I grieve over torture. I grieve not only because of those subjected to the abuse no human being should be forced to endure. I grieve not primarily as an American citizen who feels ashamed of the morally bankrupt national leadership that authorized and promoted the practice. I grieve not just as an individual who is personally appalled that supposedly civilized people could bring themselves to deliberately inflict prolonged and terrifying pain on helpless captives.
Above all, I grieve as a Christian minister who hears brothers and sisters in Christ voicing support for torture, torturers and those who those in authority who sanctioned torture. And these are not just an isolated few. Polls show that at least half of Americans support torture at least in some circumstances.
The distribution of torture supporters among the population is not even. Considerably more Republicans support torture than Democrats, but the percentage of both groups is high. White people are more likely to be torture supporters than people of color. Religious people are more likely to support torture than the religiously non-affiliated. Those who are the very most likely to support torture are people who go to church the most, particularly white evangelicals, according to a Pew poll taken a few years ago.
I grieve. And I’m disgusted. It is enough to make you want to quit church. It seems that going to church exposes people to bad moral influences. But I know that the influences that leads Christians in America to support torture have nothing to do with Jesus and everything to do with the propaganda absorbed from politicians and partisan pundits that have a greater impact on a lot of church-goers that the Gospel of love.
Unfortunately, too many Christians in American listen more carefully to people like Bill O’Reilly than they do to Jesus. O’Reilly, who often announces that he is a Christian, boldly asserted that torture is “morally correct.” Why? “It is morally correct to protect innocent lives from barbarians.” No one disputes that innocent lives should be protected. The issue is about how people are to be protected. A good end does not justify every means possible, at least not if Jesus matters.
But it seems that lifting up the ominous images of 9/11 and repeating warnings about the threatening nature of radical Islamists is a sufficient argument for torture. “We have to protect ourselves and do whatever it takes.” Forget Jesus. Forget, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” (Romans 12:17-18; 1 Peter 3:9). Torture is acceptable because, you know, as O’Reilly said, “Bad things happen in war.” And in the war on terror whatever bad is done by the U.S. is small potatoes compared to the evil of them. That is what we tell ourselves.
Of course among torture supporters the concern for protecting the innocent doesn’t extend to the many innocent ones –the majority- who ended up caged in Guantanamo Bay. Instead of Gitmo being filled with “the worst of the worst,” as President Bush once claimed, Army Major General Antonio Taguba’s investigation found otherwise. Years before the Senate report released this week, he discovered, “Numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees . . . systemic and illegal abuse.” His investigations led him to conclude that most who were locked away were innocent, picked up in sweeps.
But I have heard Christians heartlessly disregard any concern for these innocent people. Instead many of my brothers and sister in Christ have echoed the politicians’ and pundits’ weasel-worded quibbling over the definition of torture. Minimizing the suffering of others by those who have had no similar experience is shameful, utterly unworthy of those who claim to follow Jesus or any decent person. It is noteworthy that one politician who has not indulged in this self-serving callousness of his colleagues is someone who actually has some personal experience with being tortured, Senator John McCain.
I’m not interested in arguments about whether torture resulted in information that “made us safer.” There are good reasons to doubt those claims, claims mostly made by people who have vested interest for making them. Regardless, as someone who is unwilling to put Jesus on the curb when the rubber hits the road, I believe torture must be condemned without qualification as unambiguously evil and utterly incompatible with following Jesus.
American Christians need to remember who it is that they call Lord. I grieve because it seems many have forgotten. With Jesus “whatever it takes” never meant whatever suffering and destruction inflicted on others. Rather “whatever it takes” meant the suffering he had to endure for the sake of others. Our Lord was a victim of torture. His torture was done to him in the name of “national security” (John 11:50). Security was not among the values Jesus extolled. Supporters of torture –then and now- deceive themselves about the nobility of the ends they seek and the effectiveness of the violent means they use.
Jesus was never one who pressed the point of nails into anyone else’s flesh. Jesus was on the receiving end of the nails. And we can’t legitimately claim to follow him if we insist on doing “whatever it takes” to someone else in order to avoid finding ourselves on the sharp end of the nails. As Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).