Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, May 12, 2008

"Enhanced interrogation techniques"

My recent reading in the theology of the Cross has led me to various reflections on cultures based on honor and shame rather then guilt and innocence. This is notably true in Japan, but in our present situation it is most relevant with regard to the Middle East. Numerous articles about what happened at the Abu Ghraib prison have reported that prison guards and other soldiers charged with detaining Iraqis were instructed that Arab men have a strong sense of shame, particularly with regard to nudity, women, and sexual matters in general. We now know that this information proved to be a spur to the particular sorts of humiliations that were visited upon the prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Jesus Christ "endured the cross, despising the shame," writes the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. The extreme shamefulness of crucifixion is not sufficiently emphasized or understood in today's congregations. A man who is dragged through the public streets to the howls of the crowds, then nailed up with sexual organs and bodily excretions on display for the contempt and derision of the multitudes has undergone an extremity of shame.

Therefore when we look at the pictures from Abu Ghraib, we see something analogous to crucifixion: the exploiting of a helpless human being in very specific ways designed to shame him—a human being, what's more, who has been judged an insurrectionist, an enemy of the state.

The world being what it is, people must sometimes be taken prisoner, held, and interrogated. This is not the issue. The issue is that when we pass over the line into deliberate state-sponsored humiliation, degradation, and torture, the fundamental affirmations of the Christian faith are profoundly undermined. If the Crucifixion of Christ was the world-overturning event that the apostolic gospel says it is, then every form of exploitative behavior should be categorically renounced in the name of the One who gave himself up as the utmost act of sacrifice, as Hebrews repeatedly says, "once for all."

And so there is another aspect of this matter that elicits thought. In some of the most infamous photographs, the unfortunate female soldier Lynndie England is gleefully mocking naked male prisoners. Continuing the work of Christian imagination to see the Cross by analogy in this picture, the One who is mocked has placed himself in that position intentionally and purposefully, but that is not all. He has done so precisely and deliberately for the specific result that Lynndie England and every other perpetrator should be redeemed.

That is the radical gospel.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Religious pluralism and the American ideal

When I get irritated (as I very often do) at the headscarves on the street, or the Hindu temple going up next to a church, or the minaret dominating a skyline instead of a steeple, I try to remember the Flushing Remonstrance.

What was the Flushing Remonstrance?

In 1657, when Manhattan Island was still New Netherland, when Flushing (Queens) was a tiny settlement of English-style farmhouses, members of the Society of Friends, known (derisively) as Quakers, began to arrive, fleeing persecution in England. The famous Peter Stuyvesant, director general of New Netherland, sought to ostracize them, forbidding his colonists to associate with them.

But on December 27, 1657, 30 non-Quaker citizens of Flushing signed an extraordinary letter to Stuyvesant. We know it today as "the Flushing Remonstrance." In this letter, the signatories asserted that they would not "stretch out our hands against" the Quakers "to punish, banish, or persecute them." They reminded Stuyvesant that colonial law mandated freedom of religion. This freedom, they asserted, included "Jews, Turks, and Egyptians," and "Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist, or Quaker."

Stuyvesant responded with fines and jail terms. John Bowne, whose farmhouse still stands in Flushing, was banished from the colony in 1662. (He was allowed to return from Holland in 1664 and returned to his home where, remarkably, his descendants lived until the mid-1940s. The house is now a museum.)

Here's the clincher:
100 years after the signing of the Flushing Remonstrance, Richard Stockton of New Jersey, a direct descendant of one of the Remonstrators, signed the Declaration of Independence.

Doesn't that give you goose bumps? This is what makes America, America. We must not lose this.

Inspired by an article in the May 2, 2008 New York Times, "The Melting Pot on a High Boil in Flushing."