By R. Ward Holder, Professor of Theology, Saint Anselm College & Debbie Dyslin, Fellow, Presbyterian Church (USA) Office of Public Witness
At its meeting in Pittsburgh earlier this month, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted by an overwhelming margin to accept a resolution recognizing that the use of solitary confinement can be a form of torture. Further, the assembly resolved to call upon the elected political leaders in America to adopt different practices, and to accept the U.N.’s Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture. As evident in recent news, the Presbyterian Church is quite divided on many of the hot-button social issues of the day. But on this question, the assembly could and did speak with a united voice. Why?
First, Presbyterians are united with all other Christians in seeing that the inherent dignity of humanity comes from its relationship to the Creator. God made humanity in the divine image – the treatment of any human being speaks volumes about one’s relationship to God. Prolonged solitary confinement and other practices of torture thus not only ignore individual rights but also violate inherent human dignity and worth.
But even beyond that, the scripture demands that Christians reach out to those in prison. Jesus commanded his followers to visit those in prison (Matthew 25.36). The letter to the Hebrews goes even further, directing Christians to “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” (Hebrews 13.3)
Presbyterians have a tradition of social justice and standing against torture. After the release of pictures and video footage of human rights abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison, Presbyterians took leadership in the anti-torture efforts of the No2Torture Campaign and helped create in 2006 the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), an interfaith organization of 317 religious organizations.
Until now we have focused on torture practiced in foreign lands, but with this resolution we expand our call to seek justice in our own backyard as well.
Second, the church is realizing both that solitary confinement can be used as an instrument of torture, and that American political leaders and prison officials are complicit in this torture. While America is home to only five percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of its prisoners and the vast majority of prisoners in long-term solitary confinement. Both our common humanity and our obedience to God cry out against this affront, and demand our Christian witness.
The resolution calls for three actions: 1) for state and federal governments to limit the use and harm of solitary confinement and address the mental health needs of prisoners; 2) for the president to sign and the Senate to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture; and 3) for Presbyterians to participate in anti-torture efforts.
Presbyterians responded to this resolution faithfully and will continue to witness to the inherent God-given dignity of each person by advocating against prolonged solitary confinement. We will remember those who are in prison, as though we were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though we ourselves were being tortured (Hebrews 13.3).