15 December 2014

Torture and tortured logic

In reaction to the recent CIA report, with regard to the renewed debate over the rightness or wrongness of torture, the Holy Orthodox Church has spoken down the ages with one mind and one voice. Holy and Right-Believing Prince S. Vladimir, Baptiser of the Rus’, abolished torture as one of his first acts following his baptism. As the Orthodox Peace Fellowship puts it:
God reminded Israel, “You shall not enslave others because you were slaves in Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21, 23:9) Likewise we, whose community includes so many victims of torture, should feel a special obligation to prevent torture because we know what it is like to be tortured. As a communal Church, each of us is included in the experience of our co-communicants and is accountable for protecting others from torture. Every time we enter the church building, see the icons, light a candle, we are including ourselves in the great flow of the Orthodox faith. When we prepare ourselves for the Eucharist, we acknowledge that we are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses,” many of whom were tortured and degraded. When we include ourselves in the Church, we are incorporating the lives and struggles of the apostles, martyrs, and saints into our own experience.
And in the words of the Basis of the Social Concept:
The Church insists on the need of humane attitude towards suspects, persons under investigation and those caught in criminal intent. The crude and improper treatment of these people can either fortify them on the wrong track or push them on it. For this reason, those awaiting a verdict should not be disfranchised even in custody. They should be guaranteed advocacy and impartial justice. The Church condemns torture and indignities towards persons under investigation.
No ifs. No ands. No buts. And this is in a highly nuanced and thoughtful document which, in good Orthodox mindset, is willing to speak to multiple conditions and scenarios in a broad scope, with the discretional humility of œconomia. There are no extenuating circumstances in Orthodox thought which can be brought to justify the torture of criminals or of criminal suspects, let alone of innocents. Zero. Torture is not only a gross sacrilege and degradation of the ikon of the living God in the human person, and therefore inherently, categorically wrong; it has the potential to warp and deform the spiritual development of all parties involved – policy-makers, perpetrators and victims all – making forgiveness and reconciliation prohibitively hard. The communicants of the Orthodox Church are all called to stand in solidarity with those who have suffered torture, no matter what other wrongs they have done.

At the same time, we must recognise that the same desires in the human heart which lead to torture and to its justification are there in every person. The line between good and evil runs, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn sagely remarked, through every human heart. And the heart which cannot recognise its own evil is usually far, far closer to it than one which can. As bloggers and consumers of social media too many of us speak in a rarefied atmosphere divorced from practical knowledge – I myself am as guilty of this as any. But we are all called upon to look straight into the dark corners of our own souls and our own lives, and to look upon them with repentence and seeking mercy from the only one who can heal them.

The findings of the CIA report are grim indeed, but they will likely come as a surprise to too few of us, and too many of us will be all too likely to excuse them however they can, or brush them under the carpet if they can. I wish that we will find it within ourselves as a nation to peer into this very dark corner of our collective national soul; I confess, however, that I find myself pessimistic about the prospects. The hard questions about how we got to this point, and how we – Democrats and Republicans both! – need to repent of it, are already being forgotten in the saddening game of political dodgeball which has followed it. We’re still too quick to blame everyone for our ills but ourselves.

For this, as an American citizen, speaking for myself and for my own country even to that very small degree which I am able and competent to speak for her, I am truly sorry and can only ask that the Lord have mercy upon me, a sinner.

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