This is a tough one. It shouldn’t be. Even before the United States Senate released the already infamous “Torture Report” the reaction was highly charged on all sides. Critics argue that the actions taken by the CIA in detaining and interrogating suspected terrorists were necessary and effective. They foretell harms that will be directed at American citizens as a result of the report’s publication. Supporters point to the invaluable importance of “setting the record straight” and revealing the truths about CIA torture tactics to serve as a “bookend to this sorry period in our history.”
In reality, this report will unlikely bring closure to a difficult chapter of American history. Instead, it re-opens the old wounds and embarrassment felt when the pictures from Abu Ghraib first circulated around the world a decade ago. It is a painful reminder that in the pursuit of justice, even a nation which prides itself for its “exceptionalism” can succumb to the same dark and dishonorable instincts it sees in its enemies and which it is supposedly fighting against. What makes public discourse on this topic so difficult is that the true motivations on all sides of the debate are not always obvious or respectable.
To suggest a moral moral equivalence between cruel acts of interrogation and the atrocities committed by terrorists is entirely misplaced. It is not sufficient to justify all means by a well intentioned and publicly sanctioned end even if the objectives are venerable. The bottom line is – like we were taught as children – two wrongs don’t make a right.
Torturing people is a mortal sin.
It’s a very serious sin. – Pope Francis
Torture, as a moral obligation, should be rejected out of hand, regardless of its effectiveness. When Pope Francis visited convicted mafia in a Calabrian prison this past summer, he made an appeal against torture: “I invite all Christians to engage and collaborate in abolishing torture and to support victims and their families.” Nothing in the Pope’s plea was an appeal for leniency. After all, his congregation on that day was serving time in prison. The Pope’s message is also one of atonement, to forgive even unspeakable acts through charitable acts of forgiveness. This isn’t to say that evildoers shouldn’t be stopped or punished, but they should be treated justly and in a manner consistent with the golden rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31) It is a rule, which no doubt informed Senator John McCain as a victim of wartime torture, who stood in support of the report’s release.
So what good is to come out of a report, which includes no clear policy recommendations? Like other recent revelations such as the NSA Surveillance programs, they will no doubt be used by America’s enemies to chastise the United States and perhaps even justify their own wrongdoings. In the long haul, however, publishing reports of wrongdoing allow the United States to stand up for principles of liberty and justice and challenge other nations to do the same. Precisely because the United States has the ability to project incredible and sometimes unchecked power around the world, it must act with self restraint. Through transparency and accountability America can demonstrate what is truly exceptional about the United States – an ability to learn and adapt. If not forget, the world, too, must be willing to forgive.
The only holy war that can surely be won is the one with ourselves – the fight against our own sins and evils that threaten to cut us off from God’s grace. While it is not wrong to fight a battle in defense of life, liberty and justice, it is another thing to wage war against even your most hardened enemies without regard for their own rights and aspirations.
It is deeply saddening to wake each morning to headlines about death and destruction throughout the Middle East. Israel has every right to defend itself against those who seek its destruction. There is no excuse for the refusal of groups like the Hamas to even accept Israel’s right to exist and for the barrage of rockets into the Jewish state that has been going on for years – even before the recent escalation.
At the same time, the killing of thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians is a terrible tragedy that must end. It must not be downplayed as simply a casualty of war, when hospitals and schools and mosques are destroyed and innocent lives lost in order to root out the evils that may be hiding among them. The cost to humanity is immense and it actually undermines the hope for sustainable peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Violence and extremism goes against the core of religious principles, whether Jewish, Islamic or Christian, which call for prudence, temperance and justice as among the key virtues. And while the courage to stand and fight for these principles is equally important when life itself is at risk, our actions must always be thoughtful, measured and just.
When King David fought wars for the rights of his people, he was reminded by the Lord that we are all accountable for our actions:
“You have shed much blood and have fought many wars. You are not to build a house for my Name, because you have shed much blood on the earth in my sight.”
Just before the beginning of the ongoing war in Gaza, Pope Francis tweeted: “With God, nothing is lost; but without him, everything is lost.” We should all be reminded that only our personal battle to find God is worth fighting (with ourselves) and keeping His virtues in our hearts the only measure of success. We must demand that our neighbors accept us for who we are, but everything is indeed lost if we unleash frustration and anger by waging war on our brothers and lose our moral foundation in the process. It’s time to stop that senseless battle.
While economists, politicians and “corporate citizens” alike regularly talk about sustainability as an economic and environmental necessity, Pope Francis has now upped the ante. Stepping again out of the comfort zone of the Vatican and into the fray of real world politics, the Pope provides a moral imperative against income inequality, which arguably is itself a threat to sustainability.
Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.
The Pope’s message delivered as part of the Evangelii Gaudium is a challenge against the notion of trickle down economics, in which the spoils of the rich are lauded by some as the means to an end of prosperity and justice for all.
In the true spirit of Christianity, the Pope urges that more focus be given to compassion for the poor and disadvantaged. It isn’t charity or socialism he’s lobbying for. His message is against a culture of indifference in which the rich and powerful are expected to win out. As in Rawl’s “A Theory of Justice”, the Pope makes the case that it is in the greater interest of society as a whole if there if the goals of liberty and equality can be reconciled. Indeed, many economists argue that inequality is a major deterrent to growth.
The Pope’s admonition is in line with his other messages in which he condemns the marginalization of the vulnerable and easily ostracized in society, including those “without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.” Instead, he argues for more tolerance and inclusion.
In the end, the Pope is not just advocating a utopian world view. His challenge is to achieve a more faithful approach, in which the needs of many are not ignored to the benefit of a privileged few. When he asked for our prayers, Pope Francis is giving us a wake up call. It is not only time for us to pray for him, but for each other. Only then can we be confident of a sustainable and rewarding future.