Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Use of Torture and Our Collective Identity

I’ve written a number of articles on torture—“Verschärfte Vernehmung Revisited,” “Of Torture, Garlic, and Vampires,” and others—but I’m not sure we can talk enough about it. I asked a friend if I could publish a paper he wrote recently on the subject, and he agreed. Dave Nagler is pastor of Nativity Lutheran Church in Bend, Oregon. However dismayed about the reality of the practice by our government, I am encouraged by the fact that there are some pastors talking to their congregations about it and some congregations listening.
We live in a complex and messy world. To be sure, there are people who intend us harm and any intelligence that we can obtain about their plans is valuable. Intelligence gathering techniques often include spying, deception, and intense interrogation of people suspected of being connected with terrorist organizations. We justify the use of these otherwise abhorrent practices because they save human life. The ethical principle that is employed recognizes the higher value of saving lives over spying and deception.

Yet that ethical principle has limits. We cannot remove all barriers to human decency in order to save human life. Something happens to us and to our ability to create just and decent societies when we cross the line into torture. No message of impending doom, no perpetual orange alert, can provide the rationale for practices that dehumanize people also created in God’s image.

Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” After we witnessed the tragic loss of innocent life on September 11, 2001 we knew that there were monsters in the world. However, in our desire to bring those responsible to justice and protect our citizenry we have incarcerated people without charge or representation, practiced extraordinary rendition of prisoners to countries that are willing to torture them, and interrogated suspects using harsh techniques including beatings and water boarding. In short, we have lost our moral authority by ignoring the rights to which we owe our very existence. We have become the intolerable bully on the global playground.

America has a vital role to play in human history. We are called to be the nation that reminds the world of the rule of law and the rights of each individual person. We are a mighty nation that is strong enough to limit the use of its power so that human rights and dignity are upheld. That identity is threatened when we condone the use of torture. It turns us into the very tyranny that our Founding Fathers swore to oppose. When the President vetoes legislation that would provide clear limits to our interrogators and restore us to the agreed upon practices of the United Nations, it sends a signal that we have lost our moral moorings and now need to be feared by even our allies.

The United Nations Convention Against Torture stated, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” Signing treaties in peacetime only to violate them when we are under threat cheapens our collective authority. It is beneath the values that our soldiers have fought and died for. For it is exactly when we are facing a threat that such a commitment to never use dehumanizing means of interrogation is tested. In our current experience, we have failed this crucial test.

Finally, and from my perspective most importantly, our failure to support the dignity of every human being by the use of torture betrays the best of our religious traditions. All the great monotheistic faiths bear witness that humans are created in the image of God. To torture a person is to fundamentally deny the God image within them, and therefore to blaspheme the Holy One. God wants us to see even our enemies as brothers and sisters who are just as loved and just as blessed as we are. In my tradition, the bar is set even higher as Jesus calls us to love our enemies. There is no way to love someone and torture them at the same time. It is time to repent of this practice and “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”
Pastor Nagler is not only engaging his congregation on this issue, he and Nativity are extending the conversation to the larger community in Bend. In case you happen to be in the Bend area this coming Thursday (July 24th) you might want to consider having lunch at the church. Nativity will present Dr. George Hunsinger, professor of Systematic Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary and the founder of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. He will be speaking on “Nothing Less is at Stake in the Torture Crisis Than the Soul of Our Nation”. A catered luncheon will be held in the fellowship hall, at $10.00 per person. Please call the church office for reservations, and more information at (541) 388-0765).

Thanks for your labors, Dave! This really is “soul” work!
- Milo

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