Friends and Torture

To get at the issue of Friends and torture, let me start with the Bible, specifically a parable—what I think of as a parable of Quakerism. It’s from the beginning of Chapter 18 of the Gospel of Luke.

The parable tells of an unjust judge, who neither feared God nor had any regard for people, and a widow, who had nothing but her voice. The widow came into his courtroom, and she cried out to the judge, "Give me justice! Give me justice!" But the unjust judge ignored her.

While the text is very terse here, the social context is not hard to fill in: chances are the widow’s back was against the wall. Chances are she was in court because some greedy relative or landlord was trying to steal the inheritance from her dead husband, which was probably all she had to live on.

Her case at first seems hopeless, because we’re told straight up that the deck is stacked, the fix is in, the judge is crooked. How is he crooked? Most likely he’s on the take, selling his rulings to the highest bidder.

But this widow doesn’t give up. She keeps coming back, again and again, and cries out to the judge, and to anyone else who will listen, "Give me justice! Give me justice!"

What was she doing? Consider her situation: she was a woman alone, in a society where such women were the very archetype of powerlessness and weakness. If she lost her case, she would probably starve to death—and starvation was common in those days. So this was a life and death struggle, and in it she made use of all she had, that is, the weapons of the weak and the powers of the powerless.

What are these weapons of the weak? What are these powers? I group them under the initials TVA, for tenacity, veracity, and audacity.

The widow is tenacious—she keeps coming back, she won’t give up. And when she cries out, she’s speaking not only of her own case, but also reminding the judge—and the watching and listening public—of his sacred duty: he’s supposed to be upholding the Law of Moses, the law of God. For centuries, this Torah had echoed for faithful Jews with Deuteronomy 16:19’s stern command to Israel’s judges, "Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe. . . . Justice, and only justice shall you pursue."

So with her cries, the widow is not just making a private complaint—she’s also speaking ancient truth, reminding the Israelite public as well as the judge that there is an authentic, holy tradition of justice in her society, and that it’s being blatantly and shamelessly perverted here. So her cries are also an exposé, a kind of committed feminist journalism. They shine a spotlight, or at least a penlight, of veracity into the fog the judge uses to conceal his dirty deeds.

And she is audacious—in her patriarchal world women are expected to keep quiet, especially in the public sphere. The courts are men’s turf, and litigation is men’s business. But she refuses to go along with this custom. She breaks the mold; she thinks and acts outside the box.

And eventually she wins, she gets a chance at survival. To be sure, hers is a limited victory. She doesn’t move the judge to repent of his evil ways—he reaffirms that he’s still a crook; nor does she overturn the corrupt system of which he’s a part. But she wears him out, harasses and embarrasses him, until he decides he’ll have to give her what she’s due, if only to get her off his back.

For a text that’s only five verses long, there’s a lot of meaning packed into this parable. In fact, as I said, I find in it a model for long-term Quaker social witness, and particularly for the work some Friends have now begun on torture. Why is it a model? I think there are two reasons.

First of all, because in the face of the forces that are establishing torture as an accepted instrument of policy, we too are among the powerless. We—and our votes—don’t count. This realization is very important, and not an easy one for U.S. citizens. It may be especially uncomfortable for Friends, most of whom are white, middle class, and pretty liberal to left-liberal in outlook.

As such, I suspect that many of us have been to diversity sessions and antiracism workshops, where we’ve heard a lot about white privilege, and might even be feeling a bit guilty about all that privilege we are told we enjoy.

But how we name things is important, Friends, and here I think we need to be careful. In this case I find the term "comforts" more helpful than "privilege." Whites in our society do have more creature comforts than many others. We benefit from various preferences that are culpably connected with a past and present of racism and oppression. That’s true enough.

Yet the word "privilege" connotes to me a connection to power, and this is where the term falls short. Because in relation to truly holding worldly power today, especially where torture is concerned, I contend that even the wealthiest and most comfortable among Friends are essentially without power. We too are among the powerless.

In fact, almost all U.S. citizens are now without real power, or access to power, in this matter and most others relating to peace and war. Not only are we without real power, we’ve also lost most of the rights we once thought we had. What’s left is mainly pretense and illusion. And of course, creature comforts.

Our milieu of powerlessness may be more comfortable than some others, but it’s powerlessness still. And if Quakers trying to end torture are among the comfortably weak and powerless, I suggest that if we’re to have any hope of success, we set out to learn from the widow of Luke 18 and deploy the weapons of the weak. That’s the second reason the widow’s story is a model for us.

And what are these weapons? Again, for me they are summed up in the initials TVA: tenacity, veracity, and audacity.

If you look at the history of serious, long-term Quaker social witness, that’s what you will find. Take slavery: we worked against it in the U.S. tenaciously for 100 years. It wasn’t a fad or a fashion. And in those generations of struggle, Quakers kept telling the truth that slavery was an abomination before God and humankind. And they did this in many ways, some as audacious as Lucretia Mott facing down mobs with her eloquence, and others daring to start the Underground Railroad.

There are other examples—but that’s the past. What about now? What does TVA mean for Quaker work to end torture?

Here I can be very concrete. Tenacity means that we prepare for a struggle that we expect to last longer than most who are reading this will live. As part of that, we will need to keep our ears open, especially our inward ear, the one that hears the insistent whispers of the Spirit.

We need to keep that inward ear open because some among us are going to start hearing some insistent whispers of calling. In particular, a call to build a small but sturdy infrastructure that can support ongoing Quaker work on torture, and connect it to the larger networks of struggle. For instance, I believe the Quaker work to end torture will need a newsletter, e-mail lists, periodic gatherings like the Quaker Conferences on Torture, and, before it’s done, perhaps a small office with a staff member or two, plus a devoted oversight committee. Mundane stuff, but the basics of long-term work.

As for veracity, it means continuing to educate ourselves in an ongoing way about the ugly truths of torture and the growing opportunities to end it. I’m very serious about this educational task, and feel obliged to sound a warning here: if most of what we know about torture comes from the news media, Friends, we are not yet well informed.

News reports are just the beginning, and too many, even in prestigious outlets, are not to be trusted. Learning the hard truths of torture will call for digging deeper, and doing some hard work. I can testify that coming to terms with the extent of and the institutional strength and support for torture as well as the secret world that sustains it can be a very unsettling, even frightening, experience. (Alfred McCoy’s book, A Question of Torture, is a good place to start.)

As we become more versed, we are called to spread this information. The basics of veracity here are elemental—not elementary, but basic: torture is immoral, torture is inhuman, it is rarely effective, and torture defiles the law, debases the culture, and makes a lie of our human rights. It is also invisibly taking root in more and more parts of our culture like some invisible, malevolent, parallel reality. The recent poll of U.S. soldiers, showing that large numbers accept torture as a routine part of warfare, is one telling indicator. Like the widow’s cries, these baleful truths cannot be repeated often or loudly enough.

And then audacity: imagination and creativity will be crucial to this work, to leverage our small numbers and resources. As a current example, I’m grateful for the pioneering work of Stop Torture Now-N.C., a small band of activists including some Quakers here in North Carolina. For more information visit. They have been protesting the use of a county airport not far from me at Quaker House for hundreds of CIA torture flights. Their audacious actions have exposed the presence of this CIA front and are building pressure on public officials to investigate and stop the flights.

The value of this work is twofold: it not only sheds light on this particular clandestine base, but it also points out that there is a "torture industrial complex" that has been surreptitiously created in our society. This "torture industrial complex" is growing and spreading around us like social gangrene. A key part of our work will be to name it, expose it, and give it no rest. We can’t hope to do this unless we bring imagination and creativity to bear on the truth.

One temptation in this work needs to be mentioned here, namely the urge to focus all our energy on Washington, D.C.: Congress, the White House, and the national political scene.

In my view, this would be a trap. To be sure, Washington can’t be ignored. But my own work on the frontlines of peace witness persuades me that to accept such an emphasis is to see the task of change from the wrong end of the telescope: this country will be redeemed from the curse of torture by forces that will end up in Washington, not begin there. And it will be a distraction from the necessary foundation work if we permit most of our energy to be expended inside the Beltway.

Maintaining the proper balance here will be a challenge. It is not an accident that most of the major media want us to stay fixated on the antics inside the Beltway. After all, Washington is where those with real worldly power do their thing, and we, remember, are not among them.

The notion that because the U.S. is a "democracy" we are somehow players in that arena is one of the many illusions related to our position of "comfort" in the system. There is a New Yorker cartoon that captures this illusion well: a man, his gaze glued to the tube, says to his wife, "When I watch all these people arguing about the problems of the world, I feel like I’m actually doing something about them." But of course, he is not. To repeat: real, long-term change will come from the sparks lit by those in the far corners of this land, who lack worldly power but have imagination and daring.

A look at Quaker history confirms this approach. I’m talking about the spirit of six Quaker housewives in Seneca Falls, New York, who started a revolution for women around their kitchen table. And other history has lessons too: remember Rosa Parks, riding a shabby bus in Montgomery, Alabama. And the late Friend Jim Corbett, starting the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s in the Sonora desert of Arizona. There are others.

It is such audacity that will set the wheels of change turning, wheels that will roll across this country and rumble into Washington, until torture is driven from the land.

These are the weapons of the weak. I do not say they will bring quick or easy results. But they are already being deployed and are having an effect. Eighteen months ago, there was no anti-torture movement in the U.S. There were some dedicated anti-torture activists, but no national anti-torture movement. But within the space of barely a year an anti-torture movement has come onto the scene in the U.S. and is growing rapidly. Yes, it includes national groups based in Washington, hectoring Congress about torture flights and secret prisons. But for my part, the more important sectors of this nascent movement are groups like No2Torture, which was started by a Presbyterian from Minnesota, and Stop Torture Now, here in North Carolina. Unitarians are a part of it too, as is a new group, Evangelicals for Human Rights. And of course, QUIT, the Quaker Initiative to End Torture. This movement is taking form right before our eyes.

Quakers are not the center of this movement, or its leaders. But today there are Friends who are on the leading edge of this campaign as it comes into being, and our role in it can be crucial—if we will take this opportunity and run with it.

To play that role, let us remember Luke’s widow and her continual cries for justice. Let us seize the powers of the powerless and put them to work. And let us remember those three silly initials that can point us in the way we are to go: TVA. Tenacity, veracity, audacity!

Chuck Fager

Chuck Fager, director of Quaker House, a Friends peace witness in Fayetteville, N.C., serves on the planning group of Quaker Initiative to End Torture (QUIT). He is a member of State College (Pa.) Meeting, and attends Fayetteville Meeting.