Fleming Rutledge is a preacher and teacher known throughout the mainline Protestant denominations of the US, Canada and parts of the UK. She is the author of seven books and has received a grant from the Louisville Foundation to complete a book about the meaning of the Crucifixion.
One of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, she served for fourteen years on the clergy staff at Grace Church on Lower Broadway at Tenth Street, New York City.
Fleming and her husband celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2009 and have two daughters and two grandchildren. She is a native of Franklin, Virginia.
A Sermon About the Torture Issue: Imagine the Sojourner
St. Paul’s Church, Richmond, Virginia 2009
A Sermon About the Torture Issue:
This sermon is adapted from a chapter that Fleming Rutledge contributed to a collection of articles against torture, soon to be published.
Fourth in a series of Lenten sermons by Fleming Rutledge
Justice is the topic for Lent at
Today, we will touch upon a topic that preachers all across this country have been avoiding ever since it became relevant on September 11, 2001. I preached on this topic once before, during the Bush administration, and several people stomped out. Somehow I think that you, under this new administration, may be more receptive.
In 2002, the winner of the Pulitzer
Prize for nonfiction was a book by Samantha Power called A Problem from Hell. Its subject is the genocides of the 20th
century, beginning with the Turkish massacre of the Armenians and continuing
The point here is that sympathy and pity are not enough. Sympathy and pity come to the other person or group as if from a distance, from a safe height. Imagination, empathy, and understanding, however, arrive on the same level as the person in need. Empathy requires effort, the effort to imagine what it is like to be that other person or group, even when they appear to be utterly unlike oneself and not worthy of our consideration.
Our text today is from the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, one of the five books of the Torah:
Lord your God…loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the
sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the
More than forty times in the Torah,
the Lord speaks of the sojourner(s).
This is not a word we use very much in everyday conversation, but it is very
important in biblical thought.
The sojourner is one who comes into a culture from a different race, class, or
creed and lives essentially as a refugee. God expects his people
We began this sermon series with
Abraham, the original sojourner. The story of Abraham is the story of a man who
left his ancestral land at the command of God and never again had a permanent
home anywhere. He became a permanent illegal alien, if you will. The New
Testament picks up the theme: “Abraham sojourned
in the land of promise, as in a foreign land…” (Hebrews 11:9). The
letter to the Hebrews then opens up the category of sojourner to include all
Christians. We aren’t wandering in the
So the people who are literally refugees, literally “strangers and exiles” are representatives of the rest of us. They are living out what we try to ignore. Migrant workers, illegal immigrants, homeless people are reminders to us of something we don’t want to think about—our own essential vagrancy and homelessness apart from God. In Deuteronomy, God calls for acts of imagination on our part to overcome this denial, this amnesia, this failure to identify our own situation with that of the refugee:
The Lord your God…loves the
sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore; for you
were sojourners in the
you were sojourners in the
Here’s an example of someone lacking
imagination. When the photographs of the terrible abuses at the Abu Ghraib
The difference between a criminal or terrorist when he is free to function and one who has become a captive is a difference of power and powerlessness. Once a person or a group becomes powerless, then they have become sojourners, living in territory controlled by someone else. By definition, a sojourner is at the mercy of some other group. For this reason God cares in a particular way about all sorts of prisoners. It is no accident that Jesus spoke so incisively about prisoners. God, it seems, has special concern for prisoners and they are commended to us for particular care. I read an article by a man who served as a prison guard at Sing Sing for a year in order to write a book, a book which later won the National Book Critics Award. This man wrote, “It is a heady thing to have prisoners at your mercy…The true test of [a prison] officer, the [prison] system, and indeed the nation [is]: how will you treat those who are helpless before you?”
Another Abraham—President Lincoln—said that nearly all men can withstand adversity; but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. As the most powerful nation—for the present—we Americans have been especially tested. We became like those whom the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk describes, men who exhibit “an easy confidence known only to those for whom it has become second nature to decide other people’s fates.” That “easy confidence” stunts imagination. Easy confidence does not do the work of empathy. This is always the danger for the powerful.
think me naïve. I have read extensively about the French in
Remember the sojourner. Remember the prisoners and captives. A captive who is powerless is our ethical responsibility no matter what he has done, because we also were powerless. We were powerless in the grip of Sin and Death until the One who was at a great height came below. The Son of God stepped out of his position and made himself of no consequence. He gave up his power and placed himself at the mercy of torturers—torturers acting in the name of the greatest empire and the best religion in the world. In the manner of his life and of his death, Jesus Christ took upon himself the representative status of the sojourner with nowhere to lay his head, no one to come to his defense in a foreign land, no one to protect him from his enemies—that is to say, from ourselves. For this is the radical nature of the Christian gospel: when we look at a prisoner, no matter how evil we think him to be, we say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Christian, imagine therefore the sojourners, and hold them in your heart as fellow sufferers like yourself, even as Christ knowingly suffered torture and death. And out of the love of Christ we will teach the next generations: remember the story; remember who we are before the Lord. In the words of Deuteronomy:
Love the sojourner
therefore; for you were sojourners in the
 That sermon, “My Enemy, Myself,” was published in Torture is a Moral Issue, edited by George Hunsinger (Eerdmans Publishing, 2007).
 For the
Armenians, it was Hans Morgenthau; for the Jews, Raphael Lemkin (the man who
coined the word “genocide”); for the Cambodians, Henry Proxmire (and also
Claiborne Pell, Stephen Solarz, and the young journalist Elizabeth Becker); for
the Rwandans, Gen Roméo Dallaire; for the Bosnian Muslims, Peter Galbraith.
Conrad Harper, distinguished
In the section on
 For example, in Kristof’s column in The New York Times (July 2008) he tries to persuade people who don’t think genocide is “that bad” compared to the deaths of millions from malaria and other diseases. He tries to get his readers to imagine the atrocities he has witnessed.
recent Clint Eastwood movie, Gran Torino,
depicts the “other” as the Hmong people of
well-known Sojourners community in
 The subapostolic church saw itself this way, as the second-century Epistle to Diognetus makes clear: “They [the Christians] live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners.”
Walker Percy, Lancelot (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1977), 157. Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner work in the same mine.
 It was
Senator Zell Miller of
Conover, “My Life as a Guard,” The
 I have not been able to track down the original source of this quotation.
 Orhan Pamuk, Snow, 78.
 Jane Mayer describes all this in her book On The Dark Side (2008) and makes a point of honoring the FBI agents, military lawyers, and generals who spoke up.
 To give just one example: Alberto J. Mora, former general counsel of the US Navy. A long article about his struggle with the Department of Defense is “The Memo,” by Jane Mayer, The New Yorker, 2/27/06. Other, recent examples are given in Jim Dwyer’s column “An Honor Guard Comes Out for Obama’s Ban on Torture,” The New York Times 1/24/09. President Obama said of the “honor guard” (various retired flag officers) that “they have made an extraordinary impression on me.”
Shatz, “The Torture of