By Bob Perkins
ATLANTA – The movement to raise public awareness about the impact torture has on our national soul is in all of our hands, Dr. David Gushee told attendees at the conclusion of the inaugural National Summit on Torture at Mercer University’s Atlanta campus Friday. “It comes down to us,” Gushee said.
Gushee, Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer, organized the two-day meeting, titled “Religious Faith, Torture, and Our National Soul.” The event was co-sponsored by Evangelicals for Human Rights, Mercer, and 13 other organizations represented by three major faith groups.
Friday, speakers covered a wide range of topics, including Biblical justification for standing up against practices of torture, healing the Christian-Muslim relationship, and strategies for changing public opinion about current U.S. torture policy.
On the religious roots of human rights, Dr. Glen Harold Stassen, who is Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, said we should take our example of caring and confrontation from Jesus.
“Jesus cared for people with so much compassion,” Stassen said. “He confronted the authorities for the wrongs they were doing. And it wasn’t the Romans he confronted. It was the religious leaders, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. We count 37 times in the gospels that Jesus confronted the authorities, including the injustice of greed that deprives people of basic needs, injustice of exclusion from community, injustice of domination and authoritarianism, and the injustice of violence.”
Matt Norman, missiologist and personnel selection manager for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said God creates humans in God’s image, meaning relationship is essential to our being and outside of the relationship with God and others, we are not whole.
“The Biblical foundation of the idea of human rights finds its roots within our basic understanding of what it means to be human,” Norman said. “From the Christian perspective, our wholeness in Christ, our salvation, is bound to the other in community. To be whole, we must enter into human relations of mutual subordination, dependant on God, who is love. This is the core of the Biblical understanding of human rights.”
Dr. Fareeha Khan, assistant professor if Islam at Georgia State University, said interfaith dialogue, especially between Muslims and Christians, can help participants find common ground for agreement.
“We recognize we have the difference of distinct religious traditions,” Khan asked. “We also realize that while holding onto our differences, we can find core values in our faith to come together, discuss and experience the potential for togetherness. Interfaith dialog could be honest and fruitful, in a way that could be unprecedented.”
Stephen Rickard, Deputy Director of the Open Society Policy Center, said the United States used to lead the world on the topic of human rights. “We used to be a nation that championed human rights and the rest of the world admired us for it,” he said. “When the Japanese water-boarded U.S. prisoners in World War II, when the war was over, we put them on trial for war crimes. We’ve essentially switched positions on torture with North Korea by labeling these people as ‘enemy combatants.’”
Rickard said the wrangling about the legal definition of torture, calling it “enhanced interrogation” techniques, reminds him of the Apostle Paul’s admonition to Titus to “avoid foolish arguments about the law for they are unprofitable and worthless.” (Titus 3:9)
On the language issue, Dr. George Hunsinger, founder of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful. In the past it was words like ‘final solution’ and ‘ethnic cleansing.’ In the young century, it’s ‘water-boarding.’”
Hunsigner, who is the Hazel Thompson McCord Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary, said one defense of the euphemisms for torture has been the notion that “one should always be proud of America.”
“Shame is not only a deeply religious emotion, but a deeply patriotic one as well,” he said. “Are we to accept the idea that whatever America does can’t be wrong because it is America doing it? That is the essence of political idolatry. It is inconsistent with the first commandment. True people of faith hold America to a standard that goes beyond phony patriotism.”
As chronicled in the book, “The Dark Side” by Jane Mayer, U.S. government lawyers, in making the case for “enhanced interrogation” practices, used examples from the fictional television drama “24” and tactics used by character Jack Bauer to justify its legal conclusions.
Kathryn Reklis, Ph.D. candidate at Yale University, said Hollywood has provided many such pantheonic heroes beginning with John Wayne in “The Searchers.” But Bauer represents a “suffering hero” with darker tendencies who has somehow become more palatable to audiences, despite his extreme actions. “He is willing and able to do what no one else is willing and able to do,” she said.
Dr. Larry McSwain, professor of ethics and leadership at McAfee School for Theology at Mercer University, recounted Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s remarks at a 2007 law conference in Ottawa, “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. He saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?”
“Isn’t there something dramatically wrong with that reality,” McSwain asked. “We must engage in social witness.”
On the topic of religious torture, Michael Peppard, a doctoral candidate at Yale University, said one chaplain described destruction of the Koran as Guantanamo’s secret weapon. “For most Muslims, destruction of the Koran is like destroying the word of God,” Peppard said.
Other actions such as ritual impurity, interrupting prayer time with interrogations and other acts are seared in the memory of prisoners. “U.S. personnel may have learned how to break the will of one man, but how long can they expect the memory of such torture to endure?” Peppard said.
Natalie Wigg-Stevenson, a doctoral candidate from Vanderbilt University, said the existence of the prison in Guantanamo, and other “black sites” that we might not know about, is to imagine that God will turn a blind eye to these.
“Christians have a particular gift to bring to the conversation,” she said. “My hope is we will have the courage to participate in God bringing about justice and peace.”
Devon Chaffee, advocacy counsel for Human Rights First, said it is important that our elected officials take the subject of torture seriously.
“As we look forward, if our nation is going to truly repair the damage done to our nation’s moral authority in the world, it is imperative that our legislators restore American values and restore the ban on torture,” Chaffee said. “It comes down to empathy and humanizing the people in our custody.”
Rachel Laser, director of the Culture Program at Third Way, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said a good strategy is important to advance the national debate about ending torture. “We understand that having the high moral ground is necessary, but creating a strategy helps to get the job done.”
Laser said activists must recognize that policy makers see torture as a national security issue, so activists must use the strengths and the weaknesses of each political party to move policy makers forward, and be sensible in arguments and willing to work with allies.
In closing, Gushee said considering the rich array of information and knowledge that was shared at the two-day conference, it is up to the attendees to raise the national consciousness about torture.
“It really does come down to the national soul,” Gushee said. “If you do not have the people who want this, it doesn’t succeed. It comes down to us, who we are and who our leadership is.”
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