Friday, 21 May 2004

On the receiving end

The photographs of American soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq gave me pause for all sorts of reasons, not least because some of the soldiers are Christians.

It has been an interesting turn of events that, while I was growing up, my teachers were predicting the end of religion. Belief in God was a throwback to magical thinking and feudal society, so I was taught. Yet, it turns out these days, religion is as much of a force in world events as it has ever been.

I think that blaming soldiers for abuses is to treat the symptom but not the cause. Soldiers are everything and nothing; we have no idea how they are prepared, if at all, for the complexities of the roles they are expected to fulfil.

What I have found deeply troubling is reading how fundamentalist Christianity has permeated the centres of power in the United States.

The absence of any US commitment to environmental politics, for example, can be traced to a deeply held belief in the current administration that, if Jesus is coming back to judge the world and reduce it to a cinder, why bother saving the rain forest? The same idea of judgement encourages a sense of the world being divided into the saved and the damned, the good and the bad: we are good, and all the evil in the world is out there somewhere.

Once you take on this mindset, then the abuse of prisoners follows from this. The only circumstance in which abuse can be justified is that they are the enemy and they represent all that we consider to be evil. Once you’ve made that decision, the rest is easy, they have no rights, they can be treated however we feel like, they deserve whatever they get, we are the righteous, we are the chosen. It doesn’t matter if you lock suspects up in Guantanamo Bay for two years with no basic human rights.

Keeping all the evil in the world Out There somewhere is very comforting. People have grown huge church congregations by gathering those huddled together, set apart from the evils of the world. I want to take a different Christian view.

Deep at the heart of Christian faith is a view of life from the perspective of the victim. Imagine how Christian faith looks to the prisoner on the receiving end of a GI boot. Maybe two years ago he was on the receiving end of one of Saddam’s boots, now it’s a Christian one. How do we look to them, what must they make of the wonderful new world and values that liberation has brought.

Christianity says that it is possible to do something about the evil in the world. You don’t stop evil by deciding it is only to be found somewhere else, and that its source is somebody else. When Christians gather to worship, we routinely make the space to consider how we look to others, and to allow God to show us the evil within ourselves.

I can say, and I believe, that Saddam Hussein is an evil man, and I don’t expect anyone to disagree with me. But I can keep saying that, and the world doesn’t change, we just feel cosy that the evil is being committed by someone else.

What happens if I ask what an Iraqi prisoner sees when he looks at me, or looks at people who act on my government’s behalf? What does he think of the values of my world, as he sees them acted out on him? What happens if I ask whether there is any truth in what he describes when he looks at my world? And what can I do about it?

Posted by Andrew Spurr on Friday, 21 May 2004 at 7:55pm BST | TrackBack
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Comments

The ideas expressed in this piece are halfbaked and confused. Does anyone seriously think the US soldiers who tortured Iraqis, tanked up on alcohol, pornography and hatred, can be called 'Christian'? It's the very LACK of Christian behavior and formation that led to these outrages.

Posted by: Colin Marshall on Sunday, 23 May 2004 at 3:53pm BST

I look at the photos of those young Americans doing appalling, inhuman things to other human beings and I am ashamed. I am also afraid, because there but for the grace of God... If I were young, afraid, far away from home, surrounded by people who urged me to act in a barbaric way, would I have acted any differently? I would hope so; I would pray so; but I do not know that I would have done so.

It would be unusual if none of the Americans pictured in those photos were not Christians, if none were baptized into the Body of Christ. Were they acting in a "Christian" way, no. Does that make them any less "Christian"? No. Does it mean that they are deeply in need of grace? Yes, as are we all.

I looked at those photos and saw a different time in a not too different place: a dusty courtyard, young soldiers far from home beating and taunting a shackled prisoner, human beings at their worst, and God enduring all in order to bring into being a new creation for all who repent and turn towards it.

I pray that the grace of that new creation will be present amid the shambles that is now Iraq.

Posted by: Olivia McIntyre on Thursday, 27 May 2004 at 3:16pm BST

Colin Marshall asks:
"Does anyone seriously think the US soldiers who tortured Iraqis, tanked up on alcohol, pornography and hatred, can be called ‘Christian’? "
Unfortuantely, Colin, a substantial number of Muslims DOES seriously think that they can be called Christian. They are acting on behalf of an avowedly Christian government in a country where religiosity is expected of politicians to a degree which would baffle most Europeans. (Note that the rogueish Bill Clinton felt obliged to be more outwardly pious than the religious-going-on-sanctimonious Tony Blair!) The idea of a "crusader" war has considerable purchase in many Muslim countries.

Posted by: Alan Harrison on Thursday, 27 May 2004 at 3:47pm BST

This post is a packet of ignorance and bigotry.

"fundamentalist Christianity has permeated the centres of power in the United States"

This is false. President Bush's own brand of Christianity is a moderately conservative Methodism, not "fundamentalism". "Fundamentalist" has a specific meaning within the range of Christian denominations, and it does not accurately describe the beliefs of any member of the Bush administration. John Ashcroft is the most theologically "conservative" person in the administration, but his Pentecostal beliefs would be condemned by a real fundamentalist as heretical.

"a deeply held belief in the current administration that, if Jesus is coming back to judge the world and reduce it to a cinder, why bother saving the rain forest?"

Has this belief been expressed by President Bush? by EPA administrator Mike Leavitt? By Interior Secretary Gale Norton? In the absence of a reliable citation, I can only regard this as a baseless slander.

It is true that President Bush is a practicing Christian, as are some members of his administration. But are Tom Ridge (a Catholic), Condoleeza Rice (a Presbyterian), Dick Cheney (a Methodist), and Paul Wolfowitz (a Jew) fundamentalists?

It would seem that in your lexicon "fundamentalist" means only "a person whose religion is more conservative than my own, whose politics I disagree with." It's a tawdry way to accuse your political opponents of ignorance and obscurantism without the inconvenience of providing evidence.

You should be ashamed of yourself.

Posted by: Chris Jones on Friday, 28 May 2004 at 4:18am BST

> This post is a packet of ignorance and bigotry.

> “fundamentalist Christianity has permeated the
> centres of power in the United States”

> This is false. President Bush’s own brand of
> Christianity is a moderately conservative
> Methodism, not “fundamentalism̶

Well it is not ignorant, 30% of Amercicans belong to this group according to the American Survey 2003 of The Economist. Professor George Marsden of Notre Dame University claims, "this includes holiness churches, Pentecostals, traditionalist Methodists, all sorts of Baptists, Prebyterians, black churches in all these traditions, pietist groups, Reformed and Lutheran confessionalists, and Anabaptists"

My piece is informed by nine years living in the United States, and three recent books:
The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O'Neill, by Paul Suskind; Against all enemies: America's war on terror, by Richard Clarke and The President of good and evil: the ethics of George W. Bush.

Whether my piece is bigoted I cannot assess; bigots are always other people, never ourselves.

Andrew Spurr

Posted by: Andrew Spurr on Monday, 14 June 2004 at 5:23pm BST