12/15/2014 05:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Torture in America


A micro-second or two after the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report on CIA Torture was released, a maxi-predictable reaction occurred. It was subjected to partisan interpretations and transformed into self-serving weaponry. Is it possible to step back and try to see it in the larger context of American history and policy? Are there efforts to bring some sort of theological judgment to bear on what it revealed about the U.S.?

For me, the strongest effect may be to see what it suggests about the "bad" and the "good" in national life in light of the current controversy. Each of us has his or her own way of dealing with its main themes.

With your permission or, for that matter, without it, let me propose an analogy between personal and national experiences. I'll start, as Sightings seldom does, by looking not out the window but into the mirror of the self. A story: having engaged in some ornery activity when in theological school, I was typed -- I heard this second-hand from a reliable source -- as "too immature and irresponsible" to be entrusted with a solo flight into Christian ministry. I "needed seasoning" under some wise, mature, mentoring pastor. One was found, and I was launched with good grounding into a meaningful vocation.

In conversational counsel at get-acquainted time, the wise senior told me that I could never be an effective preacher or pastoral confessor if I was not able to put myself into the position of a confessing person "in the extreme." He said, "Know that you are vulnerable to committing every sin in the book." I added: ". . . . except the really gross ones!" He corrected: ". . . including the really gross ones!"

Now, by analogy, we learned from the Senate's Report that our nation has to confront itself not as the always morally superior country, nor even one that blurred the line dividing "good America" from "bad America." Now, we know that some in authority representing the United States, with sometimes grudging and sometimes enthusiastic approval, but approval nonetheless, perpetrated a "gross" evil against other humans--grossly, grossly evil though they themselves were seen to be.

Evading the reality of what Senators Feinstein and McCain and others, using a variety of terms, call a "stain" or an evil, will not serve. If we do not recognize the evil, we can learn from other (also often guilty) nations of the world, law, international agencies, people of conscience, religious voices, that we have to face the national depths through self-analysis. But awareness of this does not mean that as a nation we are simply burdened with the grossness of it all. We are not called to be masochistic confessors, virtuosos of self-loathing any more than self-glorying boasters.

Creative alternatives? While there may be theological imprecision in Abraham Lincoln's image of this nation being touched "by the better angels of our nature," it can be transformed into the language and expression of any number of religions or moral frameworks. Psychologist and social theorist Erich Fromm decades ago in The Art of Loving suggested that if we are nothing but self-loathers, we are incapable of effecting loving relations: who wants to be loved by such?

The historian of America in me that cowers in front of the mirror of our collective activities also beams to find too many examples of generosity, nobility, and dignity to be content with only one-sided descriptions of our common life, intentions, and record.

One may hope, at least with faint hope, that we will transcend the merely partisan reactions of our new day. If I say more, this will turn into a sermon, and, in my view, using a column in such a turn would be, if not a "gross evil" then at least a more than petty transgression.


Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. "Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program." New York Times, December 9, 2014, World.

"Reaction to CIA torture report." USA Today, December 10, 2014, News.

Apuzzo, Matt, Haeyoun Park and Larry Buchanan. "Does Torture Work? The C.I.A.'s Claims and What the Committee Found." New York Times, December 9, 2014, World Torture Report.

Fromm, Erich. The Art of Loving. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006.

In this article, Kathleen O'Dwyer asks, with Erich Fromm, if we can learn how to love: O'Dwyer, Kathleen. "Is Love An Art?" Philosophy Now: a magazine of ideas, Nov/Dec 2014, Philosophy & Love.

Also of interest, philosopher Steven Pinker's book: The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York, New York Viking, 2011).

Image: Walter Kopplinger / shutterstock.

This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, University of Chicago Divinity School.

NOTE: To repost, please contact the Managing Editor of Sightings, Myriam Renaud, at