Professor David Daniell noted in his introduction that Chas Raws is ‘ecumenical to the core’. As a member of the Society of Friends he has many national and international responsibilities. He is the very active Clerk of the (Quaker) Committee for Christian and Interfaith Relations and is also involved in Amnesty International and Action by Christians Torture (ACAT).

I was encouraged to choose a subject dear to my heart rather than one with a direct bearing on William Tyndale, although Tyndale does feature in this lecture. Part of what I want to say today concerns the nature of goodness and its corruption by power, by privilege or by self-seeking; what guides men, good as well as bad, to inflict suffering on their fellows and what the struggle against this evil requires for those who seek to follow Jesus Christ, himself a prime example of one who suffered such ill treatment at the hands of the religious and political authorities of his country. My intention is to explore the several meanings of the words ‘humanity as victim’.

At its broadest and most obvious it encompasses the whole sorry panorama of world and time – of the suffering of the human race. The main example of this to which I refer is the obscenity of torture, still so evident in so many countries after centuries of enlightenment and decades of human rights legislation. This will lead me to take theological view of this particular evil and to suggest that it poses a particular challenge to the Christian church, a challenge that sadly has not met with an adequate response as yet.

I want to quote part of Foxe’s account of Tyndale’s martyrdom drawn, as he says, from the account written in 1536. Describing the days which led up to 6 October of that year, Foxe writes ‘After much harassing investigation, his former host at length escaped from prison in the night but Tyndale had not such fortune and was condemned under the decree of the senate of Augsburg, to be tied to a stake and then strangled by the hangman and his body afterwards to be burned’.

The trappings of burning at the stake are obviously those of a severe form of torture and this punishment shares the many motivations of torture across the centuries – deliberate cruelty as an element in punishment itself, deterrence, the extraction of information and the terrorization of other potential opponents of a religious or political regime. I have been an active member of Amnesty International for over twenty years and chair of Action by Christians Against Torture, for the past two.

The abuse of torture became evident to Amnesty researchers early in the organization’s history. The first campaign against torture in the 1970s led to a United Nations statement on torture, which reaffirmed and expanded the stark clause 5 in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights on which all Amnesty’s work is based. The clause reads; ‘No one shall be subjected to torture or cruel inhuman or degrading treatment’ and that cleared a road from the shock which the world committee felt when it received news of the horror of the death camps and the treatment meted out by the Nazi regime to subject peoples in general and certain ethnic groups in particular. But the abuse continued and each year Amnesty’s annual report catalogued more and more countries in which torture is practised with apparent impunity. One remembers, either with ironic humour or sorrow, that when Peter Benenson formed Amnesty it was called Amnesty 1961, and it was going to do away with political imprisonment and the phenomenon of prisoners of conscience within twelve months! Here we are 41 or 42 years later and the list remains as long.

Amnesty’s second campaign led to the more substantial United Nations Convention Against Torture of 1984 with its own committee and secretariat – and eventually a special rapporteur on torture who could visit countries, take evidence and make reports. Action by Christians Against Torture (ACAT) came into Britain in the same year 1984. There was already an ACAT. in France with a large and growing membership across most of the churches. The British Council of Churches and the British section of Amnesty International encouraged the establishment of a similar organization in the UK so that to other aspects of human rights work in this field could be added a churches’ campaign introducing the dimension of prayer – seeking to involve Christians of every denomination through their daily or weekly worship.

It always seems ironic, when working for Amnesty, to come across flagrant examples of torture in countries where the UN Convention on Torture is part of their national constitution. Not only are they breaking international law but they are also breaking their own law in allowing it to be used. Only by harnessing public opinion effectively on the widest scale and, in particular, the will of faith-communities, whose beliefs are based upon the uniqueness and sanctity of every human life as a gift of the Creator, can such a Declaration be translated into action. It has to be said, as with so many documents pertaining to the fields of human life, that this has not happened.

In his recent book ‘The Dignity of Difference’, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs quoted Jonathan Swift to the effect that ‘We have enough religion to make us hate one another, not enough to make us love one another.’ His theme of mutual respect and even mutual irradiation between faiths is another aspect of healing the divisions between human beings, divisions from which suspicion, discrimination and hatred so readily grow.

Some years ago at a Christians Against Torture week of action, Rowan Williams, who is one of our patrons, based his address on a remarkable book called ‘Torture and Eucharist’ by William Cavanaugh. The author researched into the experience of the church in Chile during the Pinochet years, and he found that it moved from being a fairly ineffective bystander to a credible moral and political force when it began to take seriously its role as the body of Christ. It is Cavanaugh’s thesis that, until Christians respect the physical integrity of the body as firmly as the doctrine of the incarnation demands, the gospel is betrayed. Just as the torturer recognizes the reality of the body and the fact that the integrity of body and mind can be broken and the spirit itself destroyed in its disintegration, so Christians need to defend the sacred unity of body-mind-spirit against any threat, as a requirement of their faith.

On this basis Christianity has marked up more failures than successes over its long history. Not only did such abuses as the Inquisition use torture to break opposition under the guise of saving souls, but in our own day the massacres in Rwanda and Bosnia were not restrained by the Christian affiliation of many of the population on one or both sides of the ethnic or cultural divide. Given the ingenuity of the human mind perhaps this is not surprising; was it not Augustine who adapted the injunction to ‘Love your Enemies’, to allow participation in a ‘Just War’ – to love your enemies while killing them? The distortion of humanity, which marks such thinking, is truly pathological and I suppose it is only redeemed by the creative and devoted work of those who seek to heal the bodies and minds of men, women and children who have suffered its effects.

Organizations like the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, which was established in 1985, offer such healing to the many survivors of torture who reach our shores as asylum seekers and who may or may not be granted refugee status. Helen Bamber, its founder and, until recently, its director writes ‘The Medical Foundation is the place where survivors of torture can feel that their experiences are believed and where they can safely express their grief and anger. We help them to find and to recognize what helps them to survive – in particular, their own inner resources. We try to help them to build on these strengths and to use them in facing the new difficulties and challenges of life in exile.’

International human rights law provides the framework in which every victim of inhumanity should be able to find redress, but the vision of justice on this scale is a long time becoming a reality. The struggle to prevent torture and to bring to justice the perpetrators by using the mechanism of international human rights is the basis of all our work in Amnesty and ACAT. Ongoing relief of those who have suffered, like that offered by the Medical Foundation, is inspiring and vital but, until we can turn the tide of world opinion which allows torture to happen with impunity, we shall only be dealing with victims rather than causes. In the interest of creating a healthy world order free from the cancer of torture which corrupts so many so-called civilizations even today, the churches must give their wholehearted support to the human rights movement. They must recognize that as another aspect of establishing the kingdom of God – our ultimate goal.

I end with a prayer from the collection produced by the International Federation of ACAT, under the title ‘Hope from the Darkest Night’: -

For those oppressed by Grief, Remember Lord your agony For those who suffer in the flesh, Remember Lord the torture you endured For those who suffer derision, Remember Lord, your crown of thorns For those who despair of life, Remember Lord, your cry to the Father For those who hope against all hope, Let Your Resurrection shine forth.

Note The lecturer brought along two books relevant to William Tyndale which his audience were able to consult. These were an American facsimile edition produced in 1974 of the ‘Coverdale Bible of 1535’ which contained an original leaf (the last page of the book of Esther) of that work and an 1811 edition of Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’.

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