ago now, I received an email from John Humphries, a Quaker and employee of the National Religious Coalition Against Torture. John, it turns out, is from my home state of Connecticut and we knew several people in common who are active in AIDS and Gay rights work. He was coordinating a project to have every state represented in the coalition’s “Banners Across America” campaign by having congregations display a banner declaring that Torture is Wrong or Torture is a Moral Issue for the month of June, a month they are declaring Torture Awareness Month.

To be perfectly honest, while I do not condone our current administration’s whitewashing the definition of torture so that our President can declare with straight face, “America does not Torture.” I was not all that inclined to begin a desire to have controversial banners flying in conservative Mississippi, where INS agents flail guns at documented and undocumented immigrants in public arenas to instill fear, a tactic that global history has shown as a prelude to more abusive behaviors in private. But John had done something that made me more willing to address this issue. He mentioned people that I knew and trusted in Connecticut.

Suddenly, I found myself connected to John’s cause because he tapped into my connection with these people that I admired. I was able to catch up so to speak with these folk from back home, and let them know, through John, that I still thought of them and the work they were doing there.

I told John that I would ask the two congregations that I serve to consider displaying such a banner during June. I also stated that I would post a blog about America’s role in Torture. So in April, on the day that the news came out that the highest offices of the land had indeed discussed what forms of torture would be used on terrorist detainees and how they would justify such actions; I blogged the following:

“As a people of faith, we must speak to our legislators that euphemistic terms for torture is still torture.  That allowing the CIA to torture still means we use torture.  We must insist the Executive branch of our government to adhere to International laws regarding international interpretation of defining torture.  The Executive branch of our government needs to be held accountable to the constitution and to the laws of the land.  The Executive branch must be curtailed in its abuse of power of “signing statements” which have been used to state the law is to be enforced unless the President says otherwise. 

“ We don’t torture unless it’s in our best interests is not an acceptable answer. The ideals of this nation are founded on higher principles than the ole ‘because I said so’ of the President.   It is time we begin living up to our calling as a nation dedicated to liberty and justice for all.  We must live up to our calling that Lincoln calls us to as written on his memorial … ‘We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’ ” 

I thought I had met my obligation. I thought that I had done all that I needed to do. Then I had additional phone calls with John, who moved up in the ranks from unknown person to acquaintance through my friends. He told me that he was close to having all the states represented ‘cept one, Mississippi. Alabama had just become represented through one lone Unitarian Universalist congregation in Montgomery. Mississippi suddenly became the only state with no representation of concern on this issue. And for the record, Unitarian Universalist congregations are not as well represented in this campaign as one would think. Only 56 UU congregations of the 303 congregations registered are participating. [ 330 congregations total at last count.] Considering our liberal leanings in regards to justice issues, I find this number to be low.

The push to have Mississippi on the map began and as the days of May were drawing to a close, five of the six Unitarian Universalist congregations decided to display banners including Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church and Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson. We went from non presence on this issue to being the state with the most Unitarian Universalist congregations involved. California and Maryland are tied with the second most with four Unitarian Universalist congregations.

But at the time of my conversation with John, I did not know how any of the congregations would vote on this issue. We have congregational polity. Unlike other denominations, I as minister can not make unilateral decisions regarding the congregation’s voice into the community. So what I promised, John was that I would preach a sermon on torture. His relationship with me was changing again from acquaintance to friend.

As I began investigating this topic, I realized why my hesitancy. Torture is not an easy topic that fits neatly into my personal theology. The concept of torture challenges and reveals the weaknesses of my doctrine of human nature. The concept of torture threatens our most precious principle, that everyone has inherent worth and dignity. It is a topic, that I would guess, based on the low numbers of Unitarian Universalist congregations participating in the Banners Across America campaign, that most of us would simply prefer was not part of our reality.

However, we do need to look at torture. Because if our faith, if our personal theologies have any hutzpah to back them up, then our faith should be able to respond to torture from a place of strength and conviction. There is a theology of torture that we need to understand. As people of faith we need to know if this theology of torture has any place in our own personal theologies because how we act and move in this world to create a just and equitable society depends on it.

Torture has been used for thousands of years. In ancient Greece, torture was employed only on slaves to extract information from them. Ancient Romans used torture on accused suspects but banned the use of torture on witnesses. In the early middle ages, torture was used to extract information from unwilling witnesses. The later middle ages, torture was used to elicit confesssions and repentance for heresies. If the person was not a christian and spouted heresies, they were not tortured but if they claimed to believe the christian faith and began spouting heresies, they were tortured in the hopes of their repentance and salvation. There is a fine line of distinction here, the non-christian spouting heresies was killed first and then burned at the stake, whereas the unrepentant christian spouting heresies was burned at the stake alive.

Torture was banned or greatly reduced in the age of enlightenment. It was not until the dawn of the 20th century, that torture once again raised its ugly head. This time, however, torture was not used for extracting confessions, torture was used for shear sadistic pleasure. This is what made the events of Abu Ghraib so repulsive to us. The sexual torture used there was for no reason other than the sadistic pleasure of the torturer. How could this happen? Americans were the good guys. We came to Iraq, if we accept the reasons our President gave, as liberators, as freedom rescurers, as implementers of democracy, not as tyrants.

Rev. Bill Schulz, former UUA president and former head of Amnesty International shares this story during his Berry Street Lecture in 2006’s General Assembly. He says,
“When I was seven or eight years old, I lived across the street from a little dog named Amy. Every afternoon after my school let out, Amy and I would play together for an hour. One of Amy’s favorite games was a dancing game in which I held her two forepaws in my hands and we would dance around the yard. Sometimes Amy even put her paws in my lap to signal that she wanted to dance. But I noticed that after a few minutes Amy’s hind legs would get sore and she would pull her paws away. The first few times we played our dancing game, I dropped her paws the moment I sensed her discomfort and we went on to something else.

“But one day I decided to hold on. The more Amy tugged, the tighter I held on until finally, when she yelped in agony, I let her go. But the next day I repeated my demonic game. It was fascinating to feel this little creature, so much less powerful than me, entirely at my mercy.

“I was lucky that Amy was such a gentle dog for she had every right to have bitten me and when, after two or three days, I saw that my friend, who had previously scrambled eagerly toward me on first sight, now cowered at my approach, I realized with a start what I had done and I was deeply frightened of myself and much ashamed. Whatever had come over me that I would treat someone I had loved that way?

“What had come over me, I now know in retrospect, was the displacement of anger onto one who held no threat to me. Bullies at school might pick on me. My two parents might tell their only child what he could and could not do. My piano teacher might try to slam the keyboard cover on my fingers when I played off key. But in that yard I ruled supreme. Not only did I hold the power but the one who was powerless for a change was Not-Me.”

And so those soldiers in Abu Ghraib, those brave men and women who sought to serve their country, were caught in a powerless situation where their anger at being duped, their anger at having their furloughs refused, their anger at being seen as the enemy and not the liberators as promised, their anger at not having the proper equipment on their vehicles, gets displaced to the prisoners. To release their anger, they sadistically take their revenge against people they do not know, cannot communicate with adequately, who are in an even more powerless situation than they.

But even this is too simplistic an answer.

Too simplistic because it doesn’t address how good men and women could even behave in this manner. The events of Abu Ghraib stare down our first principle of inherent worth and dignity of every person because it is hard to see the torturer as having any dignity let alone worth in their actions of such brutality. Yet, if the principle is still to hold true, that the torturer is also a person with inherent worth and dignity, then we must look to the systemic way we have created a situation where both torturer and tortured are victims. We need to examine how we have created the world to be so sharply divided between us versus them, the sheep and the goats.

The basic premise of the sheep and the goats as Walter Kaufman stated in the Prologue [to Martin Buber’s I and Thou] we read this morning, is that the sheep are always, always good. And the goats are always, always evil. This thought is based in Calvin’s theology of the elect, the pre-destined. Calvin stated that God had pre-destined a remnant of humanity to be saved, to be rewarded with heaven, life everlasting, and the rest of us poor sods were to be destroyed with the rest of creation. This is based on the notion that Adam and Eve had disobeyed God and in so doing allowed sin to enter the world causing universal corruption and death. God decreed that he would save a remnant of people from this corruption. Those that are righteous in the sight of God are the sheep and those who are not are the goats destined for destruction and eternal punishment. The actions of the elect, the sheep are therefore always righteous and justified in the eyes of God because they are destined to salvation. There is nothing that they can do that would jeopardize their election. They can be as conniving and manipulative as Jacob with his twin brother Esau because God had pre-destined to love Jacob and hate Esau even before their birth, even before either of them had developed their true character. The actions of the non-elect are always evil, and because they are destined for perdition, can be treated as such in this world. Of course, the difficulty with this theology is everyone identifies themselves as the sheep, even when there might be evidence to the contrary.

Along with this is the equally destructive theological thought of having dominion over the earth. Again this is in the creation story, where God creates humanity and states humanity is to subdue the earth and have dominion over every living creature. European based Christianity saw itself as the humanity best capable of this dominion. This is evidenced in the writings of Kant, Voltaire, and Hume. There are several historical events where this doctrine was applied; the crusades of the middle ages, the conquests of Spain, Netherlands, and England in the 16th through 19th centuries and in recent history, the American corporate and miltary conquests of the 20th century and so far in early 21st century.

The theology of Torture is firmly grounded in these two theological cornerstones. Jim Wallis, evangelical christian founder of the Sojourners community in Washington, DC, adds one more piece to the theology of torture. He takes the doctrine of a fallen and corrupted creation and the command to dominate and subdue the world and writes: “The Christian view of human nature and sin suggests that we are fallible creatures and thus not good at empire. We cannot be trusted with domination, becoming too easily corrupted by its power and too often succumbing to repression in defending it. Therefore, we should not simply be shocked at the evil we have seen in the horrible prison photos, but also sobered and saddened by that same potential in ourselves. History teaches that domination can make good people do bad things.”

He continues, “Christian theology suggests that domination is oppressive and corrupting for both the dominated and the dominator. In preferring the virtues of human dignity, justice, and humility, Christianity implicitly teaches that empire is not the best strategy to fight terrorism. In fact, the domination policies of empire often make terrorism worse by producing tragic behaviors that terrorists use to fuel their murderous agendas. The pictures from Abu Ghraib have already become recruiting posters for the next generation of terrorists in the Muslim world.”

In every case of empire building, torture has been a means that those in power have handled subversive elements either real or alleged that threaten it. Whether it is the empire building of the Holy Roman Empire, or the tactics used by communist regimes such as former Soviet Union. Torture has been incorporated into Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq and in the manner in which the United States exports its particular franchise of democracy through the School of Americas in Georgia. It is evident in the empire wannabes of Al-Qaeda and Hamas seeking to establish their sovereignty in the Arab world. Torture is part of the landscape.

Jim Wallis suggests two more elements that add to the development of operating from a theology of torture. The falsehoods generated by this administration have resulted in dire consequences. He writes: “When a war is primarily justified by arguing imminent threats from weapons of mass destruction that are later revealed not to exist, essential trust in political authority erodes….When ‘liberators’ become ‘occupiers,’ greeted not with flowers but with an unexpected and bloody insurgency, the moral ground is further diminished. And when the only arguments left for war and occupation constantly invoke the horrors of ‘Saddam’s torture chambers,’ American torture in those same chambers deeply undermines the authority of America’s arguments and proposed solutions.”

The final piece Jim Wallis states is “When the White House promulgates an official theology of righteous empire, in which “they” are evil and “we” are good (and if you are not with us you are on the side of the “evildoers”), it contributes to an atmosphere that makes abuse more likely.” It is the sheep and the goats mentality that Walter Kaufmann discusses in our reading.

The current rationale for torture or as our administration likes to call enhanced interrogation techniques, is the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario. The thought is torture one person to extract information that could potentially save thousands of lives later. The problem is that information derived in such a manner is never reliable; the person will say whatever to please the torturer so the pain will stop. The person being tortured stops being seen as a person in the eyes of the torturer. The person becomes an object of no value other than the possible information inside.

It is the tendency to insist on seeing the world, using Martin Buber’s phraseology, as an I-It relationship rather than move toward an I-Thou relationship with the world. In an I-Thou relationship I recognize you as an unique I unto yourself, of equal status to I. In this relationship how you relate to the world is of equal importance to our mutual well-being. In an I-It relationship, I call the shots because you are only an object to be manipulated in my world. In an Us-Them relationship, Us are always threatened by the other. Us is always fearful that Them will destroy what Us values. Them is also an object, an It. They are of no consequence other than how they block Us from achieving and maintaining our superiority over Them.

When the I can begin to recognize the image of the I in the other, some may say the image of God in the other, then I cannot treat the other with such irreverence as to destroy the sacredness of Thou.

The steps that occurred in the evolving working relationship with John Humphries is part of the steps we each can take in our realm of influence. I did not know John when he first contacted me several months ago. We established some common ground, identified some people that we both admired and loved, to establish not an I-It relationship but the beginnings of an authentic I-Thou relationship with common goals and ideals. Sure there are probably things that I disagree with John on but the point is that when a level playing field was established, the possibility of working together towards a goal became reality. The rapport established will carry us forward for the next possible project. A level of respect was established. We can do the same in the world. We can set the ground rules for how we are going to relate with the world. And under no circumstances can we allow torture to enter into that relationship if things do not go our way. That would be to respond like the young boy who is angry but has not yet learned how to handle his anger in appropriate ways. It is time for America to grow into maturity as a nation that does not depend on an Us-Them way of relating with our global village. Blessed be.

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Published on June 30, 2008 at 5:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

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