“Torture and What It Means to Be Human”
Genesis 1:26-28, Psalm 8, Matthew 5:38-48
June 8, 2008
Who among us hasn’t had to have a painful family conversation? Sometimes we need to sit down with one another and speak lovingly about the things that are tearing us apart… someone’s drinking or drugging, someone’s irresponsibility with money, someone’s unacceptable behavior, hard choices to be made at the end of life. We need to speak of the things that tear at the fabric of our lives together. And this type of conversation might not be over for a while, because there seems to be ever more information to be disclosed. We learn things about one another we didn’t know before. They may be painful things, they may be surprising things. But the better we know each other, the closer we are able to be as a family. The more honest we are able to be with each other, the more open we can be, I believe, to the movement of God in our lives, as individuals and as a community.
Throughout the month of June religious organizations all over the United States are thinking and speaking about the issue of torture, which continues to be brought to our attention by news reports, government investigations, criminal cases, and documentaries such as “The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.” This is happening in June because of the initiative of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. In Our County about a dozen ministers, priests and rabbis have pledged to speak with their congregations about this issue, in various kinds of forums, including sermons. I am one of those ministers. And so I come to you today, armed only with my conviction that I must speak on this painful issue, that it’s time to begin this conversation as a family that cares about one another. This is a sermon about torture, and what it means to be human.
Nearly four years ago the 216th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) adopted “A Resolution and A Confession Upon the Torture and Abuse of Prisoners.” This resolution called “upon the whole Presbyterian Church (USA), while recognizing the honorable performance of the majority of coalition forces” in Iraq and Afghanistan, to nevertheless join with the church to
A. reaffirm our support for human rights and the Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of prisoners of war;
B. explicitly reject torture and abuse as methods of interrogation and treatment of prisoners for they are inconsistent with the Gospel; and
C. acknowledge we are inescapably part of our culture and offer our confession in repentance.
These are the words of our church as it has already spoken out on this issue. They are strong words. And I know from a conversation I was privileged to take part in at our last session meeting, they do not strike everyone who hears them the same way. As Americans and as Christians we don’t all agree on what is the right thing to do in this time of war. As one person said, “Of course torture is wrong. But what about the things they did to us? What about beheadings?”
There are many reasons why faithful people and patriotic people support whatever means our troops need to get the information that will help to keep our nation safe and secure and to help to defeat those who would wish to destroy us. There are also many pragmatic reasons why equally faithful and patriotic people reject torture as a method of gaining information and treating prisoners. One of the most compelling reasons is, simply, torture does not work. FBI, military and police interrogators—experts in their fields—tell us that torture is not effective. The information gained is usually not reliable, and it is often completely false. Though we may be enthralled by TV shows such as “24,” depicting the use of extreme methods to find the “ticking time bomb,” those who actually have experience with this sort of thing assure us: this is fiction, this is effective storytelling. In real life, torture does not work.
Another compelling and very pragmatic reason to reject torture is the fact that, when our troops engage in these acts, it makes them more vulnerable. When those against whom we are fighting know that we are engaging in these methods, they are more likely to retaliate, and to use these methods against our troops when they are captured. In the name of gaining safety, we actually lose safety.
But I am here today, not as a military expert or an FBI agent, or even as a television writer or producer. I speak, not as an expert on national security or military strategy. My concerns are not pragmatic, even though I believe there are pragmatic arguments to be made. I am here today as one whose responsibility it is to preach the gospel. I am here to say, even if we believed torture to be effective, the overwhelming witness of scripture is that it would still be wrong. One of our confessions describes sin this way: “We violate the image of God in others and ourselves.”[i] I believe this is precisely what torture does.
The bible begins with the story of creation. In Genesis, we see creation unfold as a beautiful symphony, theme and variations on the following: God decides to create, God speaks a word, creation comes into being, and God pronounces it good. On the sixth and final day of creation, God creates human beings. God says,
“Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
~ Genesis 1:26-28
In this passage we are told that God has created human beings in God’s image, and in the context of this passage, being made in the image of God has to do with entering into the creative process along with God. It’s too bad the translators use the words “dominion” and “subdue” here; in fact, the Hebrew word translated “dominion” means something more like care and cultivation; it has to do with tending and keeping the created world. And the word translated “subdue” carries with it connotations of development. To be created in God’s image means to be brought into partnership with God in the act of creating, in caring for creation. God created us to be co-creators, co-tenders with God of all the gifts of creation.
This is our human calling, prior, even, to our Christian calling, co-creating with God. Think what a violation of our essential calling it is to deliberately harm other human beings, to do unspeakable things to them for any reason whatsoever. To maim and hurt and even, sometimes, to kill. This diminishes creation in other human beings. This violates the image of God in them.
No one is in favor of torture. We all know that. It is at best considered to be a lesser evil. But consider this: as much as torture harms other human beings, who are also created in the image of God, torture also harms those who perpetrate it. A recent documentary, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” tells the story of a 22-year-old Afghan cab driver who was mistakenly arrested and turned over to US authorities in Afghanistan. He was tortured for 5 days by young men, some of whom were his own age and younger—National Guardsmen and CIA interrogators. Amazingly, they knew on the third day of his captivity that the man was innocent. But by then, as the filmmaker describes it, the beast within them had been released. And they continued for two more days, until the young cab driver died of his injuries.
The young men who participated in this scenario are devastated, and they are deeply, deeply haunted by what they did. The Pentagon has recently confirmed that more than 30% of our troops are now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder upon their discharge from military service.[ii] Imagine how that is compounded in the cases of the young men who participated in these brutal acts, imagine their even deeper suffering.
I grew up in a household with a veteran of the Second World War. This is a war that virtually every American citizen affirms was a necessary war, one in which most of us would have enlisted had we had the chance. My dad served honorably in the South Pacific as a paratrooper. And he witnessed some of the horrors of that war. My mom told me, many years later, that my dad had nightmares each and every night of their marriage for the first ten years after his honorable discharge. Ten years of nightmare, every night. I witnessed, just a few years ago, my dad having another of these nightmares—apparently still present with him more than 60 years after he returned home from the service.
One way to think about how to make ethical decisions is to imagine if we would be willing to do something ourselves. Would I participate in water-boarding? Would I attach the electrical wires to someone’s body, pull the switch? If the answer to these questions is “no,” then do I have the right to have someone else act on my behalf? Someone else’s son or daughter, mother or father, husband or wife? Do I have the right to commission someone else to carry out the acts that I find morally unacceptable? I think the answer to that must be “no.”
I’m willing to guess that almost every single one of us knows and loves a soldier or a veteran. I love one who is almost 87 years old, and who has no regrets about his wartime service to this country he loves. A second generation American, son of Eastern European immigrants, my dad plants red, white and blue petunias in pots outside his house every year in the spring and summer—his own way of participating in co-creating with God, I suppose. My dad proudly flies the American flag outside his house—it is out already, in preparation for Flag Day next Saturday. I would pray and hope that, in times of war, we would do our best not to condemn those we love to 60 years of nightmares by their participating in acts that torture their consciences for the rest of their lives. In the name of the God who created us gloriously in the divine image, I would hope and pray that we could find our way, as a nation, back to an honorable place that elevates the principals on which the US was founded—a sense of the inalienable rights of every human being to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I would pray and hope that this is the beginning of a family conversation we can have as Christians and as citizens, a respectful conversation in which we may come to know one another better, as well as our calling in God. As we sing our hymn, I invite you to see it, with me, as a prayer for our nation to live into its beautiful and promising heritage, in every era, in every war, in the work we charge every soldier to do. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] A Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
[ii] “PTSD Cases Soar In Combat Veterans,” May 28, 2008, United Press International. http://www.UPI.com. /Top_News/2008/05/28/PTSD_cases_soar_in_combat_veterans/UPI-83571211975104/