Why the torture abuse scandal matters

Of all the scandals that beset us as Americans, there is one that history is likely to judge most harshly, namely, the official authorization of torture abuse by the current Bush administration. As the Abu Ghraib photos have shown with unforgettable horror, serious violations of international law have followed in its train.

Let us be clear that torture is not just one issue among others. It is a profound assault on the dignity of the human person as created by God. It is therefore inherently evil. It violates a person's body, and terrorizes his mind, in order to destroy his will. The strongest of presumptions stands against it -- not only legally and morally, but also, from a religious point of view, spiritually. At the same time, authorizing torture poses a direct threat to constitutional government. As Columbia law professor Jeremy Waldron has urged, the issue of torture is "archetypal." It goes to the very heart of our civilization. Whether torture is permitted or prohibited is a question that separates tyranny and barbarism from the rule of law.

Clichés and truisms


"Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." Clichés are clichés, and truisms are truisms. But Lord Acton's most famous cliché posits enough truth to cause any thinking American to tremble with fear.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, most westerners rejoiced. This symbol of Soviet totalitarianism had crumbled, and freedom was singing a new song. However, a handful of those rejoicing also began to tremble. They asked, "What will become of America if it remains the lone superpower in the world? Will she muster sufficient character and courage to contain the corrosive effects of unchecked power in this new world?"

When the earlier Bush government felt compelled to send troops to Kuwait to defend its ally against the Iraqi invasion there, it achieved its basic goals. The military withdrew, encouraging the hope of other nations that we would not over-assert our power.  

Then 911 happened. The appearance of invulnerability was shattered. Americans were taken hostage by fear of further attacks. Ends now could justify means, that is, if the ends in view included the preservation of American's freedoms. And what of those means? What about a second invasion of Iraq driven by a complicated mix of incomplete espionage regarding alleged weapons of mass destruction over there, alongside a hunger for justice (vengeance?) over here. Would dubious ends justify the means of a new war? What should we do with the resulting prisoners of war? Could we extract information from them that might avert more terror-caused carnage?

Why did He come?

His answer, in his own words: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good..

High Jumping Naked is not recommended

Soon after we moved to Pittsburgh I located a Presbyterian physician and went to his office for a medical check up.  I filled out a form in the waiting room and was ushered into an examination room and told to take off my clothes.  Sitting on the table in my goose bumps, I was just about to get the doctrine of the Trinity figured out when a gorgeous young female nurse opened the door and walked in.

“… and on earth, peace’

So we know that the Scriptures are inspired by God and are authoritative for the church's faith and life. Does that mean that the words in Scripture uttered by angels are just as inspired as those spoken by God or humans? Do their words carry clout, or can we dismiss them as being platitudes? Getting specific, what's to be made of the angels' song to the shepherds, 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace..." (Luke 2:14a)? If the chief end of humans is to glorify God, then the first line of the angelic song sounds substantive. What about the second line, the one that sings the promise of "peace?"

Granted, modern translators differ as to who should receive the peace promise. Is peace to be experienced by "all people?" Is it intended for "all people of good will?" Or is it being offered only to "those on whom God's favor rests?" What's for sure is that the peace is to be experienced by many, including at least all recipients of God's saving grace. It may be intended, as suggested in other biblical passages, for all persons created by God. Indeed, given the plan for the wolf to lie down with the lamb, it appears that God promises peace for all creation.

What about that peace? Holiday carols sing its melody. Christmas cards echo its refrain. But do we really want it?

Good King Wenceslas, Look Out!

Richard II, son of Edward the Black Prince, was king of England from 1377 to 1399.  According to his biographer, Anthony Steel (his note 23), Richard was the inventor of the pocket handkerchief, which is a very absorbing subject.  I admit that a pocket handkerchief can get snotty, but only if you get too nosy.  During Richard's reign, the power behind the throne was John of Ghent whose name was corrupted to Gaunt.

The Birth of Jesus

There is power - and then, there is power. There is the power that comes with military supremacy and another kind of..

What the Celtic cross tells us about peace, unity, and purity

The Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity revived our interest in Presbyterian history in the United States since 1729, but stopped short of formative roots in the old world. Recently my wife and I joined a presbytery- sponsored tour to visit some sources of our Reformed faith in Scotland and Ireland. We found significant historic challenges to the peace, unity and purity of the church, and also surprising foundations for hope.

"Purity" was a driving force in the turbulent events of the Scottish Reformation. Purity was the match used by John Knox and his colleagues to ignite the flames of church (and national) reform in Scotland--purity in the Word of God, in the sacrament, in the clergy, and in the leaders of the land. In his passion for religious purity, Knox sparked an emotional explosion among Scottish people early in St. Andrews in 1547, and again in Perth, Edinburgh, and beyond beginning in 1559. In these violent birth-years of the Presbyterian Church, purity-minded mobs attacked the churches and monastic houses to strip them bare of their images of "idolatry," typically burning the churches to the ground, and often inflicting bodily harm or death to Catholics who resisted.

Museums and monuments to formative religious struggle marked our Presbyterian heritage across the lowlands and up into the Scottish hills, written in blood by passionate Presbyterians in the never-to-be-forgotten massacres like Glencoe and Culloden.

Flora and Fawning

Being myself a progressive liberal, I turned immediately to the Revised Standard Version of the Bible as soon as it became available in 1946.  Hide-bound conservatives in those days called it the Reversed Virgin because the translation of Isaiah 7:14 ("Behold, a young woman shall conceive") differed from the hallowed orthodoxy of the King James Version.

The Word as a whole, a meditation


Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by itslef but the wrod as a wlohe. i

Isn't it amazing what powers of perception humans have? Even when mortal expressions are limited and imperfect, humans have been gifted with the ability to discern much more meaning from a written text than a surface review might reveal.

Think how often a word or two -- spoken or written -- is misconstrued because we fail to open our minds to the whole of what is intended by the one desiring to communicate with us.