catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 9 :: 2009.04.24 — 2009.05.08


Christians and torture

Last week, President Obama released several classified memos from high-level Bush administration officials that unequivocally authorize the use of torture in the ongoing “war on terror.”  In the ensuing media firestorm, it’s interesting to note that a good number of journalists are busying themselves with questions of whether or not Obama’s release of these memos will hurt national security; instead, we ought to be doing the hard work of examining who we’ve become as a people when the use of torture doesn’t cause an immediate and resounding condemnation.  Christians, in particular, ought to be able to firmly denounce the use of torture in any situation.

The general argument condoning torture runs like this:  an enemy is captured and is suspected to be withholding information that could possibly save thousands of lives; after other legitimate techniques have been exhausted, interrogators resort to extreme methods in order to secure the necessary information; this information results in the good guys thwarting the evil enemy’s plan, thus saving thousands of innocent lives.  If you’ve seen an episode of 24 lately, you’re probably pretty familiar with the scenario.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), life is a little more complicated than television often makes it out to be.  The classic apologetic for torture—or, to use the euphemistic nomenclature of the public conversation, “enhanced interrogation methods”—leaves out several factors that ultimately undermine even the pragmatic arguments for its use.

First, the apologetic assumes the suspect has necessary information, which has not been accurate in many recent cases, particularly apparent at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.  Second, it assumes that torture methods are the only means to procure information from certain suspects, an assumption that is, at best, debatable.  Third, if a suspect does have relevant information, that information becomes less and less reliable the more mentally unstable the suspect becomes as a result of torture.  And, finally, the unintended consequences of prisoner torture remains to be seen, but we can be assured that relatives of torture victims—particularly victims who were entirely innocent—will not be sympathetic to our ongoing cause.

More important, though, are the ethical and spiritual implications of condoning torture, and Christians simply cannot rely on Democrats, Republicans or television to do our thinking for us.  It is here that we Christians need to be unequivocal.  Regardless of its efficacy, Christians must take a firm stand against torture if we are to live into the world-shaping story of the gospel.  While this may often be a difficult position to take, we are called to faithfulness, not effectiveness.  And faithfulness on this issue seems clear if we take the biblical narrative seriously.

Within historic Christianity, we understand that each human being is an image bearer of his or her Creator, making each of us infinite in complexity and possibility.  Alongside this characteristic, we also recognize brokenness and the possibility for all of us to succumb to our worst impulses, individually and communally.  In an attempt to counteract these impulses, God, through the law and the prophets, made repeated injunctions requiring His people to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger-the least of these.  Jesus reinforced the dictum throughout his life, adding that we are, in effect, serving Christ himself when we attend to the sick, the lonely foreigner, the naked and the prisoner.  Then Jesus announced that we were to go above and beyond mere kindness: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Jesus, of course, fulfilled his ideals when he loved his torturers to the end, even asking for forgiveness on their behalf while hanging from the nails they had driven through his hands.  And we shouldn’t forget that God, despite our repeated attempts to prove otherwise, never considered any of us beyond redemption.

When we argue for the practice of torturing another human being, what are we implicitly saying about what we believe to be true about the world and being human?  We are essentially denying the image of God in the victim by forcing him or her into a predetermined, simplistic identity.  We have placed ourselves in the position of being indisputably in the right, denying our own brokenness while making the claim that a specific prisoner is irredeemable.  We are often in the process of creating the situations that define the least of these—the sick, the foreigner, the naked, the prisoner—by flying potential suspects around the globe to secret bases where they are imprisoned, stripped, starved and subjected to all kinds of inhumane treatment in the name of security for citizens of the United States.  And we are certainly not in any way, shape or form loving our enemies in the process.

Many of us find the idea of standing up against conventional wisdom on issues such as torture difficult.  Scott Russell Sanders, in his memoir A Private History of Awe, provides a helpful recollection of a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. that took place at Brown University while Sanders was a student there:

If he was called unpatriotic for opposing his government’s policies, well then, he would have to suffer the name, because his religion required him to love all people, not merely those of his own country.  His religion called on him to be a peacemaker, to denounce injustice, to uphold the cause of the poor.  And if, in obedience to that call, he offended those in power, if he upset those believers who refused to carry their religion beyond the church doors, if he angered those self-proclaimed patriots who believed America could do no wrong, that was a risk he had to run.

Our position on this and many issues will often stand in stark contrast to the prevailing spirit of the age.  We need to be willing to speak out, preferably in the unity of the Holy Spirit, when something as egregious as torture is being done in our name.  If we are going to have the audacity to call ourselves Christians-people being formed in Christ’s likeness-we need to be willing to act like Christ, for our actions belie our underlying beliefs.

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