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Wednesday, January 18, 2006  

US torture is policy.  International human rights watchdog Human Rights Watch today issued its World Report 2006, a 532-page report in which it charges not only that the "US government's embrace of torture and inhumane treatment began at the top" but also that "torture and mistreatment have been a deliberate part of the Bush administration's counterterrorism strategy, undermining the global defense of human rights." Says the Report:

The US government's use and defense of torture and inhumane treatment played the largest role in undermining Washington's ability to promote human rights. In the course of 2005, it became indisputable that US mistreatment of detainees reflected not a failure of training, discipline, or oversight, but a deliberate policy choice. The problem could not be reduced to a few bad apples at the bottom of the barrel. As evidenced by President George W. Bush's threat to veto a bill opposing "cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment," Vice President Dick Cheney's lobbying to exempt the Central Intelligence Agency ("CIA") from the bill, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's extraordinary claim that the United States is entitled to subject detainees to such treatment so long as the victim is a non-American held overseas, and CIA Director Porter Goss's defense of a notorious form of torture known as water-boarding as a "professional interrogation technique," the US government's embrace of torture and inhumane treatment began at the top.1

The US isn't the only nation facing grave charges such as these, but what's most significant is that now the US is among the worst human rights abusers on earth, also leaving us with a "global leadership void" in efforts to protect human rights around the world.

Human Rights Watch has also called for the Bush administration Washington to appoint a special prosecutor and for Congress to set up an independent panel to investigate US abuses,2 but that's not unlike asking cannibals to turn the heat down on their cauldrons, please. In the absence of a real opposition party in Washington, it isn't likely that current US foreign policy will change, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out.3 It's also uncertain whether the American people even care.

1.  The World Report 2006, [available as PDF] contains survey information on human rights developments in more than 70 countries in 2005, and includes two essays: "Private Companies and the Public Interest: Why Corporations Should Welcome Global Human Rights Rules" and "Preventing the Further Spread of HIV/AIDS: The Essential Role of Human Rights."
2.  "US torture undermines global rights drive: report," Reuters, January 18, 2006.
3.  See "Chomsky: 'There Is No War On Terror,'" AlterNet, January 14, 2006: 'George Bush would be in severe political trouble if there were an opposition political party in the country. Just about every day, they're shooting themselves in the foot. The striking fact about contemporary American politics is that the Democrats are making almost no gain from this. The only gain that they're getting is that the Republicans are losing support. Now, again, an opposition party would be making hay, but the Democrats are so close in policy to the Republicans that they can't do anything about it. When they try to say something about Iraq, George Bush turns back to them, or Karl Rove turns back to them, and says, "How can you criticize it? You all voted for it." And, yeah, they're basically correct.'

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 3:00 PM |

Monday, January 16, 2006  

The shepherds are being led by the sheep.  Before leaving the issue of Martin Luther King Day, there is this story in today's Newsday concerning the miserable silence of American pastors on the Iraq war. In sum, perhaps: "My sense is a lot of clergy are uneasy about the war but are afraid of the disapproval or even the reprisal of their congregations" and "The preachers who get the most attention and are the most vocal are those who support the war."

These American pastors, looking so good in their dry-cleaned vestments and their late-model cars and knowing which side their bread is buttered on (forgetting, too, that we don't live by bread alone), not only have lost any sense of Christian boldness but also have been turned into pathetic cowards.1

1.  Certainly I'm not a Methodist, but this quote from John Wesley is genuinely appropriate for today: "Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen, such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on earth." From the Letters of John Wesley, edited by John Telford (London: Epworth Press, 1931), quoted in Kenneth Collins' "John Wesley's Concept of the Ministerial Office," Wesley Center Online.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 4:30 PM |

Sunday, January 15, 2006  

Walking pastward.  The concern I have about the commemorative Martin Luther King, Jr. day is not that it honors a pivotal figure in the ongoing movement toward racial equality in the US, but that its very position as another party day stymies efforts to look beyond the man to the goals he worked hard to achieve. More than this, it takes one's man's vision, his dream, and turns it in upon itself, until we can't see anything but people looking at each other and feeling good about themselves in speeches and passing by in parades. Happy MLK Day!

Whatever we may think about Rev King—plagiarist, womanizing adulterer, Afro-Baptist preacher whose work for Christ took a back-of-the-bus seat to black civil rights—he could turn a good phrase, even if we're not exactly sure where he got it, and I think one of his best, or at least one of my favorites, has to be this:

"Segregation is wrong because it is a system of adultery perpetuated by an illicit intercourse between injustice and immorality"1

It's naughty and explicit—but certainly less so than its subject matter. When people quote it, they often pair it with his comment about "the Vaseline of gradualism,"2 but that only makes it prurient, especially in a way he never intended. And yet this speaks to my concern. We are so captured by the man that we end up in a worship circle around his memory.3 The parades, celebrations, speeches, and sound-bites all make it seem like something is really happening, changes are being made, we are closer to his dream and not merely watching mourners from the corner of yet another Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Here we don't necessarily walk backward, but we don't walk forward, either: instead we walk "pastward," if I'm permitted to make up a word for it.

American Christians, too, walk pastward on the path of social equality whenever they trade the humanity of the Gospel for the racism of war. Just as we forget that Rosa Parks was an NAACP activist, not merely a resolute American,4 and that Rev King argued vigorously against the Vietnam War, so too do we forget that the message of Jesus Christ includes the leveling of all people and the commandment to love our neighbors. Paul himself said:

"For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink." [1 Corinthians 12:13]

"Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all." [Colossians 3:11]

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." [Galatians 3:28]

Jesus devoted a whole parable to explain the meaning of "neighbor," making it clear that our neighbors are also black and also Arabic. While American Christians walk pastward on the path of greater defense spending, allowing Congress and the Bush administration to take from even the poorest in the US to pay for the slaughter of Arabic people in the Middle East, the citizens of this world will nevertheless continue to yearn for a peace which transcends all understanding. And they want this more than they want a war on poverty, a war on drugs, a war on terrorism, and a war on this or that.

All Christians in America should look beyond tomorrow as merely the last day of a three-day weekend and instead resolve to reduce poverty in the US through a wiser use of tax dollars, to remember our neighbors in the Middle East by joining with the millions of Americans who now openly oppose our military presence there, and to stop racial discrimination in the US by ending, at least, racial disharmony among Christians. I don't pretend that these are goals that can be achieved in a day or days. I know only that this won't happen if Christians keep walking pastward.

1.  From his Speech at the Great March on Detroit, June 23, 1963.
2.   This is found in the Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.: "So in a sense we are all participants in that horrible act that tarnished the image of our nation. By our silence, by our willingness to compromise principle, by our constant attempt to cure the cancer of racial injustice with the Vaseline of gradualism, by our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes."
3.  It's ironic (and of course sad) that his famous 1963 I-have-a-dream speech has him wishing that his four children would someday be able to "live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Well, now they can, and it ain't pretty. Yesterday, the New York Times updated us on the mess his four children have made of the King Center. On this see "Disarray at Center for Dr King Casts Pall on Family and Legacy," New York Times, January 14, 2006. At about this time two years ago, Ralph Luker published a good, short list of Internet resources on the Civil Rights Movement. It's still available at the History News Network.
4.  "Rosa Parks Was Not the Beginning," AlterNet, November 2, 2005, and the article on "BROWDER v GAYLE: The Women Before Rosa Parks" are good places to start for Internet resources on this. I also like the short piece on Rosa Parks at Wikipedia.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 6:35 PM |
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