People all over the world have seen the pictures of humiliated and tortured Iraqi prisoners. The question on the minds of millions of Americans is, How could this happen? The quick response, to blame a few "bad apples," seems disingenuous as reports come in about systemic problems throughout the prisons and detainment camps. And not just in Iraq. The "New York Times" reports that the kinds of abuse seen in Iraq — prisoners stripped, forced to wear black hoods and women's underwear, verbal abuse, beatings, sexual abuse — are common in U.S. prisons as well.

It is just as easy to vilify the soldiers in the pictures as it was to demonize Saddam Hussein — "They did it." "This is not the way we are." "We don't do things like that." This is a classic type of projection common in wartime, as Sam Keen has brilliantly explained in his book Faces of the Enemy. To fall into this trap is to walk the talk of contempt.

The antidote to torture and humiliation is reverence for life — all life. This is the path of radical respect. It recognizes the presence of the sacred in everything, including those we call our enemies. Albert Schweitzer said, "I cannot but have reverence for all that is called life. I cannot avoid compassion for everything that is called life. That is the beginning and foundation of morality."

While the world's religions may differ on points of doctrine or ritual, the spiritual practice of reverence is shared by all of them. Irreverence was at work in the prisons of Iraq, and it is afoot in our culture and in our daily lives. The movies and readings recommended here explore this reality, and our practices suggest specific actions you can take to support reverence for life.


  • The Experiment (Das Experiment) about How We Could All Be Guards
    This powerful 2002 German movie reveals that there is a monstrous guard inside each of us who, given the opportunity, could revel in the chance to hurt and humiliate others. If you are wondering how young American soldiers could act as they did in the Iraq prisons, this film will show you the process by which they could have gotten there. Twenty men are recruited for an experiment involving role-playing in a prison-like setting. After being told they will have to give up their rights as citizens, they are divided into groups of guards and prisoners. For two weeks, they are to learn how to apply pressure and bear it.


  • Robert Fuller on Somebodies and Nobodies
    "Rankism," writes Fuller, is "the shabby treatment of someone by a person in power." What is happening in the prisons is mirrored in many other situations and institutions — anywhere a somebody claims power over a nobody. He advocates a dignitarian movement that would reverence all persons and move beyond domination plays. Read his manifesto for nobodies.
  • Sister Dianna Ortiz on Torture in the World Today
    Lest we be tempted to dismiss the prisoner abuse as "not so terrible" or "a prank to let off steam," or "no worse than a college fraternity initiation," we return to the definition of torture from the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Torture includes acts deliberately perpetrated by or with the approval of government officials, which are designed to inflict extreme physical and/or psychological suffering." Sister Dianna Ortiz, who was tortured by military security forces in Guatemala, has written about her experience and its aftermath. She declares that "No one ever fully recovers -- not the one who is tortured, and not the one who tortures." And yet she has hope.
  • Frederick Franck on Albert Schweitzer's Reverence for Life
    Artist Frederick Frank worked for three years in Africa with Dr. Albert Schweitzer. In this excerpt from Franck's book What Does It Mean to Be Human, he recalls an afternoon conversation with the good doctor about his guiding principle, reverence for all life. Franck mentions other "prophets of human solidarity" and notes the qualities that they share in common.
  • Rabbi Robert M. Levine on Reverence for Everybody
    Many religious leaders use interpretations of scripture and teaching stories to illustrate the proper way for humans to treat each other. Rabbi Leonard Felder in his book "The Ten Challenges" notes that one interpretation of the Eighth Commandment says that "to be rude to someone, to treat any human being in a demeaning way, or even to fail to respond to a greeting is a theft of a person's self-respect." Here's another example of the practice of reverence from the Jewish tradition.


  • Bowing to Show Reverence
    Bowing is used in many religions as a sign of respect. Lama Surya Das explains the Buddhist practice: "We are taught to clasp our palms together and bow to all beings, seen and unseen. In this way, we show our intention to cherish and respect all forms of life." Hindus use a similar position, palms together held near the heart, head slightly bowed, for the "namaste" greeting; the bow and the greeting say, the divine part of me bows to the divine part of you. Sufis show respect by placing the palm of their right hand over their heart. Incorporate a bowing practice into your daily life.
  • A Lesson for a Young Monk
    In the movie Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring, a teacher discovers that a child monk has been torturing animals — tying stones to a fish, a frog, and a snake, then laughing as his victims struggle to get away. That night, the Old Monk ties a huge stone to the boy's back. He tells him to find the animals, to remove the stones, and to remember that if any of them are dead, he will carry that burden for the rest of his life. As you watch this scene, or contemplate this story, identify the lessons you learned as a child, or can teach children now, that helped you develop reverence for life.
  • Larry Yang on Refraining from Diminishing Another
    Writing in Friends on the Path about the living spiritual communities working in the way of Thich Nhat Hanh, Yang outlines trainings of the mind for diversity. He notes: "As humans, we all participate in the harmful behaviors that these trainings are addressing. We all have been the perpetrator and victim, at one time or another." Here's one training for your meditation and application:
    "Aware of the suffering caused by the violence of treating someone as inferior or superior to one's own self, I undertake the training to refrain from diminishing or idealizing the worth, integrity, and happiness of any human being. Recognizing that my true nature is not separate from others, I commit to treating each person that comes into my consciousness with the same loving kindness, care, and equanimity that I would bestow upon a beloved benefactor or dear friend."
  • Sam Keen on Making a Self-Assessment
    In his watershed book Faces of the Enemy, Keen discusses our tendency to play the blame game and to send out armies "as the symbolic representatives to act out their repressed shadows." To heal, we must re-own our shadows both individually and corporately. He suggests that we do a self-assessment of the myriad ways we deny and project our selfishness, cruelty, greed, and other elements of our warrior psyche on other people. Keen reminds us of the instruction from long ago: "Remove first the beam from your own eye and then you will see more clearly to remove the mote from your brother's eye."