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?