Prisoner abuse and the power of image

Bringing a spiritual perspective to daily life

As sickening as the pictures have been of US forces abusing Iraqi detainees at the US-run Abu Ghraib prison, some reports say that, as of this writing, the worst is yet to come. Apparently, even more vile acts were caught on film. The outrage of Americans - that a handful of their own troops would behave in this egregious manner and bring discredit to the heroic efforts of tens of thousands of troops - is matched by the outrage of the Arab world and beyond.

The photos of abused prisoners, and of US forces gleefully committing the abuse, have pushed aside, for the time being, the far more frequent images of US forces helping rebuild Iraq. And even when those upbeat photos occasionally have made it into print, or onto television, or the Internet, they've been hugely overshadowed. Every bad Arab-world opinion of the US, seemingly, has just been verified. More than one analyst says that a single abhorrent image outweighs a thousand images of forces doing good.

Initially, I accepted that disheartening analysis. I accepted it as how this story inevitably will play out in the media, and how it will inflict long-term damage on the humanitarian efforts to stabilize an unstable scene.

But I'm rethinking my view. I've begun to reconsider the power of image. I've begun to consider where image comes from, especially the image of good. And I've come to some conclusions about where I want to throw the full weight of my conviction and my prayer - because I believe prayer is invaluable in terms of addressing the scandal and shaping its lasting impact.

This isn't simply a bad-news-sells-but-good-news-doesn't story. Perhaps there's a deeper issue, one that touches on profoundly spiritual facts. I've had to ask myself: Where does good come from? Every appearing of good is, in a sense, the imaging forth of the Almighty. That's where all good originates. At the very outset, in the first chapter of its first book, the Bible announces that God made man in His own image, and that God saw all that He made to be very good. So every image of good - including images of soldiers making heroic efforts to bring stability to Iraqi neighborhoods - ultimately has its source in God. Could an image of God be good but at the same time powerless, or nearly powerless, when an image of evil is also nearby? Is an image of God, divine good, outweighed a thousand to one by its opposite? The answers are: No, and no.

Goodness isn't overmatched by evil. All evidence of goodness deserves to be cherished as coming from a sure and undefeatable source. Every instance of thoughtfulness, of heroism, of decency, is worthy of the deepest underpinning conviction that God is the source of those good endeavors.

These atrocities had to be exposed. Burying them might have seemed expedient to some, but that would have been another crime. The exposure of wrongdoing is part of the process leading to correction, and finally to healing. At the same time, the exposing of atrocities doesn't have to be granted the power to cause more destruction, chaos, and hatred, nor should it be the final word, the lasting memory. I'm no longer willing to let the mental weight of my outlook tip the scales of public expectation toward the side of further damage. By cherishing the power of good images from God, I tip the scale of those expectations, however slightly, toward healing.

What comes from God can't be outweighed, erased, or obliterated. What comes from God - including every image of goodness - has the power not just to put a story in context but actually to obliterate images of evil, images in which all evidence of God's presence may seem lost.

Under the heading "Man the true image of God," Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy wrote, "...God enables us to know that evil is not the medium of good, and that good supreme destroys all sense of evil, obliterates the lost image that mortals are content to call man, and demands man's unfallen spiritual perfectibility.

"The grand realism that man is the true image of God, not fallen or inverted, is demonstrated by Christian Science. And because Christ's dear demand, 'Be ye therefore perfect,' is valid, it will be found possible to fulfil it" ("Christian Science versus Pantheism," pages 11-12).

As this story continues, I'll continue to pray. To insist that the uncovering of evil doesn't have the power to overwhelm voices of reason and restraint. And to realize that images of good have the Almighty's backing and therefore can't ever be lost or discarded.

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