Fifth Sunday after Easter

Why do Christians love torture?

Rosa and I were in the car yesterday when the top-of-the-hour news came on with clips from President Obama and Vice President Cheney's speeches about torture.  Rosa started paying attention when Cheney's said:

"I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do. The intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work..."

At which point Rosa broke in and said with total incredulity, "Who said THAT??"  At ten, Rosa still has a sense of how ridiculous it is to say that anyone would be proud of torturing anyone else.  I know that some would argue that torture could be justified, but to say that it's praiseworthy?  How have we come to that?

Rosa's comment stayed on my mind because, like her, there is part of our nation's conversation about torture (or "enhanced interrogation techniques" as Cheney likes to call them) which I just don't get.  It's not just that I disagree--I simply can't figure out how anyone could agree with the use of torture.  I can't empathize with the proponents of torture which makes me pretty useless in public conversation on the topic.  My opposition to torture is based on two things that are utterly essential to my morality:  the importance of the rule of law and the sacredness of human life.  (Plus, everything I've read leads me to be opposed on pragmatic grounds as well.  I just am not convinced that torture leads to any useful information.)

But a couple of weeks ago, a study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life came out that really disturbed me.  You can go to the link to see the actual survey results, but in summary, the more often a person goes to church, the more likely they are to support the use of torture (and they used that word--not "enhanced interrogation techniques").  The Americans most likely to support torture are white evangelicals (62%) and those unaffiliated with a religious group are the least likely to support torture.

As I was ranting to Dan about this, he pointed out that the study showed that party affiliation is a MUCH stronger determinant of support of torture than religious affiliation is.  Basically, Republicans are likely to support torture, and the survey just showed where the Republicans are.  And while his point is correct, I don't think it's the whole story.

Here's the thing:  Jesus was tortured.  This is one of the reasons while it blows my mind that any Christian could support torture since we all know that at least one innocent person has been tortured under false accusations by the state.  But what if our religious teachings tell us that while it was unfortunate that Jesus was tortured, it did, in fact, serve a good purpose.  It had a good outcome because (in the words of Isaiah 53:5):

       ...he was pierced for our transgressions,
       he was crushed for our iniquities;
       the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
       and by his wounds we are healed.

Could it be that by talking so much about what we've gained by way of Jesus' torture we've actually taught ourselves that torture can actually be a good thing?  A useful and important thing?

This is serious, people.  Obama and his people have their work to do rooting torture out from the practice of our government.  But I think Christian churches and Christian leaders have our work to do too.  We need a better theology of suffering, a better understanding of Jesus' suffering, if we're ever going to clearly oppose it's use by our government.


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Chris Beyer

Good stuff. I never looked at it this way, but it makes such sense. Of course the Church has been known to endorse torture from time to time in the past. I'm going to reprint this on my blog, if you don't mind. (Too bad if you do ;) )

Nan Powell

I'd really like to be part of a study on changing the theology of suffering. Since theology leaves me brain dead perhaps I should say a study of the meaning of suffering. How does it change us? What is its purpose?

B.C. Milligan

For starters, you have accepted a very politicized definition of "torture." Inflicting discomfort is not torture. One of the THREE people our government "tortured" claimed responsibility for the deaths of over 3,000 Americans, and he also took personal responsibility for beheading an American journalist, Daniel Pearl.

Finally, Christ was not "tortured," at least by the definition of the times. He was executed by the Romans -- not the Jews, as many people imagine -- and the method chosen to execute him was the same as used by the Romans to execute both common criminals and deserters from their army.

Arguments without facts are not arguments. They are diatribes.

B.C. Milligan

P.S. And then I will trouble your blog no more -- Khalid Sheikh Mohammad revealed, under interrogation, that he was planning at least one additional operation (in Los Angeles) that would certainly have resulted in the deaths of more Americans. Although the Obama administration has cheerfully revealed all our methods of interrogation, to the doubtless glee of our foes, it has kept the successful results (such as the above) secret, for obvious political reasons.

Finally, if you can answer honestly, which do you think would have been a better result -- that he should have revealed this plan, under duress, or that he should have been allowed to carry it through, causing death and misery to many thousands more?

Which result is more moral? Which would have caused more suffering? How can anyone possibly disagree on the answers to these questions?

Daniel Kirk-Davidoff

A few points:

Approximately 100 detainees died under interrogation by the Bush Administration.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, under Republican leadership, found that the abuses at Abu Ghraib derived directly from policy decisions by the Bush administration.

Those who torture have at least as much motivation to lie about the efficacy of their actions (e.g. claim that torturing KSM prevented some other attack) as those who would end such practices. Torture is a war crime, after all.

The problem with claims that torture saved lives is that those claims are impossible to verify in advance. So one can justify torturing anyone on the grounds that he or she might have information about an impending attack. We know now that many of the detainees subjected to torture were innocent parties, captured by the U.S. on the basis of hearsay.
See, for example:

Here are some sites that document the consequences of Bush administration detainee practices:

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