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January 6, 2005

What Kind of People Have We Become?


by George Hunsinger

We are more than 225 religious leaders from a wide diversity of backgrounds. Notable within our ranks are many Latino and Latina leaders who are more concerned to oppose torture than to applaud appointing a Hispanic to the cabinet. Whatever our backgrounds, we all agree that this appointment should be concerned with the content of the nominee's character, his values, and above all his judgments, not with the color of his skin.

Together we call upon Alberto Gonzales (1) to denounce the use of torture under any circumstances, (2) to affirm that no prisoner stands outside the protection of the law, (3) to endorse the binding legality of the Geneva conventions, and (4) to denounce the existing abhorrent practice of shipping detainees for interrogation to countries where torture is practiced.

No less than the soul of the nation we love is at stake in the torture scandal. What does it profit us if we proclaim high moral values, but fail to reject torture? What does it signify if torture is condemned in word, but allowed in deed? A nation that rewards those who permitted and promoted torture is approaching spiritual death.

Torture is abhorrent to all Americans and to international law. For religious people it is especially deplorable, because torture is a sin against God. It degrades everyone involved – planners and perpetrators as well as the victims.

The Abu Ghraib scandal is the product of an inconsistent government policy toward torture. Officially, we oppose torture and advocate a universal standard for human rights. Yet at the same time, our government has allowed ingenious new torture methods to be developed that violate these standards. Stress positions, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, the desecration of religious objects – techniques like these are psychological rather than physical. They are no less traumatic than the infliction of excruciating pain. Developed in shadowed recesses of our government, these are the methods depicted in the terrible photos of nude bodies from Abu Ghraib.

Alberto Gonzales was at the heart of deliberations in high places about skirting the Geneva Conventions and international law. The question was not how to prevent abuse, but how far interrogations could go in getting away with it. It was but a short step from there to Abu Ghraib.

What kind of message does it send to the world if a lawyer soft on torture is rewarded with the post of attorney general? How does that make America more secure? What does it say about our nation's commitment to human decency and human rights? Above all, as religious leaders and people of conscience, we must ask: What kind of people have we become?

An Open Letter to Alberto R. Gonzales

Hon. Alberto R. Gonzales
Counsel to the President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Judge Gonzales:

We, the undersigned religious leaders, greet your nomination to be attorney general of the United States with grave concern.

As a self-professed evangelical Christian, you surely know that all people are created in the image of God. You see it as a moral imperative to treat each human being with reverence and dignity. We invite you to affirm with us that we are all are made in the image of God – every human being. We invite you to acknowledge that no legal category created by mere mortals can revoke that status. You understand that torture – the deliberate effort to undermine human dignity – is a grave sin and an affront to God. You would not deny that the systemic use of torture on prisoners at Abu Ghraib was fundamentally immoral, as is the deliberate rendering of any detainee to authorities likely to commit torture.

We urge you to declare that any attempt to undermine international standards on torture, renditions, or habeas corpus is not only wrong but sinful. We are concerned that as White House counsel you have shown a troubling disregard for international laws against torture, for the legal rights of suspected "enemy combatants," and for the adverse consequences your decisions have had at home and abroad.

How could you have written a series of legal memos that disrespected international law and invited these abuses? How could you have justified the use of torture and disavowed protections for prisoners of war? How could you have referred to the Geneva Conventions as "quaint" and "obsolete"? We fear that your legal judgments have paved the way to torture and abuse.

We therefore call upon you:

1. To denounce the use of torture under any circumstances;

2. To affirm, with the Supreme Court, that it is unconstitutional to imprison anyone designated as an "enemy combatant" for months without access to lawyers or the right to challenge their detentions in court;

3. To affirm the binding legality of the Geneva Conventions and the laws of war;

4. And to reject the practice of "extraordinary rendition," at home and abroad, by which terrorist suspects are sent to countries that practice torture for interrogation.

We believe, as you do, that the United States must be an example of moral leadership in the world community. However, the events at Abu Ghraib have gravely compromised America's moral authority. We ask that you commit yourself as attorney general to repairing that damage by articulating and enforcing legal policies that reject the use of torture, embrace and advance standards of international law, and honor the dignity of all of God's creation.

With prayers for wisdom and grace,

Over 225 Religious Leaders

(Affiliations listed for identification only)

INITIAL ENDORSERS

Rev. Dr. George Hunsinger, Princeton Theological Seminary (Coordinator: Church Folks for a Better America, Princeton, N.J.)

Dr. C. Rene Padilla, General Secretary for Latin America, IFES

Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, The Shalom Center

Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite, President, Chicago Theological Seminary

Mr. Jim Wallis, Editor, Sojourners

Rabbi Tony Kushner

Dr. Ron Sider, President, Evangelicals for Social Action

Dr. Anthony Campolo, Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education

Rev. Jimmy R. Allen, Past President of the Southern Baptist Convention

Dr. Rubén Rosario Rodríguez, St. Louis University

Dr. Juanita Jartu Jolly, Agape Christian Tabernacle

Rev. Victor Aloyo, Jr., Director of Vocations, Princeton Theological Seminary

Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, Executive Director, Clergy and Laity for Economic Justice

Pastor Amaury Tańón-Santos, American Baptist Churches

The Rev. John E. Denaro, Episcopal Migration Ministries

Rabbi Michael Lerner, The TIKKUN Community

Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, The Divinity School of Duke University

Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton, Aux. Bishop, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit

Rev. Dr. Joseph C. Hough, Jr., President, Union Theological Seminary

Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, Union Theological Seminary

Dr. Teresa Whitehurst, Jesus and the Family Institute

Dr. Glen Stassen, Fuller Theological Seminary

Rev. Romal Tune, African American Ministers Council

Iftekhar Hussain, Secretary General, American Muslim Society of the Tristate Area

Rev. Victoria J. Furio

The Rev. Julio Torres

Rev. Timothy McDonald, African Amer. Ministers Council & First Iconium Baptist

Dr. Tarunjit Singh, Secretary General World Sikh Council – America Region


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George Hunsinger teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary. He once worked on the staff of the Riverside Church Disarmanent Program in NYC.

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