PSR alum fights torture with faith

November 23, 2009

Four years ago, while organizing the Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, Carol Wickersham (MDiv 1982) saw the just-released photos from Abu Ghraib. The images depicting U.S. soldiers torturing detainees shocked Wickersham and ignited a new phase of her life as a Christian activist.

“There was something about the photos’ visual and emotional impact that revealed that it was immediately and obviously wrong,” Wickersham, a sociology professor at Wisconsin's Beloit College, remembers. “I had this sense of being convicted—that we as a people had set this up to happen and authorized it.”

That onus of responsibility prompted the PSR graduate to fight torture from within her church. She and others formed No2Torture, a Presbyterian grassroots organization that provides education about torture and works to end it. Since then, the sociology professor has also joined the board of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, an interdenominational education and lobbying group.

While at PSR, Wickersham worked with disenfranchised communities: the homeless, people recently released from prison, mentally ill individuals, and refugees. Her involvement with the social aspects of the church helped carve a path to her current anti-torture work. “PSR encouraged me to think about my faith in the context of the world, and that was very powerful,” she says. “It made me realize how my faith leads me to witness to God’s justice.”

Although some groups and governmental agencies rationalize torture as a means to a vital end, Wickersham sees torture as a violently immoral act and uses her theological background to explain its dehumanizing effects for all involved. “We’re all created in the image of God, and torture desecrates the image of God present and imbedded in each human being,” she says. “It is sacrilegious to destroy the image of God, to rip a body from the soul, as torture does.”

Although the topic of torture is a difficult and fraught one, Wickersham believes that discussing it is vital to its abolition. To that end, she wrote “Speaking the Truth to the Not So Powerful,” an essay included in the anthology Torture is a Moral Issue: Christians, Jews, Muslims and People of Conscience Speak Out (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008). Below is an excerpt from that essay.

As citizens of a democratically elected government, we are corporately responsible for actions done in our name. This truth allows us to demand accountability from our government, while resisting the temptation to scapegoat “a few bad apples.” We need to help people see that we are all caught up in a system that has come close to normalizing torture as the way we do things. This is particularly important for those in the military and their families. We are attempting to support the troops by ensuring that they are never put in situations where torture is acceptable or even encouraged. We also support them by acknowledging that we, too, are part of the problem, and all of us together must say no if torture is to be abolished.

People should be encouraged to acknowledge a proportional sense of complicity—no, we are not solely or even primarily responsible; however, we all bear responsibility to hold those in power to account. Confessing complicity is not an invitation to become mired in guilt; just the opposite. It is an invitation to tell the truth, so the truth can set us free to act. Because we come to this issue as faithful people, we come with hope. As grim as the entrenched realities are, we know that the love and justice of God are stronger. We do what we must with confidence not in our own efforts but in the mercy and power of God.