Abu Ghraib, Unrepentance, and the Way of the Cross
They put the prisoner against the wall.
A soldier ties his hands.
His fingers touch him—strong,
gentle, saying goodbye.
—Forgive me, compañero—
says the voice in a whisper.
The echo of his voice
those fingers on his arm
fills his body with light
I tell you his body fills with light
and he almost does not hear
the sound of the shots.
“Sun Stone,” Ariel Dorfman
You remember Abu Ghraib: the correctional facility in Baghdad where such atrocities took place that the prison’s very name is now synonymous with and shorthand for torture, degradation, military scandal, and unchecked American hubris.
A young army reservist named Lynndie England came to represent the horror of that dark chapter (one of several, as it turned out) of the war in Iraq. Photographs of England posing with abused Iraqi detainees led to a dishonorable discharge, a felony conviction, and a two-year prison sentence. Also revealed during and after the shame of Abu Ghraib was England’s own status as both a co-conspirator and an unwitting casualty. She was not a victim in the same way that the Iraqi prisoners were but, given her rank, gender, background, and the weird sexual dynamics she shared with the scandal’s ringleader (and father of the baby she would give birth to a few months later), England’s culpability, like that of many who commit heinous acts, was not separable from her own troubled life.
In the tidy way we like these narratives to play out, England was supposed to pay her dues for the evil she had done and, with time for reflection and introspection, own her guilt and express her sorrow. Or at least, for public consumption, she was supposed to voice regret for the tragic choices she made back in 2003 and offer an apology to those whom she had wronged. But in a recent interview, England was unrepentant. Her only regret, it turns out, is that her actions at Abu Ghraib may have directly caused American casualties.
It’s hard to read her words — hard to take in her clear lack of remorse, her naivete and self-pity, the unwillingness, still, to face the enormity of what she participated in. Unlike the doomed prisoner in Dorfman’s poem (quoted above), England’s victims, even after almost a decade, hear no whisper of grace, however faint, from their abuser.
And yet in the not-so-tidy narrative that Lent is leading us toward – a story of torture, degradation, scandal, and hubris — a wildly improbable ending — forgiveness, restoration, joy, new life – makes possible the surprising work of grace in even the most scandalous of situations and life stories.
The torture that Lynndie England took part in is, as William Cavanaugh has said, “a kind of perverse liturgy.” It is “the scripting of bodies into the drama of fear.” But those who risk the way of the cross enact a different liturgy, live by a different script. The drama of fear is traded for a story of shalom in which the undoing of death is achieved, paradoxically (and unconvincingly to Christianity’s critics), in a broken, tortured, defeated body. The accused, whether guilty or not, are embraced (“today you will be with me in paradise”), as are the accusers (“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”). In this suffering body, dying on the state’s perferred instrument of public torture, we learn that there is no place in our own godforsakenness that God in Christ Jesus has not already been.
This is the good news, even for Lynndie England, even if Lynndie England doesn’t know it. It is the good news for the forgotten victims of Abu Ghraib and their families. And it is the good news for a wayward and complicit church, a church too accommodated to the ways of war, a church which has failed and is failing spectacularly to be a counter-witness to the perverse liturgies of state-sponsored violence.
Lent allows us to offer our own repentance: to turn from our false pursuits and be the true body — eucharistic, “political” in the deepest sense of the word – created by a tortured body, dead, buried, and raised, that all bodies everywhere might be treated with the dignity they deserve.