Where the outrage is
It's all well and good to talk about how seriously horrible the photos from Abu Ghraib are playing in the Muslim world. Sunday's The New York Times provided a hint, however, that Christians are just as upset.
"In Abu Ghraib, the fact that a woman was there—and that one gender was being exposed naked to both genders—outraged not just Iraqis but everyone in the region, not just Muslims but Christians as well," Haverford College religion professor Michael A. Sells told the paper. "Certainly, a central aspect of the Qur'an is dignity and privacy. But where to draw the boundary between religion and culture? … People in the Middle East react with the same feeling of revulsion at these images that we have, but for them the images also connect powerfully to … the profound sense of being violated in other ways by American policies and American power."
But you don't have to be a Middle Easterner, either, to be outraged by the images and tales of torture and abuse.
Friday, the Vatican condemned the abuses in the harshest words. "Violence against persons offends God himself, who made human beings in his image and likeness," said Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, who works in the Vatican's Secretary of State office. Torture, Zenit News Service quotes him saying, is "contrary to the most elementary human rights and radically opposed to Christian morality. … The scandal is even more serious if one takes into account that those actions were committed by Christians."
An unsigned editorial in the Vatican's semi-official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, issues a similar condemnation. "In the abuses and ill treatment of prisoners is consummated the radical negation of man's dignity and his fundamental values," the paper said, according to Zenit.
The brutal offense against one's fellowman is the tragic antithesis of the basic principles of civilization and democracy. … In this disturbing scene, a speechless world questions itself, full of horror and shame. In particular, the people of the United States feel profoundly betrayed in their humanity and in their history when learning that torture—an affront against the human person—has been perpetrated under its flag, dishonoring it.
But the Vatican didn't stop at condemnation. Archbishop Lajolo issued at least a partial prescription: "Those responsible must be brought to justice and punished, as well as their immediate superior who failed in their important duty to restrain them."
American Christians may "feel profoundly betrayed in their humanity and in their history," but so far few prominent Christian leaders have spoken on the subject. Searches for "Abu Ghraib" at the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, American Family Association, and other such Christian public advocacy organizations turned up nothing.
One evangelical organization, however, is speaking on the subject, and proposes a prescription beyond that of Lajolo. It's not just the immediate supervisor who should be punished, says Sojourners, it's also the Secretary of Defense. "Donald Rumsfeld knew these crimes were taking place as early as last fall, but by his own admission failed to inform the President, Congress, and the public," an e-mail message to supporters says. "Such inaction and tolerance of human rights abuses is inexcusable. … If these abuses were systemic, we cannot trust that same system—including military police and intelligence officials, the CIA, and independent military contractors—to correct them." The e-mail message asks supporters to contact Congress "to demand Rumsfeld's resignation and an independent investigation."
In another article, Sojourners head Jim Wallis says the crux of the matter isn't about the prison abuse. "Such abuse and atrocities are the consequence of war, and especially military occupation. They always have been, and they will continue to be," he says. "Here is the real issue: The Americans and the British do not belong in Iraq. The American-led occupation is leading to more suffering on all sides, and it will just get worse."
On the other side of the political spectrum, World magazine editor Marvin Olasky says there's not yet warrant to dismiss Rumsfeld. "Rumsfeld is not responsible for the perverse acts of a few: Given man's sinfulness multiplied by wartime pressures, every war brings out evil conduct, and only now are digital cameras and Internet advances throwing instant light on dark corners," he says. "Rumsfeld should be fired if he tried to hinder the investigation, and should otherwise be encouraged to take whatever vigorous action is needed to guard against future incidents."
World publisher Joel Belz will in the magazine's next issue say that criticizing Rumsfeld misses the point. In an excerpt posted on World's blog, Belz attacks political correctness, and says that as a woman, Lynndie England should have been nowhere near Abu Ghraib. He says the problem at the prison is symptomatic of our larger cultural problem:
There is room to criticize Mr. Rumsfeld and the Pentagon. But they are not primarily responsible for the coarsening of a culture that took place for a generation and more leading up to the unveiling of such wicked acts. Listen carefully just now. It's a bit too easy to charge all this to the account of those immediately responsible for the policies of the Iraq war. It's a whole lot harder but maybe more to the point right now to remember who has been opening the doors to all this cultural poison in the first place.
Cultural poison? What about original sin, asks Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw in a Beliefnet article. "The images of American military personnel abusing and humiliating prisoners of war horrify me. And not just because I am shocked by the thought that seemingly 'civilized' people can commit such acts," he says. "I am horrified because those images make me confront the evil that lurks in the deep places of my own soul. … That kind of evil is all too familiar to me. I see it lurking inside me, and once again I cry out to God for mercy and forgivenness, on my own behalf as well as for people whose misdeeds right now have become a matter of public record."
Mouw also offers a prescription, and hands the disciplinary rods out quite broadly: "This is an important time for the American people to admit to the rest of the world that, though we often act like we are morally superior to the rest of the human race, we are as capable as anyone else of horrible acts of injustice. It is important, too, that we engage in a serious public dialogue about how we can set ourselves straight."
Campus Crusade for Christ's Vonette Bright similarly stated that it's time for national repentance, and says that, in an Associated Press paraphrase, "Any troops found guilty of abusing prisoners should go before cameras in Iraq to publicly confess, apologize, and ask for the Iraqi people's forgiveness."
While it's true that "human depravity should hardly come as a surprise to anyone with a Christian worldview," Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson says, "the fact that we're all sinners, while it keeps us from being self-righteous, does not excuse these men and women. They need to be tried and, if guilty, punished quickly." Colson says the correct response from Americans should not be shame in their country, but pride that "these bad apples" are so rare. "Our armed forces have always been distinguished by a sense of decency and caring," he says. "There is a streak of decency in Americans. The reason is historic, rooted in the worldview of the founders of this country."
Ironically, Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley criticized the use of the term "bad apples" a mere five days later, on the same Breakpoint radio broadcast on which Colson's comments first aired. "Americans, especially Christians, should not settle for responses that treat what happened as the actions of just a few 'bad apples,'" he said. Quoting Philip Zimbardo of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, Earley says, "Prisons, 'where the balance of power [between guards and prisoners] is so unequal,' are, almost by definition, brutal places. This makes it vital for authorities to rein in the guard's worst impulses." Whether in Iraqi prisons, American prisons, or society at large, Earley says, "wise leadership must take into account human sin and depravity—a truth that is not only demonstrable, but is central to a Christian worldview."
Gary Bauer goes much further than Colson, saying yes, the "murderers and thugs" of Abu Ghraib "have had a bad time of it in prison," but the "media and political frenzy" has "spiral[led] out of control … because there are a whole lot of opportunists, as well as outright enemies of the U.S., who want to exploit the problem and harm our nation or use it to serve their own narrow political purposes."
While agreeing that the United States should "correct prison abuses," Bauer says, "There is no reason we should permit these Middle Eastern propagandists working for Al Jazeera TV and other stations to claim the moral high ground. They are nowhere close to being able to sit in judgment of us." But "worst of all," he says, are American politicians who, "without any consideration of how it might harm the nation to fire the Secretary of Defense when we are in the middle of a war … are attacking Rumsfeld, but their real target is Bush. … The odds of us being hit [by terrorists] before the November election grow by the hour, but don't tell grandstanding senators—they are too busy beating up their own country."
There are other stories of special interest to Christians, within this scandal, and we're sure to see more in the days and weeks ahead. Expect more, for example, on Lt. Gen William Boykin, who was criticized earlier for reportedly criticizing Islam. There should also be more stories on prison rape in the U.S., and on evangelicals' political efforts to combat it.
For Christian Peacemaker Teams, however, all of these "bigger pictures" set their sights a bit too broad. The real big picture, says the group, is that mistreatment of Iraqis, including citizens, really isn't limited to a few bad apples. "Our conclusion is straightforward: the military actions designed to ensure short-term security are in fact compromising long-term security interests of Iraqis and all internationals, including the [Coalition Provisional Authority]," says a January report from the group which has gained new currency. The report highlights such issues as violent house raids, lack of family visits, and theft of property by Coalition forces, but especially relevant are the sections on mistreatment of detainees:
CPT volunteers have talked to released detainees. All reported that they were housed in overcrowded tents without proper clothes or toilet facilities, particularly in the initial detention centers to which they were taken. CPT volunteers saw handcuffed prisoners being led around with black plastic bags over their heads at an army base near Balad on December 24, 2003. This sort of treatment—and worse—is often reported by released detainees. Such treatment violates the 4th Geneva Convention (Article 85) and angers detainees and their families, causing increased security risks to Coalition forces from an increasingly-alienated populace.
Ten of the 72 Iraqi detainees CPT talked to reported abuse by Coalition forces and/or contracted workers. Abuses included electrocution and prying off a toenail.
"There are many more photographs and indeed some videos," Rumsfeld said last week. "If these are released to the public, obviously it's going to make matters worse. … I looked at them last night and they're hard to believe. And so be on notice."
In other words, this story looks like it will be around for a long time. Christian organizations that see themselves at war with the culture of death, who are proud to call themselves moralists, may want to start thinking about how they can speak directly about the images the world can't get out of its mind.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Suggest links and stories by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
Check out Books & Culture's weekly weblog, Content & Context.
See our past Weblog updates:
May 7 | 6 | 5 | 4 | 3
April 30 | 29 | 28 | 27 | 26
April 23 | 22 | 21 | 20 | 19
April 16 | 15 | 14 | 13 | 12
April 8 | 7 | 5
and more, back to November 1999
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
Read These Next
- TrendingAfter Nashville, Moral Numbness Is Our EnemyShootings have become normal to the American public. But as Christians, we know better.
- From the MagazineJohn 3:16: So Loved, So FamiliarWe need fresh eyes for our faith’s basic teachings, no matter how long we’ve studied the Bible.简体中文繁體中文
- RelatedHillsong Says It Is Moving ForwardNew revelations will require increased accountability, but pastor wants to look to the future.
- Editor's PickLiberty Appoints Retired General, Air Force Chaplain as New PresidentAlumnus Dondi E. Costin steps in to lead years after Jerry Falwell Jr.’s scandal.