Revolution #150, December 14, 2008
Program in LA:
Religious Forces Challenge Torture
On Sunday, November 23, a hundred people gathered at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Los Angeles for a program on “Religious Faith, Torture & Our Nation’s Soul.” It was a call and a challenge to people of religious faiths to condemn and mobilize to resist the torture being carried out by our government.
In a pointed and moving talk, the Reverend Canon Henry Atkins of the Episcopal Church called on people to stop living in denial, to really see those who are tortured, and to “bear the burden of reality” by collectively taking responsibility for resisting and ending torture. He called on people of faith to practice a “theology of solidarity” with all who are tortured or unjustly killed. Rev. Atkins traced the history of torture carried out by this country going back to the treatment of slaves brought from Africa and of Indians as they were removed from their lands, all the way to the present day torture taking place in Guantánamo and the training of torturers in the School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation).
He spoke about his own experience when in 1971 he was sent on a church mission to Haiti at a time when the Haitian dictator Duvalier (who was supported by the U.S.) was trying to silence the church and control its finances. Atkins was kidnapped by the secret police, the Ton Ton Macoutes, and brought to a room with an interrogator, a rifle and gallon jug of rum. For 14 hours Rev. Atkins sat in the room; was questioned about the church and about people he knew; the rifle was held to his head; he was forced to drink rum; he vomited; passed out; came to; and went through the process again until finally he didn’t regain consciousness. He woke up lying in the street outside a bar, smelling of rum and dangerously sick with alcohol poisoning. He survived the ordeal and successfully carried out his mission for the church, but spoke with deep feeling of Latin American friends and colleagues who did not survive.
Dr. Sarah Sentilles, a young professor from California State University at Channel Islands posed the question: Is denial a healthy response to torture? Or is it part of the torture itself? Denial, she said, allows the hands to hang others from hooks, put on the hoods, deliver the blows to the knees. Denial allows the torturer to dehumanize the victim. And those of us who turn our heads, who plead that we are just ordinary people, who ask “What can I do to stop it? I can’t stop that; I didn’t start it. Those pictures [of Abu Ghraib] have nothing to do with me,” allow the torturer to do his work. She challenged people to open their eyes to the humanity of all people, to imagine a better world and to work to bring it about.
The program ended with a statement from the Episcopal bishop of Los Angeles, who charged people to “think about places in your life where you ignore injustice and put your own comfort first” and told the gathering that we don’t have the luxury of leaving torture behind when we go home: “We have to go from here and be people of action, willing to put ourselves between the tortured and the torturer.”
At a time when all too many people have learned to accept living under a state where the torture of other human beings has become the norm, the moral clarity of this program was striking. It’s a welcome development that progressive religious people are joining the movement to confront and oppose torture and calling on others to do likewise.
The program was organized by Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, Progressive Christians Uniting, the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, Rabbis for Human Rights and other religious groups in Los Angeles in conjunction with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT).
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