Monday, April 27, 2009

Fear, Faith, Love, and Justice

Reading the April 26 column by Frank Rich in the New York Times ("The Banality of Bush White House Evil") caused a question to resurface that has been brewing within me for years. Why did the American public, news media (for the most part), and national leaders in Congress permit torture, judicially unauthorized surveillance, and assorted other improper actions to happen?

We had no reason to believe that United Nations weapons inspectors lied or were incompetent when they announced that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. We had no reason to believe that Saddam Hussein's regime had anything to do with the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. We had every reason to be suspicious of claims that the security of the United States was somehow threatened by a land-locked nation led by a brutal dictator whose military we had already defeated and whose neighbors were willing to fight him.

We simply allowed fearmongering to take the the place of reason. We trusted our fears and the people who catered to those fears more than we insisted on facts. Fear of people who looked and worshipped different from others allowed too many of us to blindly believe the worse about them, and turn our eyes from the brutal things that happened to them.

Sadly, too many Christians did not challenge the rush to war, the unmistakable signs that civil liberties of people of South Asian ancestry and Islamic faith were being trampled, and that people were being kidnapped and tortured in the name of "national security." We behaved like the religious officials did concerning the beaten and bruised robbery victim in the story of the Good Samaritan. We passed by on the other side of the road. Just as no one in the Bush White House followed the noble example of Elliott Abrams (who resigned rather than obey orders to fire the special prosecutor involved in the Watergate scandal), few Christians in the U.S. openly challenged what the Bush administration did.

In the New Testament we read that perfect love casts out fear. This is true concerning love for others, justice, truth, peace, and love for God. Perhaps we did not resist enough because we did not love enough. Or perhaps, as Stephen Vincent Benet wrote, the loves we had (for others, justice, truth, peace, and for God) were much too small.

So the question now is whether we (from President Obama to the average American citizen) love others, justice, truth, peace, and God enough to demand justice for the victims of the falsehoods, policies, and practices that resulted from fearmongering. If our professions about loving our neighbor don't prod us to demand that justice, we will be poor representatives of God's love, justice, truth, and peace in the world. We will be poor representatives of Jesus.

Do we have the courage to love, or are we still imprisoned by our fears? Fear is never a valid excuse for injustice. Justice is love in action. It always demands faith. Do we have the faith to demand justice?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

April 26, 2009

A few quick reflections ...

My wife and I enjoyed meeting and hearing Brian McLaren Friday during his appearance at the Spring Conference of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas (CBFAR). Brian's remarks around the subject "A Tale of Two Gospels" were refreshing, insightful, and heart-warming. I encourage people to read his work.

The seminar I led ("Law and Cultural Competency") at the William H. Bowen School of Law of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock went well. I am grateful to the students for their interest, energy, and ideas as I begin planning to lead the seminar next spring.

I attended Dr. Raouf Halaby's workshop ("A Palestinian Christian's Perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict") yesterday as part of the Spring Conference of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas. Dr. Halaby, who is professor of English and Art at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, was born in Jerusalem and educated as a child and youth in Jerusalem and Beirut. Contact him about speaking to your groups if you want to open your mind.

Does anyone other than me find it ironic that the United States refused to attend the United Nations Conference on Racism again? The U.S. boycotted the Conference when Secretary Colin Powell was Secretary of State, and has not attended it since that time. How odd, that a United Nations Conference on Racism would be boycotted by the democracy that prides itself for respecting freedom of speech, thought, and willingness to hear and debate diverse perspectives and that the boycott would continue during the presidency of President Obama?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Tortured Morality

Like many people around the world, I have paid close attention as President Obama's administration wrestles with how it will deal with our nation's recent experience concerning torture. I rejoiced as Obama renounced practices such as water-boarding within his first week in office. More recently, I was pleased to see the Obama administration release previously classified documents and legal opinions issued during the Bush administration concerning torture.

President Obama has often declared that subjecting vulnerable people to inhumane treatment violates our sense of morality and humanity—as people, not merely as Americans. Our nation has already tried and punished enlisted military personnel for inhumane treatment of people held in their custody. The accepted justification for doing so is that our security forces in the uniformed services know—even at the lowest ranks—that this behavior is wrong, unjust, illegal, contrary to our values, and therefore inexcusable.

So, if U.S. enlisted military personnel have been punished for failing to obey this fundamental rule of decency, why should political officials and intelligence operatives receive immunity from investigation and punishment for secretly ordering, advising and engaging in similar or worse conduct? Why shouldn't the Justice Department investigate and determine whether these actors violated laws intended to protect vulnerable people from hellish treatment? How is it somehow commendable that President Obama has signaled to the intelligence apparatus of the United States that acts of inhumanity and torture allegedly counseled and practiced during the Bush administration will go uninvestigated and unpunished? When did it become just and morally defensible to excuse inhumane treatment and torture committed under orders from White House and Pentagon lawyers?

We should be concerned by President Obama's statement that he is more interested in looking forward than backward when it comes to addressing allegations of inhumane treatment counseled and perpetrated by political officials and Central Intelligence Agency operatives. Moral leadership holds morally accountable actors responsible for intentional misconduct, including misconduct perpetrated under the pretext of following orders. This was one of the signal lessons of the Nuremberg War Crimes trials that followed World War II.

If the laws that prohibit inhumanity and torture are just, then they should be obeyed by national security personnel and enforced by the Chief Executive of the United States. If the Chief Executive believes that violators of those laws deserve leniency or pardons, then our justice system can accommodate those concerns. But it is neither just nor otherwise morally right for the Chief Executive to say that we deplore and reject inhumanity and torture in one breath, then claim in the next breath that we should not and will not investigate and punish people for counseling and committing acts of inhumanity and torture.

The Watergate and Iran-Contra investigations concerning scandals that occurred during the Nixon and Reagan presidencies also show that President Obama's "looking forward, not backward" position is historically inaccurate. H.R. Haldeman, G. Gordon Liddy, Oliver North, John Poindexter, and Casper Weinberger were investigated for their respective roles in those situations. The investigations did not hinder governmental operations. If anything, the investigations made official statements about no person being above the law—or beyond the law—credible. North and Poindexter eventually saw their criminal convictions overturned on appeal, and Weinberger received a presidential pardon from President George H.W. Bush after his indictment. However, their actions were treated as proper subjects for our justice system.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often said that an unjust law is no law at all. Every member of the U.S. military and national security operative knows that one is duty-bound to disobey an illegal order. Thus, the claim that anyone who counseled or committed acts of inhumanity or torture in the challenging aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks somehow relied on orders from the White House, the Pentagon, or any other authority is immoral. The issue for President Obama and the nation is whether Americans have the integrity to demand that inhumanity and torture counseled and perpetrated in our names be investigated, prosecuted, and punished. A just society will investigate and punish inhumanity and torture.

We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead. We all growl like bears; like doves we moan mournfully. We wait for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us. Isaiah 59:10-11, New Revised Standard Version