How do we talk about torture?
It’s Friday afternoon, January 6th - a worship celebration for Epiphany (the arrival of the three kings who came to honor the Christ Child). There are about fifty of us standing in a circle in a small, grassy park beside the bay in Miami, FL. It’s sunny, but brisk and a little windy. We’re kind of an eclectic group. Many of us came at our own expense. All of us care about the bedrock principles of democracy, freedom, and fairness that have grounded our nation. Most of us are Presbyterian, there are a few folks who have had an uneasy relationship with organized religion, and there’s one college student who is Muslim. Everyone has agreed that our weekend together will be unapologetically Presbyterian in tone and content, though we will go out of our way to welcome and value each person’s contribution. Two-thirds of us are sleeping on the floor of the Sanctuary at Riviera Presbyterian Church, which has opened its doors to us.
We include a number of pastors, but most of us are lay people who are trying to help other Presbyterians talk openly and honestly about the difficult issue of torture. There are older folks, and more than a dozen young adults, and we’re from all over the country. Perhaps most importantly, our group includes several people who have given their lives to military service, a few others like myself who have dedicated ourselves to responding nonviolently to conflict, and a whole lot of average Presbyterians who fall somewhere in between. All of us have agreed that we will “bracket” this conversation about torture, and assume that we can find common ground on this issue even as we might disagree about other important matters.
We only have thirty-six hours together to study, worship, and decide how to support one another as we work to move our Presbyterian sisters and brothers to take a definitive stand against torture. Our study is kind of elegant in its simplicity; six speakers have been asked to share for twenty minutes each on their topic. After each speech, we do a quick Q&A and then break into three small groups to talk about how each speaker’s reflections might guide us in our work with congregations, among college students and young adults, and in what we’ve been calling the “military community,” by which we mean those in the armed forces and their families. Our speakers include a theologian, a lawyer, a staffer from the Presbyterian Washington Office, a retired military chaplain, an expert on the psychological effects of torture on both the victim and the perpetrator, and a pastor. All of the presentations are made in a somewhat quiet tone, with great appreciation for the complexity of the issues surrounding torture.
And now, we’ve gathered to worship in the park. We’ve chosen this place because we like the image of standing on the shores of the United States and looking to the rest of the world in an attitude of both repentance and hope on this day when we celebrate the arrival of Jesus in our midst. It’s pretty identifiable as a Presbyterian order of worship: a call to worship, a confession and assurance of God’s forgiveness, two scripture passages, the spoken word, communion, song, and a charge and benediction.
Here’s what really moved me. There were two parts to the spoken word. The first was a series of six readings, words taken directly from those who have experienced torture at the hands of U.S. military personnel in Abu Graeb and Guantanamo Bay. I confess that I found it hard to listen to the words. I was uncomfortable, and at first I felt as if it was inappropriate to worship this way. As I listened though, I thought about the reality that my discomfort is shared by most Presbyterians I know. Talk about torture done in our name makes us squirm because “this isn’t really us.”
But as I listened, I remembered visiting the chapel on the campus of the Jesuit University in San Salvador on the 20th anniversary of Monsignor Romero’s assassination by government sanctioned death squads. The chapel is located immediately beside the house where, nine years after Romero’s death, six Jesuit Priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were brutally murdered in the middle of the night in November, 1989. We know now that they were killed by the Salvadoran military, some of whom had received training at the U.S. military’s “School of the Americas.”
On the walls of the Romero chapel are graphic, black and white paintings that portray the torture practiced by the military and its death squads as they attempted to spread a message of fear and intimidation among the Salvadoran people during the 1980’s. When I visited the chapel for the first time, I was shocked by the large, inescapable, disturbing paintings in God’s place of worship. Though I wanted to turn away, I was moved by the deepest sense of confession I had ever experienced. These atrocities were committed by people who went to church and by people who felt that they were protecting themselves and their country from subversives. In the process of trying to protect themselves, they themselves became the very worst kind of evil they thought they were trying to escape.
Back in the park in Miami, after the readings, we were led in communion by Arlene Gordon, the Executive Presbyter of Tropical Florida Presbytery, and Ed Brogan, the director of the Presbyterian Council for Chaplains and Military Personnel. As they said the words of institution, I looked out across the water, and I felt hopeful about the possibility that, with God, all things are possible. Maybe, just maybe, if enough people of faith and conscience in our country stand firmly against the practice of torture, our is the message that will be heard by our sisters and brothers around the world. As Megan Burns, a Presbyterian Young Adult volunteer, sang a beautiful and moving song accompanied by a guitar, each of us stepped forward to be served by Ed and Arlene.
And then, there were genuine words of hope - three more readings. The first was from Army Captain Ian Fishback, from the First Battalion, 504th Parachute Division, 82nd Airborne, whose grandparents go to a Presbyterian Church in Grinnell, Iowa. As I listened to his courageous call to live the best values of our country, I found myself in the wonderful position of being a pacifist and peace activist who felt proud of both my country and our military. His are the values that all of us can affirm. The second was a reading from my friend Sheila Provencher, who has been serving with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq ever since we trained together with CPT in the summer of 2003. The last was from Tom Fox, a Quaker CPT volunteer who was abducted in Iraq in November. There has been no word about Tom or the other three CPTers since early December. These were messages of hope, calling us to the best of who God insists that we can be.
Back at the church the next morning, while the group was strategizing about next steps, I fell into a conversation in Spanish with Daisy, the woman who does the housekeeping at Riviera Presbyterian. As I expressed our gratitude for all the ways she had helped us pull the event together, she insisted that the pleasure had been hers. She is Salvadoran, and her husband was tortured and murdered in El Salvador in the 1980’s. She fled the violence with her daughter and made her way, on her own and without documents, across Mexico and into the United States as she sought safety. There were tears in her eyes as she talked about how much she appreciated the faithful witness of so many churches in the United States in the 1980’s when they stood firmly for human rights and basic human dignity of Central American refugees.
And there you have it. A moment of God’s grace; the best of who we can be; a challenge to stand for fundamental values of decency and human rights even in this time of fear; a picture of how lives are touched when we do.
Please join us by making public and clear your unequivocal stand against torture.
By now, the quotes from our worship may be up on the NO2TORTURE website: www.no2torture.org.