Faith leaders press Obama on torture commission
Written by Staff Reports and RNS
June 12, 2009
The Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, speaks during the National Religious Campaign Against Torture rally across from the White House on June 11. Behind him is the Rev. John Thomas, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, and Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America.
- Religion News photo by David Jolkovski
Nationally recognized religious officials led a march to the White House on Thursday, urging President Obama to form a "commission of inquiry" into interrogation practices under the Bush administration.
The clerics joined other senior religious leaders and supporters for a "public witness," forming a crowd clothed in robes, collars, hijabs and yarmulkes.
"It is often said the way to move forward is putting behind the past," said the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, as he stood in front of the White House. "We who gather here today believe the way to the future comes after a full disclosure of truth of wrongdoing."
The rally was sponsored by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), which has applauded Obama's executive order to abide by international anti-torture agreements. But the interfaith organization also wants a nonpartisan truth commission to investigate past torture practices, recalling those of post-apartheid South Africa.
"Only by knowing the truth will the American people have the opportunity to develop a strong conviction that torture must never be justified," said Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America.
A delegation of 33 faith leaders met with White House officials after the public demonstration. They delivered a letter signed by 51 senior religious officials in support of the commission of inquiry "to hold us all accountable for the policies and acts carried out in our name."
But a truth commission could be a hard sell. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll found that a majority of Americans (62 percent) are against such hearings. Obama has already stated his opposition, preferring to move forward rather than look back.
"The only way forward is through our past," countered the Rev. William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, as he stood before the crowd of about 100 people.
At a press conference before the march, the Rev. John H. Thomas, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, said, "As a leader of a church that takes seriously the concerns of its global partners, I cannot ignore this anguished plea. As a U.S. citizen and as a member of the global Christian family, my responsibility is clear: Torture must never again be practiced, condoned, or excused in my name."
Sinkford added, "It is imperative that we know the recent history that shapes us. We cannot be afraid of the painful truths that a commission may reveal."
Carrying banners reading "torture is a moral issue," and "the truth will set you free," attendees participated in a public ritual to confess and lament the torture.
Sitting in a folding chair and holding a small American flag, Trudy Kaplan, 85, said she is a member of River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda, Md. "I think torture is wrong," Kaplan said. "We need to stop it. And we need to atone for it."