“Can a Nation Lose its Soul?” Coming to terms with the conscience of the United States and the torture of Iraqi prisoners

article-2451784-00DFD6991000044C-357_634x755 Torture is so emblematic of what is deeply broken in our society. 

On May 4, 2004, I published this editorial in the Chicago Tribune. It is probably one of the best known things I have ever written.  The Tribune published it with this photo, of the hooded Iraqi detainee balanced on a box, with wires attached. A CTS student held up the paper in chapel that day and said, “This is lynching.” And it is.  The editorial discusses the torture of African Americans by police in Chicago in Areas 2 and 3.  

This is what I wrote more than ten years ago:

Almost one year ago, Amnesty International documented the torture of Iraqis by coalition forces. Charges of abuse surfaced again in November and December at the notorious Abu Ghraib Iraqi prison. And now we have photos racing around the world of hooded prisoners attached to electric wires and piles of naked Iraqi men being sexually humiliated by U.S. soldiers.

In the investigation to date, a report by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba has found that the reservist military police at the prison were instructed to “set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses.” In other words, the torture was policy. This “special cellblock” was not under the direct control of Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, now relieved of her command, and her reservists, but under the control of Army intelligence officers. Gen. Karpinski has said that military intelligence officers at the prison went “to great lengths to exclude the ICRC [the International Committee of the Red Cross] from access to that interrogation wing.”

Torture as a means of extracting information from prisoners is explicitly against the Geneva Convention. It is also spurious to defend it as a means to extract information that will “save American lives.” More Americans in Iraq and around the world will be targeted as a direct result of these photos than ever before. These photos show U.S. soldiers clearly enjoying the physical humiliation and degradation of Iraqis. This is the face of America now imprinted on the world.

The soul of a nation, like the soul of an individual, is the root from which decency arises; it is the basis of any desire to behave according to our collectively expressed values. And we, as a nation, have lost this. We are a nation that tortures prisoners. There is a breakdown between our expressed values of democracy and human rights and the torture of Iraqis.

President Bush has said of this documented torture that it is “not the way we do things in America.”

It is, actually. In John Conroy’s book on the dynamics of torture, “Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture,” he documents, among many cases both domestic and foreign, the alleged pattern of torture by police from Area 2 and Area 3 units in Chicago, torture that included burns and electric shock. Systematic and repeated patterns of torture of suspects and prisoners by police, especially of African-Americans, is not confined to Chicago, of course. As a nation we already have good reason to struggle to make our expressed values better match our actions.

In 1975, the UN defined torture as “an aggravated and deliberate form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The United States voted in favor of the definition. In the ever-shrinking list of reasons why the United States felt justified in a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, the documented torture of Iraqi citizens by the regime of Saddam Hussein has been used to demonstrate that Hussein was “evil.” And now what? Is the U.S. evil because we have been shown to do the same? Much of the Muslim world probably thinks so.

The question is, do we as a nation have enough courage to question our consciences and really deal with this issue? Or will we retreat from the reality of what we have done, simply punish a few token individuals and forget about it?

One of the biggest obstacles America faces in confronting these ugly facts is the high moral tone that the Bush administration has taken regarding the conduct of our nation’s foreign policy.

As Bob Woodward has plainly documented in his new book, “Plan of Attack,” President Bush’s faith has given him an extremely high degree of moral certainty that the actions of the U.S. in attacking Iraq are justified. We are fighting the “axis of evil” as the agents of the good. We have left ourselves no room to examine our national conscience in a way that is believable to the rest of the world.

The more Bush distances himself from the fact that we are torturing prisoners, claiming to be “disgusted,” while offering no concrete condemnation of the fact that this is military policy and putting forward no plan for redress, the more unbelievable our claim to live by our values becomes. The most powerful thing we could do as a nation is to acknowledge our national responsibility for how these prisoners (and others) have been treated, confess that this treatment was wrong, repudiate the policy of the torture, and take concrete and verifiable steps to change the treatment of prisoners. We need to hold not only the individuals accountable but also their superiors. We must do this in a way that makes clear not only to the perpetrators and their superiors, up to the highest levels of command, but to the world that this behavior is un-American and will not be tolerated by the U.S. Furthermore, we must invite representatives of well-respected, non-governmental agencies such as Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross to oversee the retraining of all our troops and the treatment and hopefully recovery of those whom we have tortured.

It is said that “confession is good for the soul.” It is. Nations as well as individuals can confess. In 1985, German President Richard von Weizsacker addressed the Bundestag with one of the staggering confessional statements of the 20th Century. In this address, he spoke of the “conquest of self” and the willingness to confront the German nation with the question that after their genocidal acts against the Jewish people “Who could remain innocent?” as a matter of national conscience.

There are moments in life and in history where clear choices emerge. This is one such time. The U.S. could confess torturing is wrong and take decisive and internationally verifiable steps to change the treatment of prisoners, or we can just wring our hands and express “disgust” and let it continue. As Jesus asked, “What does it profit you to gain the whole world and still lose your soul?”

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“No justice. No tree.” No Christmas tree lights until justice is done

Protestors gather outside lighting of tree at Rockefeller Center after Grand Jury fails to indict in Eric Garner death.

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Jesus goes to Walmart, Romans turn up too

Police turn out as Ferguson protestors non-violently disrupt Black Friday sales

Here we are, where Jesus and the Romans are squaring off today.

The contrast is vivid. Militarized police protect Walmart from Ferguson, MO protestors who “protested peacefully, chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot!”and who “dispersed peacefully” when ordered to do so by police.

Jesus is going to Walmart today because of the many violations of fundamental human dignity and worth we are experiencing in the U.S.

This is why protests against the lack of justice for Mike Brown, the unarmed black teenager shot in Ferguson, MO, and the protests against the poverty-level wages paid by Walmart and other big retailers are moving together in solidarity and support.  #BlackOutBlackFriday shows how the economic roots of structural injustice need to be brought to consciousness and made the focus of concerted action.

It is crucial today to read the gospels through movement eyes, through the lives of people, particularly African Americans, who are increasingly struggling with a militarized police presence that, coupled with rampant abuse of power through racism, is creating war zones in our communities.  And like the war it is, innocents are killed with impunity.

Read the Gospels then as wartime literature; after all, they were composed after the end of the Roman destruction of the Temple. These texts have to be examined through the lens of an occupied people.

This oppression is very often felt directly as unjust economic practices. This is why Jesus “organized” workers in the fishing industry around the Sea of Galilee. Roman occupation had driven a lot of the Jewish fishers into poverty. As we know, Jesus came out strongly for workers being paid a fair wage, “for the worker deserves his wages.” (Luke 10:7)

Militarized police guarding Walmart from peaceful protestors is not the way of Jesus of Nazareth.  Justice and peace is.

 

 

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It’s not ‘class warfare,’ it’s Christianity

Occupy protestor dressed as Jesus

It’s not ‘class warfare,’ it’s Christianity, by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite (Washington Post On Faith, 19 September 2011)

President Obama just drew the economic battlelines more clearly in his call to raise $1.5 trillion in new revenue primarily through increased taxes on the wealthy, letting the Bush tax cuts expire, and closing tax loopholes.

Class warfare!” countered the Republicans.

Americans sharing more equally in the burden of pulling our country out of massive debt, and using tax revenue to stimulate the economy and create jobs isn’t “class warfare,” it’s actually Christianity.

Many Christians are starting to find the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few very rich people to be an enormous moral and ethical problem. Catholic theologians and ethicists took pains recently to challenge Speaker Boehner on Catholic values in regard to his views, particularly on the economy.

But not all Christians agree with those perspectives. Today, not only is economics a political battleground, it is a faith battleground particularly in Christianity. According to some Christian conservatives, unregulated capitalism, with all its inherent inequalities of wealth, is God’s plan.

“Christian Captialism,” in their view, isn’t an oxymoron, it’s God’s will as revealed in the Bible. God wants you to own property and make money, and if some make a lot more money than others, that’s okay. In fact, it’s God’s will too.

These competing views are very influential in our current public debates. The Christian conservative viewpoint, however, has been more instrumental in shaping our political shift to the right in recent years, not only on social issues, but also on economic issues. You can see this display in the “God Hates Taxes” signs carried at Tea Party rallies.

Let me be clear as I can be. We need to understand the so-called “Christian” underpinnings of the anti-tax, anti-government, anti-the-poor, “let him die” approach to economics and public policy today as completely unchristian, as well as un-American. What we need to do is re-establish our national values of fairness, equality and opportunity for all, values that I believe are actually the core of the Christian faith, (as well as of other religious traditions and of humanist values).

First, in order to do that, we need to understand how we got to the place where the “ownership of private property” and amassing wealth is accepted by many as the “biblical perspective,” and taking care of each other through shared sacrifice, is dismissed as secular humanism. Nothing against humanists here, but the Bible is all about taking care of each other, including taking care of each other by sharing what we have, not through amassing wealth.

Part of the way we got here is by Christian conservatives ignoring a lot of what the Bible says on wealth and poverty, and being highly selective in what they call “biblical.” In all these reference to the “Bible,” the self-styled Christian capitalists don’t ever seem to recall that in the Book of Acts, the early disciples “shared all things in common.” As I have written, the early church is Glenn Beck’s worst nightmare because it was socialist.

This is what the bible actually says about the economic practices of Jesus’ followers: “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common… There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.” Acts 4:32-35.

Glenn Beck’s attacks on the Reverend Jim Wallis, an Evangelical Christian who works on poverty issues from a biblical perspective, is illustrative of the need of the far right to discredit biblically based anti-poverty political work.

But as I, and Jim Wallis and others, have shown over and over and over, the biblical practices on justice for the poor are far more radically egalitarian than anything being proposed in terms of economics today by Democrats.

Not only do we need to understand that “Christian Capitalism” isn’t Christian, we need to understand how it is distorting capitalism. The “ultracapitalism” of people like Speaker Boehner and Paul Ryan (among others) is often called “market fundamentalism” and it is the nearly unshakeable faith held by its true believers that the best economic results are obtained when the market is allowed to function without the restraints of regulation. Just reduce taxes and let the “job creators” do their thing. Remember “trickle down economics” from the Reagan years? This is the belief system that launched the Reagan Revolution in the U.S. and started the decades long reduction in real wages of the American middle class and the rise in American poverty levels.

“Market fundamentalism” isn’t good, it’s the economic theory that is rotten to its core, and, as Kevin Phillips argues, “bad” for our economy. Phillips, in his book Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism shows exactly how it is that the Christian conservative view that unregulated capitalism is God’s will props up, or enables, the bad economic theory of unfettered, “reckeless” capitalism. In his book, Phillips connects the dots on how conservative religion and market fundamentalism mutually reinforce one another, to the great detriment of the country and the world. He calls Christian fundamentalism the “enabler” of market fundamentalism and shows how conservative Christianity provided the cultural shift necessary so that ordinary Americans would become anesthetized to their previous suspicion of unregulated capitalism born in the 1930’s.

Phillips observes that the complete breakdown in the United States these days of realistic thinking about how markets and financial systems actually do work has three sources: “homage to financial assets,…market efficiency” and “evangelical, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal Christianity, infused with a millennial preoccupation with terrorism, evil, and Islam…” These are the three legs of the stool that caused the “de facto anesthetizing, over the last twenty years, of onetime populist southern and western” regions. It should be noted that these are the same sections of the country that are demographically the regions with the highest Tea Party concentration, especially the south.

“Anesthetizing” is a great metaphor for what’s happening in our public square about the economy because you have to be nearly unconscious not to realize that “Christian capitalism” is neither good Christianity or good capitalism. It’s not “Christian” because it ignores the central teachings of Jesus on the moral imperative of taking care of the poor in the Sermon on the Mount, and it dismisses the actual economic practice of the disciples as described in the Book of Acts.

It is also lousy capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system where the means of production are privately owned and operated for profit in a competive market. The capitalist system relies on self-interest, not “stewardship” to actually run. Theories of markets actually assume that people will act according to their self-interest and not from a disinterested love of others.

This has been known for a very long time. In 1776, Adam Smith, sometimes considered the “father” of modern economics, related how human nature and markets work. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the bakers that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantage.”

Capitalism isn’t “God’s Plan,” it’s an economic system that runs on the human desire for more, our own self-interest. This is necessarily evil. It can actually be a very productive system, but it is not beneficent. In order for there to be good values in our economic life, capitalism needs to be regulated so it does not wreck the whole ship with unfettered greed (as happened in the banking industry starting in 2008), and it needs to be supplemented with social safety nets and tax policy to achieve an approximate (not absolute) “freedom from want” as in Franklin Roosevelt’s wonderful phrase. It was Roosevelt who translated “Freedom from want” into a series of government programs to make it a reality such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, aid to dependent children, the minimum wage, housing, stock market regulation, and federal deposit insurance for banks.

The Christian approach to economics is to be the conscience of the nation and to insist that we regulate capitalism so it does not become reckless and destructive. Christians must call on the nation’s politicians to have us share the burdens and the sacrifices, as President Obama is doing, in order get to the “freedom from want” that is in our democratic values and our faith values.

We do this because the Christian conscience is driven by duty to “love God with your whole heart and your neighbor as yourself.”

That’s in the Bible. Luke 10:27. Look it up.

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#JustPeace is the real counter-terrorism

Estimated 6-10 million world-wide protested against Iraq war.

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“We are legion”: The demonic nature of police militarization

A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points a weapon in the direction of a group of protesters in Ferguson MO.  Note the person with his hands in the air.

Looking for a biblical perspective on the militarization of the police in Ferguson, Missouri and the gross civil rights violations there?

Try Jesus on the Roman military presence in ancient Israel for a trenchant theological critique of how demonic this kind of occupation of a people with overwhelming military-style force can be.

As I say in #OccupytheBible, all the gospels record that one day, after Jesus had established his ministry in Galilee, he crossed the Sea of Galilee and encountered a wild man who was possessed by demons, by the devil. When Jesus speaks to the demons he asks, “What is your name?” They said, “Legion” for as the text says, “we are many.” (Mark 5:9; Luke 8:30).

But what is a legion? A legion can certainly mean “a lot of demons” but Legion is more commonly the proper name of the heavy infantry that was the basic military unit of the ancient Roman army during the empire. It was a division of a couple thousand Roman soldiers, though the number could vary. It also almost always had attached one or more units of conscripted troops, i.e. non-roman citizens. In Jesus’ time, these would have been Jews.

The demons, or more likely the oppressive legions of both the Romans and their Jewish auxiliary, are “called out” by Jesus and 2,000 of them rush into a herd of swine and are drowned. In ancient Israel, the eating of pork was forbidden, so being a swine was not a compliment, even as in most cultures today it is not a term of praise. These demons, as we used to say in the 60’s, are the pigs, and it is interesting that their number approximates a Roman Legion.

The gospels need to be read through movement eyes, through the lives of people, particularly African Americans, who are increasingly struggling with a militarized police presence that, coupled with rampant abuse of power through racism, is creating war zones in our communities.

Read the Gospels then as wartime literature; after all, they were composed after the end of the Roman destruction of the Temple. These texts have to be examined through the lens of an occupied people.

And people are occupied.  Tom Nolan, who worked in the Boston Police Department for 27 years, writes in a June, 2014 issue of Defense One, “Stop Arming the Police Like a Military.” He contends, “Have no doubt, police in the United States are militarizing, and in many communities, particular those of color, the message is being received, ‘You are the enemy.'”

There is an alternative. Nolan writes, “Good policing is all about trust.” That’s something we as people of faith can demand in our towns and cities. Police need to be “disarmed” from these assault-type weapons and equipment, given anti-racism training, and helped to regain the best of policing work which is all about building trust in community.  This is what ‘casting out the demons’ means in this context, getting rid of these assault weapons, aggressive militarized responses, and racism.

This is crucial and we cannot wait.  Too many lives are at stake, too many young African American men with their hands in their air, or carrying ice tea and skittles are being shot down.

So right now, we need to call out the legions for the demonic force they are.

 

 

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“It’s not your fault”: Jesus, forgiveness, and Robin Williams

“Good Will Hunting”

One of the hardest things for people to do is forgive themselves. Compassionate connection, one person to another, can be a way people can touch the pain of wrongs done to them, or by them, and begin to let that go.

Robin Williams, the comic genius and actor of great insight who died today, was able to show that deep, deep capacity for connection that can heal.

Williams played a grieving therapist in the film Good Will Hunting  and in this scene he tells Will Hunting, the gifted young man whom he is counseling who has been so grievously abused, “It’s not your fault.”

Watch Robin Williams’s eyes in this clip:

There is a ring of truth to this portrayal, perhaps from the depths of what Williams himself struggled with in his own life. Williams apparently committed suicide after struggling over many years with addiction and depression. As the therapist, Williams is offering the kind of compassionate connection is also at the heart of the healing ministry of Jesus, as in Matthew 9:

35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every illness among the people. 36 But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered.

So many people I know are “weary and scattered” and cannot find a healing connection to another person. Sometimes, this is because people internalize a sense that they are worthless and at fault, when it is in fact the harms done to them that have created this sense that ‘I am not worthy of love.’

I am sorry for the struggles of Robin Williams life, but I am grateful for this film and for the piercing portrayal of the healing capacity of compassionate connection. I believe this kind of art itself heals, and it is a gift, among so many others, that Robin Williams gave the world.

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