"This has been mostly a sheep day, and of course studies have been interrupted." John Muir

Monday, July 03, 2006


The United States and Torture

I have recently been beside myself with the certainty that United States citizens are torturing people in the name of my own personal security. Not only is torture appalling in every way, but my complicity as a U.S. citizen has been increasingly unbearable in moral terms. I feel the same heaviness that I once felt as a radicalized teenager first discovering American abuses in Latin America. The eschatological hope of my faith has not been filling the gaps left by human depravity fast enough for me to avoid morbid and joyless Christianity (in other words, no Christianity at all). I've decided to return to the psalms a little more seriously to try to cope a little better. I probably need to write my congressional reps, too.

Last Friday, an absolutely devastating story came out on NPR in which a former soldier recounted his actions at Abu Ghraib. They have actually been subjecting prisoners to hypothermia as an interrogation technique.

Not too long ago, in response to questions about the torture that Americans were carrying out ultimately under his orders, Bush said, "This is not America." In a terrific editorial in the London Times (June 4, 2006), Andrew Sullivan ties this comment to Bush's evangelical Christianity. He writes:

[Bush] spoke of Abu Ghraib as something that had somehow happened to him and to his country, almost as if he were not the commander-in-chief or president of the country that had committed such abuse. When the evidence is presented to him, he displaces it. He puts it to one side. In his mind America is a force for good. And so it cannot commit evil. And if he says that often enough it will somehow become true. In this way his powers of denial kick in like a forcefield against reality.

It is, I think, an integral part of his own world view, which is that of a former addict whose life was transformed by a rigid form of fundamentalist Christianity. “[My faith] frees me to enjoy life and not worry what comes next,” he told the reporter Fred Barnes. When you know you have been saved, when you know your motives are pure, when, as Bush so often puts it, your “heart” is a good one, then it follows that you cannot commit evil. Or if you do, it doesn’t attach to you. Somehow, it isn’t yours, even when it is.

In this sense fundamentalist Christianity can enable evil by promoting the lie that some humans have been saved from it. It misses the deeper Christian truth that even good people can do bad things. It forgets that what is noble about America is not that Americans are somehow morally better than anyone else. But that it is a country with a democratic system that helps expose the constancy of human evil, and minimise its power through the rule of law, democratic accountability and constitutional checks.

That system was devised by men who assumed the worst of people, not the best, who expected Americans not to be better than any other people, but the same. It was the wisdom of the system that would save America, not the moral superiority of its people.

What is so tragic about this presidency is that it has simultaneously proclaimed American goodness while dismantling the constitutional protections and laws that guard against American evil. The good intention has overwhelmed the fact of human fallibility. But reality — human reality — eventually intrudes. Denial breaks down. The physical evidence of torture, of murder, of atrocity, slowly overwhelms the will to disbelieve in it.


Well, once again my Calvinism is confirmed by real world attempts to trust in human perfectability. At least Calvinists cannot avoid guilt where guilt is due.

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