Response to "What Torture Has Taught Me” by William F. Schulz
June 21, 2006, Saint Louis, Missouri
In listening to the ways in which this feels to you, Bill, like a homecoming or a returning to the fold, I cannot help but wonder about two things. First, how in the world did I end up on this stage as part of the Welcome Committee? Certainly, with my working class background, it would have seemed appropriate for me to have parked your car when you got here or to have grabbed your luggage for you or to have simply stood in the back of the room clapping after your lecture. But, THIS—this responding to your lecture feels to this newbie minister like I am sitting for the first time at the adult table at Thanksgiving. For you see, while you were leading the UUA, I was discovering my first Unitarian Universalist congregation. While you were directing Amnesty, I was going to seminary. And, now as you complete your tour of duty, I am concluding my first year of settled ministry.
Yet, as I have considered your lecture, I realize that what I have to offer to you and our colleagues in this room is my newness: the perspective born of nothing being rote. The still closely held belief in the mystery and magic of ministry that has not been dulled by too many long committee meetings.
As this new minister, the second thing I wonder is how is it for you to have come home?
How is it to report those things that must now be encoded in your body as unbidden images when you close your eyes, as odors unimaginable to our senses, as sounds and stories so penetrating they continue to echo in your ear, as touching the sagging shoulders of one whose hollow expression conveys the premature death of a soul?
How is it to return to this group of colleagues undoubtedly altered by what you have experienced, impatient with the element of truth in the characterizations of our ministers delivering ‘upsy-daisy’ sermons while torture gains speed and regains political cache?
How is it to return to us from the edge of the abyss of human despair and degradation—to scream even if in silence, that the faith and community from which you drew comfort somehow now feels inadequate to explain, let alone transform our world?
How is it? How is it?
For I am grateful for your courage in sharing those experiences now encoded in your body’s memory and remaining a person of faith challenging all of us to minister better—to minister in a way that empowers—to minister in a way that names the horrific as we compassionately hold open the possibilities of "moves” (borrowing from your story about the chess master) steeped in life-affirming grace. In order to do this, I believe you correctly assert that the challenge before us is whether we have a shared doctrine of human nature that encompasses both good and evil, the awesome and the horrific, the whole and the broken.
Yet, your argument focuses on language and the mind. You claim that we are sinners and that we are all capable of evil. You have witnessed this around the world and seen it in yourself. But, the only thing that stopped you from continuing to mistreat Amy or others from fully becoming torturers is freedom. For you, that is insufficient—not robust enough—to save souls.
I would suggest that is true because freedom is a mental construct and fails to fully take into account the body.
Interestingly, your illustrations of evil, of how the average Joe becomes a torturer, of the description of your own childhood experience of using power-over suggest the body has a role. Despite our mental concepts like freedom, when an average person has his or her body stressed beyond human limits, the mind’s ideas or conventions are ignored in favor of the body’s mandate to survive. Life continues to choose life. The body survives even if survival means the inhuman, the torturing, the evil of stripping another of his humanity.
Our Universalist roots guide us to respect the fullness of life with mind and body as co-determinate facilities. Thus, focusing on language and on sermonizing ignores the body’s role in favor of the Unitarian Channing-esque belief that our minds are the sole determiners of our actions, as we are autonomous selves by nature.
We deserve better.
We deserve the recognition that we are both mind and body. To understand that we may be individuals but only understand ourselves as such because we are born into community. Because I believe in the wholeness of life and the gift of that wholeness, I believe the body must be taken into account.
If instead we get into the business, as you suggest, of assigning who has worth and dignity and who does not—if we begin to prescribe how to get it—I submit we are on a path away from a free faith and toward a creed.
We deserve to understand ourselves. We deserve to understand each and all as human, as body and mind, pre-wired by neurobiology. Capable of good. Capable of horror. Body and mind. Intellect and feeling.
Now, I understand that talking about bodies and feelings is uncomfortable. Prior to becoming a minister, I was a lawyer who daily ignored both. Moreover, I am a typical Norwegian German Midwesterner. We are the ones who love our partners so much we may one day tell them so.
Still, if our ministries take into account our inter-affective natures, we are more like to offer liturgies, not just sermons, in which we experience the common breath or pulse of life and by which, we are willing to invest in a common purpose with and for each other.
To me, this is the call of your essay: to formulate and embrace a theology in which all of human nature is honored and ministered to and reclaimed—the broken and the dispirited, as well as the whole and the holy. Then, perhaps, we will all learn from tortures teachings.