Response: part 1 of 2

posted by David Griffith on April 11th, 2007

A Good War Is Hard to FindShame. To shame someone. To put them to shame. Shame on you. Shame. Shame. Shame. Shame. Say a word often enough and it starts to lose its coherency. It becomes pure noise: a “shhh” sound, followed by an “ay” sound, followed by an “mmm” sound. I like what Mike Ciul says about shame as it corresponds to my book because it gets me back to thinking about its definition in a serious way.

Mike writes:

If shame is the gateway to redemption, then it has a purpose, but it’s not an end in itself. By the end of this book I felt like Griffith had replaced his quest for cool by a quest for shame. He says he used to think it made him more tough or cosmopolitan to be able to watch shocking scenes. Now he says you have to put yourself in the picture and be shamed into repentance. So I’m asking myself, what’s the difference? Am I not cool enough to look at pictures of torture? Or am I not compassionate enough?

First off, I would say that I don’t think I’m saying one must be “shamed into repentance.” It seems to me that there are other ways of coming to a deep and meaningful examination of one’s conscience that doesn’t involve the drama of shame. I don’t think that shame is quite what I felt/feel when I look at the Abu Ghraib photos. I think I feel lost, at sea, disoriented, given that the facts of the images have been so vigorously denied and defended, mostly by those whose view of the world is woefully binary—us and them.

But your comments raise a great question: Why shouldn’t we “put [ourselves] in the picture”? Is there something naïve or sentimental about this? As I write in the book, “We see ourselves looking and think we are in control.” Which is to say, having the intellectual wherewithal to engage in reflexive or self-conscious looking does not get to the root of what I’m talking about. I want to suggest here, if I don’t do so clearly in my book, is that if we don’t consider the cost of redemption—the cost of redeeming what the soldiers did to the detainees in light of the cost of Christ’s redemption—then we are not grasping the importance of the Abu Ghraib abuses, or any other situation in which violence is used as a means of objectifying and controlling others. As Christians, our own suffering is considered in light of the suffering of Jesus, a wholly innocent man. We see suffering in this way not because it is voguish to see the Gospel message as advocating for social justice, but because when we say that Jesus’ suffering was necessary in order to redeem Man from sin (and eternal death), we believe not that all bodily suffering would end, but all spiritual torment (all sins forgiven). Because Jesus once walked the earth as a human and experienced the joy and pain of being human, his suffering is all the more poignant and instructive to us. We are called to be follow him: to turn the other cheek, endure persecution, forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times, love our enemies, embrace the stranger among us, visit the imprisoned, care for the poor and destitute, abhor the taking of human life. We are reminded of these tenets of faith at each mass through the readings. And we participate in his suffering, death and resurrection at every mass through the Eucharist. Of course, this is the radical part, but it is also the core of Christian faith.

Therefore, it is my contention in the book that often Christians commit a certain heresy by believing that God has mandated the use violence as a means of putting those different from us “in their place,” a phrase used often when referring to how the rest of the world should be oriented in relationship to the United States. Actions are deeds informed by ideologies that can be said to illustrate one’s beliefs. Photographs of such startling actions, like those from Abu Ghraib, as I argue in the book (and as Flannery O’Connor says of the violent actions of her characters), have the capacity to wake us up to the ignorance and ugliness of our beliefs and cause us to meditate on those beliefs. I’m arguing that many of us (especially some Christians) see the suffering of others as beyond concern.

So when I look upon the iconic photo of the Abu Ghraib detainee standing on top of the box with wires curling away from his fingers, I don’t suppress the connection my mind makes between this man with arms outstretched and that of Christ on the cross. Is this man not human? Did the Romans not crucify countless others prior to Jesus? Is he not the imprisoned and the stranger among us? Lest you think I’m committing my own heresy, I do not think that the iconic image has the power to redeem (even if it is by way of shame). No image has that power. Only actions have that power. Jesus’ selfless act set in motion a wave of actions that have rippled down through the centuries. Writing a book, although not the most physically strenuous activity, is my small act to keep the wave moving.

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