It’s an uncomfortable question but one, some Presbyterians think, it’s imperative to ask: What is the U.S. government position these days on torture? What’s the policy, what’s really happening and what should people of faith do about it?
On Jan. 6-7, Rick Ufford-Chase, moderator of the 216th General Assembly, is inviting Presbyterians concerned about torture to come to Miami for a time of prayer, spiritual reflection and public witness. He wants at this conference, http://no2torture.org/ come/miami06.shtml, to generate some thinking on “how we might encourage a grass-roots movement of Presbyterians to stand unequivocally against the use of torture by our government and to name the ideals that might lead us to authentic security,” Ufford-Chase has written in his blog.
That’s not all.
George Hunsinger, a professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, is helping to convene a group of academics and religious leaders Jan. 13-15 for an event called Theology, International Law and Torture: A Conference on Human Rights and Religious Conviction.
According to Hunsinger, that conference, at Princeton seminary, hopes to include mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, evangelical Christians and Muslims, and is sponsored by Church Folks for a Better America, http://www.cfba.info/ , Human Rights First, http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/index.asp , and the Churches’ Center for Theology and Public Policy, http://www.cctpp.org/index.htm . (Register through Dan Thompson at the Coalition for Peace Action, http://www.peacecoalition.org/ , 609-924-5022).
And San Francisco presbytery is considering an overture, proposed by Calvary Church, asking for investigations of torture that may have occurred, and stating that both torture and the forcible transport of detainees to nations that have a record of brutality and torture “shock the Christian conscience and are a cause for Christian repentance.”
This is not just a Presbyterian conversation — there are some signs that the question of what role people of faith should play in addressing torture is being played out in other settings too. In November, the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches approved a statement, http://www.ncccusa.org/torture.html , calling on the U.S. government to ban “the use of torture by any entity of our government.”
Quakers, Jews, Catholics and Muslims are discussing the issue, among others.
And the question of when and whether the United States permits the use of torture of prisoners is persistently in the news. Among the headlines in recent months:
– European leaders are asking the Bush administration for explanations about reports of secret detention camps in Eastern Europe and the possible transport of terrorism suspects through European airports.
– The Bush administration has been holding internal discussions about whether new Defense Department standards being considered should include language from the Geneva Conventions prohibiting treating terrorism suspects in a way that’s cruel, humiliating or degrading.
– Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and a former prisoner of war who was tortured in Vietnam, wants Congress to pass legislation that would prohibit cruel and degrading treatment of detainees by any U.S. official. The legislation was proposed after allegations emerged that detainees have been abused at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and elsewhere. The Bush administration has said the U.S. government does not condone torture. But Vice President Dick Cheney has argued that CIA agents overseas should be exempt from any provisions such as McCain is proposing to prohibit torture.
Because of these national policy debates, some say it’s necessary for Presbyterians to speak up. But this is sensitive ground, and some of those initiating the conversations say they don’t intend for this to be a forum for attacking the Bush administration or for criticizing the war in Iraq.
“We’ve actually had to frame this pretty carefully,” Ufford-Chase said in an interview. “We will ask everybody who comes to the (Miami) gathering to covenant that this is not about bashing the Bush administration or bashing the military.”
Instead, Ufford-Chase wants to talk about what the U.S. and international standards regarding torture traditionally have been. “Have we abandoned those standards?” he asked. If so, how can they be reclaimed?
“The pressure to do that,” he said, “has got to come out of the church.”
At the Miami gathering, one of those who has agreed to come, to pray and to be involved is Ed Brogan, director of the Presbyterian Council for Chaplains and Military Personnel.
Brogan acknowledged in an interview that he does have some concerns about whether the gathering will be fair-minded — and said he hopes the discussions in Florida will prove to be less directly partisan and more about the moral and ethical questions implicit in the use of torture.
“The rule of law and honor and dignity is something the military takes pretty seriously,” Brogan said. “I get concerned for our troops if America is seen as a torturing country. It does put our troops in more danger.”
Brogan wants to build support for the military to “uphold the higher ground,” but doesn’t want the conference to become “a fight against the war … I also want to keep the good faith of our currently-serving chaplains and military. And they, like the rest of the country, are all over the place” about what should happen in Iraq.
Carol Wickersham, a Presbyterian minister who teaches sociology at Beloit College in Wisconsin, has been a leader in trying to rally grassroots discussion among Presbyterians about torture. “I just had personally a sense of growing frustration that I didn’t hear the faith community speaking more clearly a sense of outrage about torture” in the treatment of detainees following the September 11 terrorism attacks, Wickersham said in an interview.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) had made statements — for example, a 2004 General Assembly statement condemning torture (http://www.witherspoonsociety.org/2005/resisting_torture.htm#resolution) — but those statements “didn’t seem to get above the noise,” she said.
So last summer at Ghost Ranch, during the PC(USA)’s annual Peacemaking Conference, Wickersham asked Ufford-Chase “what did he see the church doing about this? The answer was sort of, ‘Not much,’ “ she recalled. “But he also said, ‘Let’s see if other people are concerned.’ “
They put out the word that anyone at the conference interested in responding to torture should come to a breakfast meeting, and about 50 people showed up.
In the months since then, those involved have set up the www.no2torture.org Web site and an internet discussion group. They’ve written a curriculum, available through the Web site, for congregations, and have organized the national meeting in January.
“I’ve put a lot of my own time into this this fall,” Ufford-Chase said, in part because he sees it as “a way of moving beyond the typical left-right divisiveness of the denomination …I get a few angry letters saying, ‘You’re trying to destroy our president and his reputation around the world. You’re hurting our troops.’ “
But “I think this is a unifier and not a divider,” Ufford-Chase said. “It feels really good to me that as a church we are on the leading edge of this one, not trailing behind. I think we’re naming the issues from the faith perspective at just the right moment.”
He acknowledged that “it is certainly a fine line we are trying to walk,” and that some might see the effort to rally energy around the issue of torture as being critical of the current administration. “We are critiquing a specific set of policies that have been created during the Bush administration’s term in office,” Ufford-Chase said. “But we would offer the same critique (of such policies) no matter who was in office,” Democrat or Republican.
Wickersham said she wants to support the U.S. troops serving in Iraq, by giving them clear boundaries and not putting them into situations where they’re asked to do something unethical.
“As Christians and as patriots, we do not torture,” she said. “This is not who we are as either Americans or as Christians.”
Another question to consider, Wickersham said, is what does torture do to those responsible for the torturing?
“We worship a God who was tortured,” she said. “And what we know is torture is degrading to those who practice it.”
Wickerham hopes the Miami meeting will bring mutual respect and a willingness to listen — but also passion to do the right thing.
“The urgency of this issue does not allow us the luxury,” she said, “of spending years in study and conversation.”