A page from the Martyr’s mirror depicting Geleyn Corneliss, who was hung by his thumb while his torturers played cards. Modified illustration from Third Way Cafe
Crossposted from As of Yet Untitled
Yesterday, March 6, 2013, we in the US learned in The Guardian that our government put torture and death at the center of our policy in Iraq. According to the article, Jim Steele, who was heavily involved in the El Salvadoran death squads, was called in to replicate the model in Iraq in 2004 with millions of dollars at his disposal. This strategy, known as the “Salvador Option” was apparently known and discussed at the highest levels of the US government and supervised closely by General David Petraeus. These actions are consistent with US policy since the end of World War II: torture and mass murder in support of US economic interests.
This is no aberration: it is the norm for empire. Nevertheless, many will hem and haw, rationalize and suggest this is still a few bad apples, albeit 4 star general apples. Tragically, most in the United States will simply ignore it. But what about us, as Mennonites: as Anabaptist Christians? What will we do?
Throughout our 400 year history, Mennonites have said no to war. But our “no” has been a passive, quiet one: over in the corner, tending our flocks and fields. We have not placed ourselves in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets with their unmistakable, angry indictment of injustice and violence in their community. We have often missed the connection between the stories in the Martyr’s Mirror and the ongoing torture of those outside our walls. Instead, the message we took was: resistance will be crushed. Redemption or not, our foremothers and fathers died horrible deaths. We were loath to follow and instead focused inward: protecting our own.
Gradually, over the last 50 years, Canadian and US Mennonites have been pulling our heads out of the sand. Our commitment to service put Mennonite Central Committee volunteers in contact with those most brutalized by US foreign policy. These volunteers have brought these stories with them to existing Mennonite organizations and structures, but they also helped to form new initiatives, like Christian Peacemaker Teams.
Yet the majority of Mennonites who voted in 2004 chose George W. Bush, mere months after the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse broke. John Kerry would unlikely have been better and President Obama promoted General David Petraeus. However, that vote for Bush in that particular time and political space signaled a profound blindness on our parts to the same practices and patterns of this world that tortured and killed the early Anabaptists.
More recently I have anecdotal experience of this attitude. The Guardian clearly traces their investigation on these torture centers back to the release, by Wikileaks, of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables. In November 2010, On the day of that release, I wrote a post naming the tactics of Wikileaks as “cutting edge peacemaking” I said:
I believe the work they are doing is on the emerging edge of resistance to U.S. imperialism. The releases not only unmasks the powers in meticulous detail, but threaten the very mechanisms through which empire seek to influence, control and coerce.
Most of the comments in response focused on the personal ethics of theft and hypothetical lives put at risk by the leaks. There was a strong sense of “us” identified with the United States government and its policies and a remarkable unwillingness to discuss the unhypothetical deaths of Iraqi civilians and many others around the world by US empire.*
We, as Mennonites in the US and Canada, are unwilling to look systematically at the evil of our rulers, the authorities and “the cosmic powers of this present darkness.” (Ephesians 6:12, NRSV). Instead we focus only on the personal sins and our piety. The whole armor of God becomes a cutout for the felt board in Sunday school rather then a road map for resistance to the domination system.
Jesus’ whole life, death and resurrection was a witness against the project of empire and domination, both personal and social. We are inheritors to a tradition of dissent: of refusal to play by the rules of that game. If we let them, our faith can be our guide in challenging the colonization of our minds, our communities and our country by the principalities and powers. The same powers that set up the torture centers where Iraqis were beaten, shocked and raped in the name of our security and economic prosperity.
There was one hopeful note in this story. Neil Smith was the only US solider willing to go on camera to discuss US involvement in the torture centers and he did so because of his faith:
He now lives in Detroit and has become a born-again Christian. He spoke to the Guardian because he said he now considered it his religious duty to speak out about what he saw. “I don’t think folks back home in America had any idea what American soldiers were involved in over there, the torture and all kinds of stuff.”
I pray that these revelations today will wake us up as Smith woke up. Our slumber is destroying the dreams of millions.
P.S. For a related discussion of the ways that communities, including Mennonites, have responded to repression by creating redemptive narratives, see my comments at the end of the Iconocast interview with Noam Chomsky
*The most troubling response, because of its source, came from the editor of a mainstream Mennonite publication, identified publicly in his comment as “managinged” who also emailed me. He offered an article by Canadian Christian ethicist Margaret Sommerville. In an email to him, I pointed out that her arguments were from a Constantinian just war perspective that saw the US empire as a fundamental good and responded in detail to the way she so strongly identified with the apparatus of empire. He did not respond to any of my points, but instead asked me whether I would publish a leak from a Mennonite church institution – implicitly refusing to make a moral distinction between the institutions of the church and state. He concluded by asking whether Wikileaks wasn’t trying to “play God” by putting their hope in human judgement rather than trusting God as they should.