Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A meditation given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
“Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved—policy-makers, perpetrators and victims. It contradicts our nation’s most cherished ideals. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable. Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed? Let America abolish torture now—without exceptions.”
That is the mission statement of the National Religious Coalition Against Torture, a young but growing organization of which our denomination, the United Church of Christ, is a member. The Religious Coalition Against Torture was born in 2006 in response to the photos from Abu Graib prison in Iraq when civilian citizens, you and me, were provided visual proof that the United States engages in torture. It was the beginning of a series of revelations including the now infamous “torture memos”, legal briefs interpreting the torture sections of the War Crimes Act and the United Nations Convention Against Torture. The first “torture memo” is dated August 1, 2002, entitled “Standards for Conduct for Interrogation”. It discusses the language of the torture statute (18 U.S.C. sections 2340-2340A) in great detail in order to distinguish torture from mere “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment, concluding that torture is only extreme acts according to the Convention Against Torture, that severe pain must be “serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death,” that prolonged mental harm is harm that must last for “months or even years,” that “prosecution under Section 2340A may be barred because enforcement of the statute would represent an unconstitutional infringement of the President’s authority to conduct war,” and that “under the current circumstances, necessity or self-defense may justify interrogation methods that might violate Section 2340A.” The National Religious Coalition Against Torture draws a brighter line – “any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are morally intolerable”.
“Enhanced interrogation techniques” are torture. Forcing human beings into spaces too small for the full extension of muscles for extended periods of time is torture. Combining water and electricity on sensitive body parts is torture. Nailing a human being to pieces of wood and hanging him on a hill to die is torture. When Thomas demanded to see the mark of the nails in Jesus’ flesh and place his hand into the wound on his side, he would believe that this apparition of which the disciples spoke might be Jesus. But if the signs of his suffering were not apparent on that beloved body, don’t bother him with stories. Thomas didn’t need to dream a shining, light-filled presence of his rabbi and Savior when he was preaching or teaching or walking along the road or eating together. He needed to know that this was the one the Romans tortured, crucified, and murdered.
The cost of a resurrection faith is very high. The lilies, brass music, large congregations and pretty spring dresses and bowties of last Sunday are wonderful reminders that God’s power over death is a celebration indeed. Gloria, Alleluia, He is Risen! At the same time, those same symbols of triumph can lure us away from admitting that suffering at the hands of others continues. Every time a human being is tortured for information or, God-forbid, entertainment, every time human suffering is the result of human injustice, every time human flesh is pierced in anger or revenge or because of ignorance or fear or hatred, every time a bomb explodes or an assassination occurs, every time laws are twisted to justify the morally reprehensible, the powers of death have won the upper hand. The resurrection does not obviate suffering. It does not deny its existence. It does not anesthetize its pain or diminish its aching aftermath. I think Thomas knew this. I believe Thomas understood the unbreakable link between suffering and hope. I believe Thomas was on to something when he said “I will not believe unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands”. Thomas knew that belief in the Resurrection is facile and naive when it has not been assaulted by the suffering and torture that keeps looking like a viable way of life. The strongest resurrection faith comes at the end of the walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
I’ll tell you something, we will only understand the resurrection in ALL its glory – it’s mystery and power and God-given graciousness, when we acquaint ourselves with human suffering. And we will only acquaint ourselves with human suffering when we, like Thomas, place our hands directly into its wounds. And we can only place our hands in its wounds when we acknowledge that we are, by virtue of our citizenship, complicit with its execution. The link between human suffering and the resurrection gets a little lost in all the Easter glitter and glow and it is the link between human suffering and the resurrection that makes the difficulty of a resurrection faith worth the work.
That’s what Thomas had to teach us when he needed to see Jesus’ wounds. That was his torture memo. And perhaps that’s what Jesus’ words to Thomas meant when he said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Maybe Jesus wanted Thomas to understand that the evidence of suffering, the practice of torture, while invisible to us here in Hanover, New Hampshire, is nonetheless practiced in our name. Maybe Jesus hoped that believing in what is not visible, will bring us to the moral commitment to end all torture and arm ourselves only to prevent suffering, not bring it about. Wouldn’t that be a glorious Resurrection? Amen.