Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Who Would Jesus Torture? (Dialogue Column 5.26.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.

Last week our nation was treated to the contrasting ideologies of President Barack Obama and former Vice-President Dick Cheney concerning the use of torture to obtain information necessary for the security of the United States. The talking heads of cable news and even more austere writers and reporters covered the competing speeches as a Right vs. Left issue. My concern, however, is what does the Gospel have to say about torture? Unsurprisingly, there was little, if any, coverage of what religious leaders have to say about torture, yet, even if there were, to my knowledge there were no religious leaders to interview. It seems no spokesperson for any faith was up for the debate. Why the silence?

Religious leaders who generally align themselves with the Right politically perhaps have nothing to say on the issue, because from their perspective the justification for using torture to safeguard innocent lives is not controversial at all. A recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life revealed that white evangelical Protestants were overwhelmingly in favor of using torture to ensure national security. Furthermore, the theology preached most Sundays in such churches seems to reinforce the idea that if torture is carried out by the “good guys” against the “bad guys” then it is okay. I tend to agree with the religious writer Sarah Sentilles who argues that atonement theology—the belief that it was necessary for Jesus to suffer and die to save a sinful humanity—and its images of a bloody, crucified Jesus somehow lay the groundwork for Christians to believe that violence and suffering can be not only justified but necessary. If it is okay for one who is blameless to suffer for the sake of the many, how much more is it okay for one who is a terrorist to suffer?

It is entirely up for debate, however, as to whether any useful information was gained from “waterboarding” or any other “enhanced interrogation techniques.” On the contrary, it seems that the most useful information gained to protect the United States came from interrogations that did not involve torture. The usefulness of torture is actually beside the point, however. What should be the central concern for people of faith is whether or not it is ever morally justifiable—even if it works?

From my own perspective, I believe that the crosses that adorn our jewelry and our churches should stand as a refutation of violence rather than a justification for it. The tortured and executed Christ should cause us to question our own motives whenever we believe it is acceptable to demean one whom Christ died for—especially demeaning them to the point that it is okay to torture them. Didn’t the Roman authorities and guards think they were doing their part to keep the peace? Some may argue that we are dealing with terrorists and criminals, a far cry from the situation of the Romans and Jesus. It’s a fair point but an unpersuasive one from the perspective of the Gospel. Jesus taught us to love God, our neighbors, ourselves AND our enemies. Living in a complex world like ours it is a struggle to balance a healthy love for one’s self and the people one considers worthy of love with love for those we deem unworthy of love, but the Gospel is not easy. Balances can perhaps be found in many forms of law enforcement, intelligence services and the military, but I believe torturing another human being fundamentally betrays any effort of love no matter the motives for it. Torture crosses a line that demeans the one being tortured and the torturer—not to mention those who sit by and let it happen in their name.

So that’s one minister’s opinion—a minister serving a church far from the halls of power and the media spotlight. I can’t help but wonder, however, where are the voices of objection and outrage coming from Christian leaders who are called to serve the tortured Christ and to love both neighbor and enemy? I have read articles by Christian academics and the blogs of Christian social activists who have offered protests, but the leaders of denominations and the writers and the thinkers in the glare of the media remain silent. The silence is as troubling to me as the political machinations being debated on cable TV.

Grace and Peace,


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