Sunday, March 25, 2007

Two against torture

I've been sort of holding my breath since the confessions of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were made public. Despite the authorities' statement that they could make no statement regarding whether or not he had been tortured, is there really any doubt? So here it was, hidden in plain sight, silent for everyone to hear.

So I waited.

And I waited.

I waited for the public acknowledgment that torture had become the law of the land, that torture was now OK because it got results. (Only
the cartoonists have adequately expressed the lack credibility of those results.) But no public statement was forthcoming. We all went about our daily business, not bothering to admit just how low we had sunk as a nation.

This morning --finally-- I read two statements, one by Carol Wickersham, a Presbyterian pastor and friend, and another by political philosopher Slavoj Žižek. They decry the painful truth that has been weighing on my heart this past week.

Torture is now indeed the law of the land. Torture is American. Torture is patriotic.

But no, torture is not OK.

I invite you to read Carol's speech at the March 16 Witness against War rally in Washington, D.C. Here is an excerpt:

Torture cannot save us from the ticking bomb, because torture is the ticking time bomb, and it has a disastrously short fuse. Look into the eyes of a child whose father has been tortured and you will see how hatred is ignited. Look into the eyes of our own soldiers who have been ordered, with a wink and a nod, to take the gloves off and to torture another human being, and you will see how quickly we can bring about our own destruction. Every time torture is committed, there are two victims, the tortured and the torturer, both perversely damaged to the core of their being. And when humans are damaged so fundamentally, it tears at the fabric of all of the communities they touch – families, churches, countries.
Entire text at

As Žižek wrote in his New York Times piece yesterday:

If there was one surprising aspect to this situation it has less to do with the confessions themselves than with the fact that for the first time in a great many years, torture was normalized — presented as something acceptable. The ethical consequences of it should worry us all.

He goes on to ask:

Are we aware what lies at the end of the road opened up by the normalization of torture? A significant detail of Mr. Mohammed’s confession gives a hint. It was reported that the interrogators submitted to waterboarding and were able to endure it for less than 15 seconds on average before being ready to confess anything and everything. Mr. Mohammed, however, gained their grudging admiration by enduring it for two and a half minutes.

Are we aware that the last time such things were part of public discourse was back in the late Middle Ages, when torture was still a public spectacle, an honorable way to test a captured enemy who might gain the admiration of the crowd if he bore the pain with dignity? Do we really want to return to this kind of primitive warrior ethics?

But...but...the terrorists hate us. They have no morals. They're vicious and cold-blooded. They'll stop at nothing. A
Philadelphia Inquirer columnist, who was quick to shift into torture mode after 9/11, wrote that we have to be as "nasty" as they are in this war against terror.

Know what? I don't care. I refuse to approve the use of torture. I call upon our government to stop.
No to torture!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The God of Small People

It's Saturday morning. I'm slowly unwinding, recovering from another harsh week. Too much job work, too much volunteer work. Both keeping me tied for too long to a computer screen. My body seems to tell me "too much" by stubbornly gaining weight, as though to say, "unload your life a little and I'll get lighter too." Maybe I'll finally get to exercise a little this afternoon.

One good thing about Saturdays is that I usually don't have to get dressed quickly and rush out of the house. Fortunately, I rarely have an event or appointment on Saturday morning. I get to sleep later and, once awake, move more slowly. I even look forward to blogging a bit ... in front of a computer screen, but much more relaxed.

This week we showed the film
The Road to Guantánamo at our Amnesty International chapter meeting. It was the second time I saw the movie, but the inhumanity of it really hit me more forcefully this time. I saw lots and lots of brown-skinned men, some turbaned, some bearded, mostly in their 20's or younger, herded like animals onto the back of pick-up trucks. In one scene, they are packed like merchandise into the back of a huge delivery truck and the doors locked shut. Many die from suffocation or heat exhaustion. Those that survive are taken to a prisoner camp where they are kept in a kneeling position on the ground and repeatedly slapped and punched by guards in army camouflage outfits.

I couldn't help noticing that the American and British soldiers were bigger, taller, stockier ...I think of the title of
Arundhati Roy's novel, The God of Small Things...

We are right, we are righteous, we are more moral...our size attests to it, our abundance proclaims it, our God declares it.

Perhaps there is another God for creatures of lesser stature and with less of this world's goods...

"How come you have so much cargo?" I remember the question the men of Papua New Guinea asked Jared Diamond in the documentary film version of his book
Guns, Germs and Steel. Goods of any type, they call them "cargo." How come you have so much stuff, so many possessions? Bigger is better, more is's a sign of our divine calling to subjugate the world...and appropriate to ourselves as much cargo as possible. Could we be misinterpreting the voice we hear?

Because they're bigger, stronger, and --totally incidentally-- wielding weapons, the soldiers bully the little men. Scenes of the little brown men --now clothed in orange prisoner jumpsuits, their hands bound behind their back, their head covered by a sack, sound-proof mufflers over their ears-- being herded, imprisoned, and abused are juxtaposed with clips of the President, former Attorney General Ashcroft, and then Sec. of Defense Rumsfeld declaring that these are all "bad men." Once in their Guantánamo Bay chicken coop, the guards yell at them repeatedly, "Shut the f-- up!" if they dare speak to one another or pray out loud.

They must be bad men. I mean, look how small and flimsy they are...look at how easily they were captured...they crumbled like the wall of Jericho when Joshua blew his trumpet...yet no evidence is brought against any of them. None has a lawyer present as he is interrogated, beaten, and shoved back into his chicken pen...

Has none of these Christian interrogators read the Gospel of John? "Where are your accusers?" Jesus asks the woman cowering on her knees...

Maybe it's because I'm barely 5 ft. tall that I identify with small people...and wonder if perhaps they even have a different God.

Friday, March 16, 2007

By their compassion ye shall know them,
or, The unbearable lightness of popcorn

Well, I never thought I'd be in agreement with Sam Harris (The End of Faith) except in a negative sort of way. No, it isn't right to kill in the name of one's God. No, we're not here to wreak vengeance on one another but to care for one another. No, Christianity isn't red, white, and blue, etc., etc.
However, today I read this commentary authored by Harris and thought, "Amen!" ...uh, I mean "Right on!"

Now, I admire people who can expound upon an idea, who can really develop a theme. But I also admire the lapidary turn of phrase. In two sentences, Harris makes mincemeat of what I was taught to call
mysteries of the faith:

The truth is, there is not a person on Earth who has a good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead or that Muhammad spoke to the angel Gabriel in a cave. And yet billions of people claim to be certain about such things.
When Harris uses the term "certainty," he means something scientifically verifiable. And when it comes to true spirituality, the scientifically verifiable is often beside the point.

A couple of years ago, I saw a video retelling of the Nativity story, produced and distributed by a Christian denomination --I don't remember which one. In the film every detail mentioned in the gospels of Matthew and Luke was taken as fact and historically reenacted: from the angel appearing to Mary to the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. As each supernatural event unfolded before my eyes, I had a sort of disengaged, "so what?" reaction. And I also remember feeling as though something was missing.

My favorite and oft-blogged-about Christian writer, Marcus Borg, expresses what I had been feeling when he says that we impoverish Scripture by reading it as historic and even scientific record...when we privilege the details of the stories over their richer metaphorical meaning.

Getting back to Harris, after doing the usual lambasting of fanatics of all stripes and then even taking "moderate" and "liberal" adherents to task for "inadvertently shelter[ing]" fanatics, he goes on to say something I can't argue with:
Compassion is deeper than religion. As is ecstasy. It is time that we acknowledge that human beings can be profoundly ethical — and even spiritual — without pretending to know things they do not know.
Harris isn't just making the point that atheists are good people and often even kinder and more caring than the God fearing among us. Nor is he saying only that religion is all a crock. He's saying that true spirituality does not manifest itself in a willingness to believe ten impossible things before breakfast (as Karen Armstrong once put it), but by the compassion for our brothers and sisters and the passionate love of life ignited in our hearts.

Otherwise ...pass the popcorn. It's just another movie.

Popcorn courtesty of
Webweaver's Free Clipart

Monday, March 12, 2007

Lesson learned this past week about activism

I particularly like this thought of Karen Horst Cobb that I noted in my last blog entry: One honest person can impact more than a multitude.

With responsibilities to a spouse, family, and work, there's just no way that I can participate in all the peace & justice activities that I'd like. When I turn an activity down, I feel guilty that I'm not doing enough to make this world a more peaceful and just place. However, when I get all out of sorts from overwork and too many activities, I turn into a not very loving person. In other words, I do not faithfully live out the ideals that I espouse. I've come to the conclusion that it's crucial for me to maintain a balance in my life -- including down time-- even if I cannot march in all the vigils or attend all the meetings. Otherwise, I'll cease to be the "honest person" that Cobb talks about. I'll turn into a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.


Balance pose from Gymnastics Clipart Galore

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Write one hundred times on the blackboard:

One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus.
One cannot kill for Jesus....

Oh, and a few corollaries:
* Kindness and generosity are the characteristics of Christ
* The new Jerusalem is not real estate
* Jesus did not teach capitalism
* The free market is not the “good news”
* Punishment does not save
* The word of God is not a book
* One honest person can impact more than a multitude
* Comfort is not our birthright.

See: Time for Reform
. I couldn't say it better.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Minute on torture

Minute: The record of a corporate decision reached during a meeting for worship for business. "Glossary," Faith & Practice, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting
Just getting around to writing about the minute against torture adopted by our monthly meeting on February 11. Actually, we did something rather startling for a group of Quakers. Instead of haggling over the wording of an original minute of our own, we made "Quaker time" move a bit faster by simply endorsing the texts of minutes passed by Brooklyn and Morningside Monthly Meetings, both in New York. Then our clerk asked someone to draft a press release (as in "Stop the presses! The Quakers just passed a minute!") and I volunteered for the job. Fortunately, I got a lot of help from a Friend who teaches writing. So here it is:

On Sunday, February 11, 2007, we adopted the following resolution against torture:

Recognizing that of God in every person, we condemn the use of torture for any purpose. War and terrorism inspire fear, but retaliation and torture do not prevent them. Torture by any means, whether direct or by proxy, is immoral. Torture demeans the humanity of the tortured, the torturer and those who have knowledge of it. It fails to defend the sanctity of life.

We agree with William Penn, Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, who wrote, “A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil that good may come of it.” Let the United States abolish its use of torture now.

We join with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), No2Torture and the Quaker Initiative to End Torture (QUIT) in declaring that the inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners must stop, without exception. They call upon Congress to repeal the Military Commissions Act, close Guantánamo Bay Prison and abolish the heinous practice of extraordinary rendition.

We based our resolution, or minute, on those passed by Brooklyn and Morningside Monthly Meetings (NY) and will urge Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, constituting more than 100 Quaker congregations, to adopt a similar position against torture.

The prophet Micah proclaimed:
“What does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.”

Friends hope other citizens who want to act justly and who "love mercy" will also raise their voices against the use of torture.
Yes, I'm aware of the "that of God" squabble which threatens to overshadow the Filioque controversy, and I've read Lewis Benson's article ...but I refuse to wrangle over the meaning of the expression here.

A reporter at one of the local papers invited me to email our press release to her, but so far I haven't seen any coverage. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently started a Thursday feature highlighting religious congregations in the area. The county editor sent me the questionnaire for our meeting to fill out and suggested that we slip our minute in there somehow.

However, another local monthly meeting has done something far better. On Monday evening it will be hosting Jay O'Hara of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) in a discussion on how to lobby against torture and other post-9/11 civil liberties violations. I'm looking forward to attending.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Tant bien que mal

This blog entry is about me and how I made it through the day...the week...the month of February. I made it through tant bien que other words, I managed somehow. And when I write about me I use comic sans ms font. So as not to take myself too seriously.

Did a lot of new tasks at work, some in quite a rush. Made a few mistakes. I was under so much pressure that I developed a twitching in my right eyelid and later a twitching under my left eye. Then by the middle of today --like magic-- I noticed that they had both disappeared. I guess I must have some sort of inner to-do list that weighs on my subconscious. And today that inner agenda-keeper realized that I had finally gotten to the bottom of the list.

Next week is mid-semester break and a chance to catch up on odds and ends. And maybe even take a vacation day in the middle of the week.

I haven't called or written to a congressman or senator in weeks about the prisoners being held without right of habeas corpus...except for the minute passed by our Monthly Meeting. More on that soon.

I sure feel as though I could sleep for a week!

Bienvenue au mois de mars !!