29 November 2007

Can THEY believe?

Last week I requested a copy of my birth certificate from the registry office in Oslo. I sent in my date of birth, my parents' names, my grandparents' address, and the parish (Bakkehaugen) where I was baptized a few days later.

I received this reply:
We regret to say, but you have never been registrated in Norway. It's therefore impossible to issue an birth certificate.

Vennlig hilsen [Friendly greetings]
Naturally, this somewhat set me back! Surely in such a well-organized country, the hospital took some notice of my arrival. Or does this response confirm my reputation (among some people!) of being rather other-worldly? On the other hand, one friend of mine said, "Well, you are a citizen of the world now, for sure." I'm sure she meant this world.

Since all first-hand witnesses to my arrival have died, I'm puzzling over the task of making the Oslo authorities believe that I really did arrive, in their city, in the normal way.

But in fact, how do I know?

With the State Duma elections just three days away, I gave my second-year American studies class a lecture on the history of voting. At first the students groaned--one of them explained that the election ads constantly on television were getting old. Nevertheless I persisted.

I'd finished my review of basic concepts of democracy and republican government, and was well into a discussion of Alexander Hamilton's thoughts on the need for a meritocratic mechanism to balance out the "imprudence of democracy," when two members of the school administration came in. In their brief announcement, they urged the students to vote--that it was their duty to the nation. I promised the students that we had not coordinated this in advance! It was simply very nice to have my timing confirmed.

In this lecture, my purpose was not to comment on Russian politics, but I did make it very clear that the USA (whose leaders love to comment on the inadequacies of Russian democracy) is not a universal model of the perfect conduct of elections. I explained the origin of the saying, "Vote early and often," and the term "graveyard vote." We didn't have time to consider gerrymandering. Although now secret ballots are the rule, it hasn't always been this way--especially in the early years of the republic. The big story, of course, was the very gradual end of white males' voting monopoly.

One student asked me, "Are you happy that the former president's wife will be the next president?" I was interested in the confident way she put this prediction.

These days, we are hearing a fair amount of self-congratulation concerning the coalition troops' "surge" in the Iraq operation. With the recent lowering of violence in Baghdad (with thanks for every life that has been saved during this relative lull), I don't want us as a country to lower the presidential bar to the simple level of a more competent approach to total disaster. We need leadership that does not start wars, does respect the Constitution, admits its errors, and holds honest conversations with us about freedom and energy.

Failing that, maybe they could mount a covert operation to get me my birth certificate.

The latest Sightings column has not yet been archived on the Martin E. Marty Center Web site, so I'm providing it in full, in the interests of continuing to equip our Christian witness against torture.
Baptism by Torture
-- William Schweiker

Religious practices have often been tied to violence and torture, but this connection is often hidden within public discourse. That is the situation now in the United States with the debate about waterboarding, the religious meanings of which have yet to be articulated and explored.

The candidates in the current presidential campaign have taken starkly different stances on the practice of waterboarding. Some condemn the practice as outright torture; others have refused to condemn the practice if in an extreme case it could save millions of American lives. The topic has been divided into two separate but related questions: is waterboarding a form of torture, and, however torture is defined, are there situations in which waterboarding and other practices are justified?

The argument for possible justification turns on several assumptions: that we could infallibly know that someone had vital information that would in fact save millions; that torture would extract this information without distortion; and, finally, that if the information was secured truthfully and infallibly, it could be put to use in good time. None of these assumptions is warranted. Expert opinion and empirical evidence concur that torture is an ineffective means to gain reliable information. The scenario of the lone knower of the facts whose torture would save millions of lives is the stuff of bad spy movies and bad exam questions in ethics courses. In terms of the question of definition, matters are both legal and visceral. International conventions provide ample guidelines, and, as more than one commentator has noted, if waterboarding is not torture it is not clear what else to call it, the Bush Administration's penchant to alter definitions notwithstanding.

Less often observed is that the practice of waterboarding has roots in the Spanish Inquisition and parallels the persecution of Anabaptists during the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation. Why did practices similar to waterboarding develop as a way to torture heretics—whether the heretics were Anabaptists or, in the Inquisition, Protestants of any stripe as well as Jews and witches and others?

Roman Catholics and Protestants alike persecuted the Anabaptists or "re-baptizers" since these people denied infant baptism in favor of adult baptism. The use of torture and physical abuse was meant to stem the movement and also to bring salvation to heretics. It had been held—at least since St. Augustine—that punishment, even lethal in form, could be an act of mercy meant to keep a sinner from continuing in sin, either by repentance of heresy or by death. King Ferdinand declared that drowning—called the third baptism—was a suitable response to Anabaptists. Water as a form of torture was an inversion of the waters of baptism under the (grotesque) belief that it could deliver the heretic from his or her sins.

In the Inquisition, the practice was not drowning as such, but the threat of drowning, and the symbolic threat of baptism. The tortura del agua or toca entailed forcing the victim to ingest water poured into a cloth stuffed into the mouth in order to give the impression of drowning. Because of the wide symbolic meaning of "water" in the Christian and Jewish traditions (creation, the great flood, the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus and drowning of the Egyptians (!), Christ's walking on the water, and, centrally for Christians, baptism as a symbolic death that gives life), the practice takes on profound religious significance. Torture has many forms, but torture by water as it arose in the Roman Catholic and Protestant reformations seemingly drew some of its power and inspiration from theological convictions about repentance and salvation. It was, we must now surely say, a horrific inversion of the best spirit of Christian faith and symbolism. Is it the purpose of the United State nowadays to seek the conversion, repentance, and purity of supposed terrorists and thus to take on the trappings of a religious rite? The question is so buried behind public discourse that its full import is hardly recognized.

In the light of these religious meanings and background to waterboarding, US citizens can decide to reject any claim by the government to have the right to use this or other forms of torture, especially given connections to the most woeful expressions of Christianity; conversely, they can fall prey to fear and questionable reasoning and thus continue to support an unjust and vile practice that demeans the nation's highest political and moral ideals even as it desecrates one of the most important practices and symbols of Christian faith.

I judge that it is time for repentance, the affirmation of new life, and the humane expression of religious convictions.

William Schweiker is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and director of the Martin Marty Center.

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

THIS JUST IN: The Books and Culture conversation about torture continues, with an excellent response by David Gushee to Keith Pavlischek's critique of the Evangelical Declaration Against Torture.

Dessert: Fabulous Thunderbirds, "Can't Stop Rockin'"--


Bill Samuel said...

Hmmm . . . No record of your being born. It makes me wonder how you accomplished things that usually require showing a birth certificate, like getting a Social Security Number, a marriage license and a passport.

Are you sure you were born? At least of human parents?

Johan Maurer said...

I've also wondered how I managed to get this far without a birth certificate! My first USA passport was probably the first miracle, since all I could tell the passport agency was that my parents had been naturalized, the approximate year that happened. Some angel-bureaucrat must have done some legwork and found their file, because eventually I got a passport despite the missing information.

Robin M. said...

Maybe the parish church would still have a record of your baptism including your date of birth and the names of your parents. That might assist in some way. I suppose it depends on what you want it for.

Johan Maurer said...

I actually have my baptism certificate! So no matter how I arrived on this planet, at least the local Lutheran church was willing to register me.