Respecting the dignity of every human person and the refusal to be complicit in torture

I have posted a great deal over the years about US use of torture. As an Episcopal priest, I have also posted several times about our baptismal covenant, and the vow we make in it “to respect the dignity of every human being.”

As a priest, I also struggle with how our liturgy connects with people’s daily lives. Do they find in our worship help in making sense of the moral and ethical decisions they face? Does our worship help them find meaning in their lives? I wonder about those questions and occasionally, as in today’s sermon, I explored how the rituals of Lent may or may not be meaningful to most of those who attend our worship services.

Of course, I never know and can often not tell what sort of impact either or worship or my sermons have on those who attend. I was amused today when greeting some visitors to learn that they had attended one previous service at Grace, a year ago, and they remembered my sermon–they remembered that I had once worked for a seafood processing company. So we don’t know the sort of impact our words and our worship have.

But then I came across this story of Lt. Stuart Crouch, who refused to prosecute prisoners at Guantanamo who had been tortured. He talks about his anguish as he learned the “harsh interrogation” techniques used on prisoners. But what cemented the decision for him was one Sunday when he attended a service at an “Anglican” church, where a baptism was celebrated:

I was wrestling with these—with this legal issue and with this ethical issue. And then, ultimately, you know, one Sunday when I was in church, it all kind of came together. I describe myself as an evangelical Christian. I was attending a church service in the Anglican tradition, and it was a baptism of a child. And anybody who’s ever been to one of these services knows that at the end of the baptism all of the congregants in the church stand up, and the pastor goes back and forth with basically the tenets of the Christian faith. And one of those tenets was that we would respect the dignity of every human being. And it was at that time, when I was professing that on Sunday, begged the question to me, if this is what you believe as a Christian, then how does that inform how you’re going to act the other six days of the week? And that really, for me, was the moral point that I came to of what I had to do next.

And what I did next was I went and met with the chief prosecutor for the Office of Military Commissions. I told him my legal opinion. I told him my ethical opinion. And then I stated in—you know, I have a moral reservation at this point that what’s been done to Slahi is just reprehensible, and for that reason alone, I’m going to refuse to participate in the prosecution of his case. Shortly, within a couple of days, I reduced that—those positions into writing. I provided them to the chief prosecutor. And then, after a few days, I was told to transfer that case to someone else and for me to get busy on my other cases.

Our liturgy is not “just ritual” or rote, or cute things we do on Sunday. The liturgy matters. It helps orient us theologically and ethically, and occasionally, it can be a powerful witness all by itself, to the justice and mercy of God. Sometimes it can be a sign of God’s reign in the world. Thanks be to God!

2 thoughts on “Respecting the dignity of every human person and the refusal to be complicit in torture

  1. “Our liturgy is not “just ritual” or rote, or cute things we do on Sunday. The liturgy matters.” Very well put. In the same sense, the universal/historical elements of the liturgy may serve to keep it grounded. True, sometimes innovation can communicate in contemporary terms to contemporary society. But too often the “do it yourself” liturgy can facilitate a movement that leads far from the essential core of Christianity.

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