Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Abu Ghraibs of the Soul

Q: What makes possible an Abu Ghraib?

A: A culture of secrecy.

A secret is a powerful thing. Secrets bind us to each other, give us power over others. Abu Ghraib was once a terrible secret shared between those who perpetrated these acts, and those who witnessed them or otherwise knew about them. The photographs that were taken that night were intended as evidence, but not of the crimes of the few; they were evidence that nobody intervened to stop them. The pictures were a sign of the the bond of secrecy that was forged between perpetrators and accomplices, a reminder of the fact that no one who was there or who knew could claim to be innocent.

A culture of secrets is a necessary aspect of every rigid authoritarian structure. Keeping things covered up preserves the hierarchy, the ascending pyramid of dominance, by preventing investigation or accountability at the higher levels. Within such a structure, knowledge becomes a valuable and powerful commodity which, like financial capital, is supposed to remain safely in the hands of the few. And disclosure thus becomes a dangerous act, a kind of "intellectual socialism," threatening the very existence of the system.

No one would ever have known about Abu Ghraib had not a few photographs leaked out into the public view. And now, what steps are being taking to ensure that this never happens again? Security is being tightened, so that no digital camera makes it into that facility, or any other like it, ever again. Cut your losses, punish the low-level offenders, but preserve the system intact at all costs.

Q: What makes possible a clergy sex abuse scandal?

A: You guessed it...

Let us be honest for just a moment and acknowledge that the Church has its own Abu Ghraibs, both historically speaking and to the present day. There are those in our midst who have forced people into degrading postures of subservience and sexual humiliation.

Let's call it what it is: torture.

What makes these acts particularly devastating is not only their horrific nature, but also the bond of secrecy that is created between perpetrator, victim, and accomplices. Nobody speaks up, because nobody wants to be implicated. And this silence becomes a form of recurrent abuse, an ongoing process of victimization.

How will we make sure this never happens again? Will we too punish the low-level offenders, cut our losses, and preserve the system intact at all costs?

Once upon a time, openness and transparency were the only culture the Church knew, the air that it breathed. Confession was performed publicly, in front of the the entire congregation, as were penances for crimes against the community. But somewhere along the line, perhaps at some point during the Byzantine experiment, perhaps even earlier, a few in the Church learned that there was power to be gained over others through secrecy.

Jesus said, "Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing is secret that will not be made known." It is only very recently that the eschatological force of this passage has come home to me. The Kingdom of God comes overturning all the power structures of this world. And a culture of secrets is nothing if not a power structure, an ascending pyramid of dominance.

In the wake of the scandal, some have suggested that Abu Ghraib should be torn down, that perhaps it is haunted by the ghosts of an earlier generation of tortured and torturers. But razing Abu Ghraib, even if we were to dislodge every stone so that "not one stone is left standing upon another," will not do us a bit of good if we do not succeed in dismantling these interior structures of dominance.

When the Kingdom of God appears, everything becomes transparent, so that no one will ever again be able to use secrets to gain power over another. And that Kingdom is present in our midst here and now to the extent that we invest ourselves in openness and disclosure, to the extent that we succeed in demolishing these inner prisons, these Abu Ghraibs of the soul.

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