I just finished listening to the episode of NPR’s Fresh Air entitled “‘It Was Torture’: An Abu Ghraib Interrogator Confesses.” I’ll give you a second to go download it and get it into your queue before you come back to read the rest. Don’t worry. I’ll wait. You need to do this. I promise.
I remember the photos from Abu Ghraib. I remember the discourse around it all. The outrage some of us expressed over what we saw. The outrage of others over our outrage – the ends justify the means. The attempts to explain away the techniques used in “enhanced” interrogation. I remember wondering, along with my concern for those who are tortured, “Who does this? How do they justify it? What will it do to them?”
Eric Fair, twelve years later, is giving his set of answers to those questions in his book, Consequence. Go ahead on over to your favorite independent bookstore Facebook page and ask them to hold you a copy, or if you have to, here’s the link on Amazon. I’ll wait. The book was just released yesterday. I haven’t read it yet, but Brian and Sue at Chapter 2 have my name on one.
Fair is (or at least was, I can’t confirm his current affiliation) a Presbyterian. He was at one time, after his job in Iraq, a student at Princeton Theological Seminary as he was considering a call to ordained ministry as a pastor. He drops some fantastic Reformed theology classics, speaking of “swimming in that pool of depravity” and articulating an understanding of vocation that applies to all people of faith, not just those who feel called to professional, ordained ministry. His decision to write and speak of what he did is an act of public confession that may be driven by his faith. He doesn’t shy away at all from speaking in faithful terms as he talks about his inner struggle with the work he was paid to do and the values he feels called to embody through the life he lives. This book, he says, is his public confession of his own failures and participation in the system of military interrogation and torture and his attempt to come to terms with his behavior.
Confession is an important spiritual discipline for us Presbyterians. You’d be hard pressed, I hope, to find a Presbyterian church, that doesn’t include a time of confession during their regular worship service. This is because of our understanding that on our own, left to our own devices, our lives will always be marred by sin. We are constantly making the choice to move away from the will and purposes of God. Confession is when we acknowledge our individual sin and our complicity in corporate sin. It’s the time when we admit that the lives we live don’t measure up to the life God wants for us as demonstrated by Jesus, and we recommit to the new way of life he makes possible. Always after confessing, we hear the good news of the gospel, that in Jesus Christ, not by our own merit or our own work, but by God’s pure grace, we are forgiven.
This can be dangerous work to do, holding up the mirror of our faith to the actions of our days and confessing that which does line up. Dangerous to our comfort; dangerous to our status quo. Yet it’s work we are called to do daily as disciples of Jesus. Our identity as Christians isn’t a once a week (or month, or season) affiliation. It’s a way of life. It’s the way we treat other human beings and the earth. It’s the way we prioritize our activities. It’s the way we orient ourselves toward God and God’s purposes. It can’t be checked at the door or, as Fair said, we can’t tell God to wait outside. When we try to separate the faith of our heart from the actions of our daily life we end up in spiritual crisis. Describing his own crisis in a redacted excerpt from his book that he read on air, Fair wrote:
I am disgusted by how good it feels to wield power – redacted. I am terrified of where else that feeling might take me. In Iraq, I have not just taken the wrong path. I have walked in the wrong direction entirely.
Eventually, as he worked and participated in torture, Eric Fair came to realize that both what he was doing as an interrogator with a privately contracted company and the system he was participating in were wrong. He quit the job and went home. Even after a second job in Iraq with the National Security Agency, not an interrogation position, he returned with the guilt of his first deployment weighing heavily on his mind and his spirit. The torture he brought upon others in the name of the United States of America flooded his dreams. He self-medicated and his personal relationships suffered. The divide between the values he held and the life he had lived were so conflicted that he was moved to do something to try to make things as right as he could.
In his book he writes that he confessed first within the government to a Department of Justice lawyer and then to agents with the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, but he was never prosecuted.* The acts he calls abhorrent were completing legal. His book is now his public confession. It is, I would say, a part of his repentance before God and others, a turning back in the right direction, as he tries to move forward with values and actions aligned.
I can’t tell from the interview how it is with his spirit now. I look forward to reading the book to see if that is addressed. But as I reflect on the interview, I appreciate the truth he is now telling, confess my own complicity in the American system grounded in fear that brought about the circumstances that allowed torture to take place and allow it to continue, and pray that Eric Fair finds peace in the grace and mercy of God.
*From The New York Times book review by Michiko Kakutani, accessed 4/6/2016 7:27 p.m.
One more thing: I am grateful for the vulnerability Eric Fair showed in speaking and writing so frankly about his part in this sinful system. His theological reflection is thorough and faithful, without being heady and inaccessible. The Reformed theology that shaped his up-bringing and were a part of his year of seminary training is woven throughout his reflection. If I had the chance to speak with him pastorally and theologically, I would love the opportunity to address this thought he had about his decision not to continue on a path toward ordained ministry:
“But again, my conscience was so stained, and a Presbyterian or a Christian would say my soul was so stained at that point, that I was smart enough to recognize that I was not going to be a Presbyterian minister.”
Presbyterian ministers are not free from sin – not before they are ordained, not after they are ordained. None of us are ever free enough from sin to qualify for ministry; God’s grace is sufficient to redeem and use any of us.