Sermon for Matins

9 May 2004 at :00 am

Sermon for Matins, 9 May 2004, Westminster Abbey
by the Reverend Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian

This is the fifth Sunday of Easter: four weeks and two days ago, we were focusing our thoughts, along with Christians all round the world, on a man who had been stripped, humiliated by being spat on, mocked by being dressed in the purple robe of a king, beaten, tortured with a crown that drove spikes into his head, and then nailed, probably naked, to a cross and left to die in full public view. This week we have been shocked to see photographs, at least some of which seem to be authentic, of similar humiliation and torture being carried out by British and American troops in the jails of Iraq. We have heard the admission that such abuse has taken place by the American President and the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, (not yet, at the highest level, in Britain) and we have read the published extracts of the report of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which said that they have been drawing attention to such abuses for several months. It now seems undeniable that the abuses that have taken place were not isolated incidents, nor the sickening behaviour of a few ‘rogue elements’ in the armed forces, but were based upon, or linked to, a deliberate strategy for interrogation which breaks down the defences of the captive in the shortest possible time.

I don’t know why we should be quite so shocked at these appalling revelations. What we are seeing is nothing other than the treatment which was meted out to black people by their British and American slavemasters and then became embedded in the culture of the American South; it is similar to the abuse which is all too often visited upon women and gay people; it has long been the experience of Jews, culminating in the well-documented humiliation and abuse of the Nazi concentration camps; it is similar to the abuse of Muslims at Camp Omarska in Bosnia in the early 1990s, for which a number of Serbs are now on trial at the International Criminal Court at the Hague. It is a pattern familiar from the camps of the Gulag in Russia, from the Cultural Revolution in China and from the darkest days of apartheid in South Africa. This is what human beings do to each other when we are put in a position of unlimited power over those we perceive – or choose to perceive, or need to perceive - as less human than ourselves. Seeing the photo of the hooded man, standing on the chair with the mock electrodes I was reminded of the hoods of the Ku Klux Klan, and of the traditional dunce’s cap, used publicly to humiliate and victimise someone else, often a child, as a fool.

There are other reasons why, when we stop and think about it, though we are rightly shocked and sickened at the photographs, we should not be surprised. It clearly makes sense, under the extreme pressures of war, to gain as much information about your enemy as fast as you can. The lives of comrades may depend on the breaking down of the psychological defences of the enemy as quickly as possible. So there is a kind of logic to the abuse, where those who are abused are thought to have information which is vital for the safety of Coalition forces. This does not justify the abuse (we should not forget we claim to be the friends and liberators of the Iraqi people), but, in a situation of continuing confrontation, it makes some sense of it.

I suspect, though, that the reasons for the abuse and the taking of photographs go far beyond interrogation techniques or a military emergency. After all, the young men and women who have to deal with the prisoners in Abu Graib or the jails of the south are not different from the young men and women in their late teens and twenties that we see around us every day. They read the same newspapers. They watch the same soaps, the same reality TV, the game shows like everybody else. Like all of us in the West, they inhabit a culture of greedy and exploitative sexuality, which is in many ways a culture of verbal and physical abuse. Were the young men and women shown abusing Muslims this week doing anything other than act out images which are available on-line through every home computer and in videos described as ‘for home viewing’? Is it so surprising that they did this with defenceless victims, when the papers they – and we - read daily spew out contempt for asylum seekers or paedophiles or politicians – branding them as other than ‘us’ - as ‘scroungers’ or ‘monsters’ or ‘liars’? When we have programmes on television in which people set out humiliate before they are humiliated – I am sure we can all think of examples - and the viewing of pornographic images has become so easy and so socially acceptable, it is not surprising that young men and women in the armed forces, put in positions of absolute power over people they regard as ‘other’, as ’less than fully human,’ and may ignorantly believe to be supporters of terrorists if not the terrorists themselves, should be so proud of acting out their fantasies of sex and power that they want to catch the moment with a camera and a cheerful grin.

Doubtless individuals will now be punished, as they should be. The danger is that once they have been punished, we shall think that a problem has been addressed, when it is simply hypocritical to see the problem as one confined to a few guilty individuals. The punishment of individuals cannot begin to repair the damage done to their victims, which is at an altogether different level. The most appropriate punishment would be for the abusers to meet, truly to meet, the victims they have abused, and to ask their forgiveness, as happened at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. This, of course, is not the sort of punishment for which one can legislate. It is the punishment that comes with the facing of the truth about oneself and about the other, that she/he is as human as I am and what I have done to him or to her shames and degrades me. It is the punishment of self-knowledge, and self-disgust, which for all human beings (for we are none of us innocent of these things) is ultimately more than we can bear. This is why it is so important for people of faith not to pillory, to jeer or to condemn, even while we express our revulsion for the deed and our determination to see that there be justice and support for the victim.

It is the task of a Church which believes that there is solidarity in sin to show why deeds such as those we have seen in our papers hold up the mirror to us and to our culture, and bring shame upon us all.

This is why, on Good Friday especially, but every day of the year Christians come face to face with the humiliated, tortured, abused man on the cross. Some, I know, will see in this an unhealthy preoccupation with suffering and death; some will call it masochistic; some will say we are getting things out of proportion. This week, as I have looked at the newspapers, it has seemed to me, again, that there is a profound and necessary realism in this centrality of the Crucified man. This is indeed a vision of what human beings do to each other, but there is far more to the death of Jesus than that. I remember some years ago, getting to know two men who had been through Camp Omarska in Bosnia, where 1500 victims died, and the inmates were nightly tortured, and forced to humiliate and torture one other by Serbs who called themselves Christians, and knew their victims well enough to call them by their first names even as they abused them. Some of them had been in school together; they had been in the same class. One of the Muslim men I knew had a cross burnt on his body by his Serbian torturers. A Channel 4 film was made with the help of my two friends about their experiences; it included footage of Kate Adie visiting the camp and being shown round so that she and the world could be reassured with lying images that nothing was amiss. I used to show this film to my students, lest any of us forgot what had happened in Europe in the 1990s. My two friends couldn’t bear to watch, but just before a showing of the film on one occasion, one of them said two things I cannot forget. First, he said, ‘I am dead, but I have to live on for the sake of my daughters’, and then he, a Muslim said, to me, a Christian, ‘We have to find a way of forgiveness.’ What could I, who knew that his friend carried, burnt on his body, the mark of the cross, say about a way of forgiveness through Jesus Christ? Either the Way had to speak for itself, or there was no such Way.

I do not think we need to go to watch the film of the Passion of Christ to understand more about the torture and the humiliation of the Crucified. In fact, I suspect there is an element of voyeurism in focusing on the film of the torture. Faith in the Crucified, in Britain or America or amongst the ancient Christian churches of Iraq, means simply a willingness to allow the Crucified to show himself to us as the victim of our ravaged humanity, whether on the cross or in the suffering of those he came to save. His nakedness exposes our nakedness; his shaming exposes our shame; his death exposes our culture as a lascivious culture that needs saving from its many weapons of mass destruction, physical, psychological and spiritual. ‘Father’, he prays, ‘forgive them, for they know not what they do.’

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Website design - Design by Structure