Thursday, October 16, 2008

Savoring a memorable night...

about torture. No, I'm not suddenly into B&D. But awhile back, my congregation had to take stock of a decision they made last spring to put up a banner saying "Torture is a Moral Issue", in accordance with our UU commitment to end torture in U.S. overseas facilities. Before erecting the banner, the board took an email poll to determine whether there was clear consensus about the issue and, because there were no negative responses to the poll, put the banner up.

You can probably guess what happened next. The banner had been up for a couple of weeks when I got a call from a member whose family is in the military. We have a strong military presence on Whidbey Island, with a Naval Air Station on the north end. And we have a few military families in our congregation. Our member wondered why the banner had gone up, why she hadn't had a voice on the issue, and did we realize that it sent an implicit anti-military message with its language?

I told her that there had been an email poll so that people would have a chance to speak to the issue. She had seen an email about a social justice issue but had not read it thoroughly and consequently hadn't responded. She had also had the experience of driving past the sign on the highway and having a visceral reaction, wondering if other military folks might see it as a hostile-to-military message and reject our congregation. Then she had heard another military friend react to the sign with anger. She thought I ought to know how this group of folks was feeling.

Awhile back I told you a little bit about this issue and how we were addressing it. We arranged for an open conversation on the banner, inviting the whole congregation to participate, with a facilitator who would help keep things on the right track. That conversation happened last night. It was delayed by construction on the building and people's schedules and that sort of thing. We were all thoroughly ready to get it behind us! And I was anxious about how it might turn out.

I can't express adequately my admiration and love for this group of fifteen people with strong feelings on both sides, who came together and talked through their differences, listened to each other's feelings and understandings, discovered together that there was more common ground than disagreement, and came to a recommendation for the board to consider, a recommendation that all present felt enthusiastic about.

We discovered that torture was not the issue. It was the language of the sign, which seemed to imply to military folks that anyone associated with those who had tortured (i.e., military personnel who have no choice in where they are sent or what they are assigned to do and can't dissent without repercussions) were immoral, that the military is immoral, by extension. And changing the language of the sign without diminishing its message was the recommendation which will go to the board. The wording settled on was something like "Torture is wrong. End it now." (I'm not sure I've got it right.)

I learned a lot from our conversation by just listening. S., our facilitator, handled the conversation so well that I said almost nothing and mostly only spoke to offer a clarification or other explanatory remark. Three individuals representing military families attended and were eloquent in their remarks, without being accusatory or threatening to leave or anything like that. And even those strongly in favor of the wording could see that there was a great deal to be gained by modifying the language.

I was so proud of our group. I have rarely participated in a conflict situation that was so peaceful. People were honest and courteous and supportive of each other. They expressed their caring for each other and their trust that this could be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. And it was. No wonder I love them so much.


ogre said...

I'd personally stick with "immoral" rather than "wrong," but it's not a huge difference--though immoral is a stronger term than wrong.

But what really fascinates me is that the end result is in some ways harsher than what was objected to.

It's a moral issue.


It's wrong. Stop it now.

In the end, my guess--my explanation for this--would be that the people who objected wanted to be assured that THEY were not being labeled immoral because they were associated with it at some remove, and were concerned that that was what was in people's minds. That being resolved, they were on board with the stronger statement, calling for it to end.

However, one hopes that it helped them carry away a message that... if they find themselves in the situation where they are asked or ordered to commit torture or to be complicit in it... that is a moral issue, and they have to act accordingly. The UMCJ makes it clear that one of the very few legitimate reasons for refusing an order is when it's fundamentally immoral.

I suspect that any military person who could point back to their faith and specifically their church asserting that torture is immoral and must end now would be in a strong position in a military court.

But a scary one. Being on charges, even when you're in the right, is always scary. Justice is not always done.... Still, knowing that this conversation was held and that the military folk and military families were part of it and agreed that it's wrong might just help.

I dont' think there was an implicitly anti-military message (I think you might ask David to weigh in there!). I think that there was a reaction to what people feared might be an anti-military attitude behind the sign and the decision to post it.

Given some UU history... that's not unfair. Holding conversations and taking actions to deflate that fear is the perfect answer.

Kudos to all of you.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Ogre. Good thoughts.

WinterSmith said...

Our fellowship (Anchorage UUF) is in the process of discussing this at the moment. I guess that it does depend on how you read the banner. The statement "It's a moral issue" seems to be a simple fact and doesn't really take sides (again, depending on how you read it). Being a moral issue means that there is a question about whether it (torture in this case) is right or wrong. Being UUs we are renowned for raising thoughtful (thought provoking) questions. This banner does that. proclaiming its wrongness seems more 'in your face'. If that is the goal, it would seem to do a good job. Raising the question a la "its a moral issue" would seem to cause good discussion rather than labeling a la "its wrong". Hmmm...

ms. kitty said...

Actually, WinterSmith, I think I got it wrong. I think it's going to be "Torture...end it now".

It does depend on your perspective, the lens you view it through.

classified_ads said...

I love your post ogre.