The Common Good

Come Together to Combat Torture

Duke Divinity School is hosting an inter-faith conference on torture from March 25 to 26, with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), the Duke Human Rights Center, and the North Carolina Council of Churches. When I spoke to the faculty coordinator, Dr. Amy Laura Hall, she exclaimed, "It's about damn time, but better late than never!" I then asked her a few questions relating to this event:

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How did this conference come into being?

A group of attentive students and a local clergyman noted last semester that many Christians around the country have managed to avoid attention to the tragic details of our two wars -- the use of torture, the military suicide rate, the number of civilians killed. Many of our current seminary students do not even have a friend or family member who has dealt personally with these brutal specifics. Many come from an economic bracket that hasn't been recruited for enlistment. Isaac Villegas, Matt Elia, and Dr. Kara Slade came up with the Proper29 Project, to encourage seminary graduates around the country to preach about war on Christ the King Sunday. We wanted, in Matt's words, "to turn people's eyes" toward news we don't really want to see. Many of us who can avoid looking at torture have been averting our eyes, I'd say, trying hard just not to look. When George Hunsinger (of Princeton Seminary) called us to ask about collaboration with NRCAT, we jumped at the chance.

Why is this conference necessary right now?

Duke University is still a Methodist school. The president who apparently said "damn right" to a practice that simulates drowning at the hands of another person is a United Methodist. He wasn't a lone ranger. He had been formed in a way that allowed him to be persuaded that this practice is morally necessary to keep women and children safe. Due to a very effective campaign of fear, many Christians in the United States have tacitly accepted torture as a practice we must just, well ... both ignore and accept. We don't really want to look at what has been done to other human beings, ostensibly to keep us safe. Or we want to watch a controlled narrative of brutal necessity, like on that show "24." That show is pure genius. I can't tell you how many times I have now heard the scenario of a terrorist-in-the-know and 100 innocent (or not-knowing) people about to be blown to bits if we don't just pull up our big girl pants and accept torture as a moral responsibility. Brilliant. The propaganda worked on many Christians. I think the time is way overdue for a correction.

Explain the speaker line-up and format of the conference?

The conference is intentionally inter-faith. We are hosting Evangelical Christian and Muslim speakers together, for example, along with activists and journalists. I confessed to a Muslim friend recently that I am having trouble keeping up and staying sane reading about all that is being done to Muslims around the world in the name of our "war on terror." He said, gently, "Welcome to my world." This event will allow people who have been able to live in a different, isolated world to learn more about the specific facts of torture in the U.S. prison system and in U.S. connected programs of control around the world. This is a chance to catch-up and learn about specifics and, importantly, about steps for change. I am personally truly honored to be hosting Ingrid Mattson, the recent president of the Islamic Society of North America. Dr. Mattson will be speaking alongside Dr. Hunsinger, a Christian who was intent, early on, to pay close attention to what was being done in the name of "security." I am eager to hear their witness.

What are the goals of this conference?

Maybe I should state up front what this conference is not. This is not a two-day exercise in self-flagellation. There will certainly be lament (as, for God's sake, there should be), but there will also be concrete suggestions for how to become involved and collectively to refuse torture as a practice. Neither will this be a buttoned-up consideration of "both sides" of a story about history and morality. A local activist asked me if this is "yet another damn Duke academic debate on something." No. It is not an academic debate. It is an effort toward moral consensus: Torture is always wrong; torture does not make "us" safer; and we need tactics concretely to refuse the climate of fear and compliance.

Who is the intended audience for this conference?

Students; people who sit in pews; people who preach to people who sit in pews; people who sneer at the ignorance of people who sit in pews; people who kneel for prayer; and those who think most of our problems will be solved if we recognize the futility of prayer. It is a unique chance for people who live in different circles of conversation to come together and learn, discuss, and plan for a future in which U.S.-sponsored torture is not. I am a strong believer in the power of face-to-face conversation and struggle. Reading Guardian articles about the news from Wikileaks, on the internet, alone at my table, I can easily become discouraged, throw up my hands, and turn to a fun story about mothering on the Slate website. (Not to hate on Slate -- I love Slate). But the price of privilege these days is high -- the ability to ignore the news, because it just seems too grisly, is costing many of us our souls. I think warm bodies of listening ears and watching eyes, in one room, dealing with the news and planning for change, is a much better route toward moral clarity than my little pair of eyes on a screen. We want eyes on a screen to come over to Durham and be with other eyes, to bring their whole thinking, fearing, believing, or non-believing selves to hear and think and scheme.

What do you hope will come out of this conference moving forward?

There will be lots of what some activists call "networking." I like the term "crisscrossing," myself. We will be crossing boundaries -- town/gown, clergy/laity, Muslim/Buddhist/Jew/Christian/Atheist, scholar/activist. This event should break down boundaries that keep some of us feeling isolated and helpless. For Christians, this event will give us a chance to hear from a few people who were willing, early on in this conversation, to receive (I'd say through grace) what some call "moral courage." Rich Cizik, David Gushee, Dr. Hunsinger -- these were men who were accused of being "soft" or "irresponsible" due to their stance on torture and Christian faith. They were variously punished by other men around them for not sticking to the standard line being sold to us for years on this issue -- that "real men" say "damn right" when it comes to torturing brown people, ostensibly to protect white women and our white children. Alongside legal and military speakers, who will explain that torture is neither sensible nor legal, we will have Christian speakers who actually were willing to risk the appearance of weakness for the sake of moral truth. That seems an apt reason for Sojourners readers to come on down to Durham and hang out for two days. We will find space for your sleeping bag and cookies for your bellies. Please come.

Follow Becky Garrison's travels on Twitter @JesusDied4This. Additional information and registration information for this conference can be found by clicking here.

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