The Question: In his speech to U.S. bishops last week, Pope Benedict XVI said: “Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted . . . To the extent that religion becomes a purely private affair, it loses its very soul.” Do you agree or disagree? Why?
I agree profoundly with Pope Benedict that religion that restricts itself to the private sphere alone is missing a vital spiritual component. Indeed, I think on this we agree completely that it is a matter of your very soul.
I wish to be quite concrete in my agreement with the Pope’s statement and give a very specific and urgent example of where I think the public nature of the soul is at risk in the United States today. In recent years the United States, in adopting the practice of torture, has lost its soul and that this imperils the souls of every citizen in this nation. This is a religious matter of profound import and we ignore it at our spiritual peril.
The human soul, when people think about it at all, is often regarded as the “ghost in the machine.” It isn’t. What we call the soul is best understood as the integrity between our values and our actions. This is the common sense definition and it is correct. When someone abandons his values for purely material gain, people will say, “He sold his soul.” For someone to have a soul, his actions in individual and public life need to line up. When they don’t, this is the essence of soullessness.
Whole nations, too, have souls, I believe. When the actions of a whole people do not match their expressed values, then that whole nation has lost its soul. I have written and spoken on this many times in relation to the fact that we as a nation, despite our core value of freedom, have now adopted torture as a practice we routinely employ. And we are paying a huge spiritual price for this.
In 2003 Amnesty International was already raising questions about the treatment of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison, and in 2004 photos raced around the world showing the inhumane treatment these prisoners were receiving. The pictures showed hooded men attached to wires and positions of blatant sexual humiliation. There was international outcry, but gradually many in this country have come to accept, while they may not like it, that this is the price they are willing to pay for a version of “security.”
And so it became legal to torture. On October 17, 2006, President Bush signed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (MCA), marking the first time in American history the right of habeas corpus has been curtailed by law. Habeas corpus means “you should have the body” and it functions to protect the innocent from unlawful imprisonment by making government produce evidence in a court of law, or it did until Tuesday October 18, 2006. Now our government can declare someone an “enemy combatant” and keep him or her in jail basically forever without the right to have the charges against them presented in a court.
The President signed important democratic principles away on October 17, 2006 and effectively set the United States on a course to make the U.S. less a democracy and more a totalitarian state, a state that can hold people in secret prisons, abuse them without abiding by the Geneva Conventions against torture, try them for evidence they may not be able to see and sentence them to death on evidence that may have been obtained under torture. And the American people have seemingly accepted this extraordinary act on the part of their government because they have become convinced that without torture they will be less safe. Indeed, the podium where the President spoke during the signing ceremony for this bill had a sign on it that said “Protecting America.” We have become complicit in great evil because we have allowed ourselves to give in to fear.
The soul of a nation, like the soul of an individual, is the root from which decency arises. And you cannot act like this as a nation, or as an individual, and expect that your spiritual as well as your democratic life will remain unscarred.
When you start to lose your soul as an individual or as a nation, you think you can keep it confined to just this one bad act, but you can’t.
A South Africa colleague, Dr. James Cochrane, and I have been emailing each other, comparing the dreadful Military Commission Act in the U.S. with its parallels in the build up to the Apartheid regime in South Africa and we agree this should be published. What it is important to realize is that as a South African, Cochrane, who is of European descent, came to recognize that in being afraid to extend the true equality of democracy to black Africans and other racial minorities in his country, the white South Africans became fearful and cowed and unable to believe in their own democracy. Their fear made them complicit in one of the greatest evils the world has known: Apartheid.
In South Africa, there were several laws similar to the Military Commissions Act of 2006 that laid the groundwork for Apartheid. The 90-day detention laws (General Law Amendment Act No 37 of 1963), followed by one allowing for 180-days detention (Criminal Procedure Amendment Act No 96 of 1965), culminating in the Terrorism Act adopted by the South African Parliament in 1967 that allowed for indefinite detention without trial or representation, while the public was not entitled to information about who was held where or why, set the stage for the many horrific things in the decades after. People could, and did, effectively disappear for official legal reasons.
White South Africans dismissed the idea that these bills undercut their democracy, saying to those who opposed these legislative moves, “you have been brainwashed, our leaders wouldn’t do such things,” or “it’s just an individual aberration. How else do we protect our society?”
Driven by fear and legitimated because of the unspecified nature of what was called the “total onslaught” by “terrorists” on European civilization in South Africa, the idea of unequal treatment under the law took root. And it took deep root, taking nearly half a century until it was dug up and thrown away.
Not all South Africans agreed with these laws. Most blacks did not, of course, and as the decades passed, an increasing number of whites finally opposed this legislation as well.
White South Africans came to oppose Apartheid because they realized it was undermining their own democratic freedoms as well as those of black South Africans. You can’t be selectively democratic—it ends up destroying your whole sense of right and wrong.
Did you ever ask yourself how white South Africa came to be an Apartheid state? This is how, little by little. They told themselves they weren’t doing anything really bad, for how can protecting your security be bad?
This is why I agree with Pope Benedict that religion that stays private, that does not cry out to heaven when fundamental human dignity is violated and does not take this struggle into the public square, is soulless religion.