Last Tuesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a harrowing executive summary of a new report detailing the CIA’s use of “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” on prisoners detained at Guantanamo Bay and other prisons. The summary described the agency’s willingness to use brutal methods such as water-boarding, force-feeding, and sexual threats, and ultimately condemned such tactics as inhumane and ineffective for fighting the war on terror.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney and other former staffers from the George W. Bush White House took to the airwaves to try and defend the policies, but many such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) quickly labeled the CIA’s methods as torture, and thus inhumane. But as Sarah Posner reported over at Religion Dispatches, a recent Washington Post/ABC poll showed that the majority of Americans would not classify the CIA’s techniques as torture, and most — 59 percent — thought the agency’s treatment detainees was justified. Posner lamented this fact, but also noted another unsettling trend: Christians polled were actually more likely than the general public to support torture.
“Just 39% of white evangelicals believe the CIA’s treatment of detainees amounted to torture, with 53% of white non-evangelical Protestants and 45% of white Catholics agreeing with that statement,” Posner writes. “Sixty nine percent of white evangelicals believe the CIA treatment was justified, compared to just 20% who said it was not … A full three-quarters (75%) of white non-evangelical Protestants outnumber the 22% of their brethren in saying CIA treatment was justified. White Catholics believe the treatment was justified by a 66-23% margin.”
These numbers are appalling, theologically repugnant, and frankly confusing. Christianity is a tradition whose savior, Jesus Christ, was arrested, wrongfully accused, and tortured — things the gospel stories make clear were gross mistreatments. Christ was also crucified, a form of capital punishment that was specifically designed to torture right up until the moment of death, with many ancient victims suffering for hours or days before succumbing to dehydration, asphyxiation, or cardiac arrest, among other stomach-turning ends.
In fact, Christians often wear a symbol of this torture, the cross, around their necks, supposedly as a reminder of the tragedy of Christ’s death — and phenomenal triumph that his resurrection represents.
And yet somehow, there are millions of Christians in the United States who are either willing to pretend that the CIA’s techniques weren’t torture, or hold that torture itself is justified within Christianity. On the second point, there are admittedly historical examples of Christians embracing brutal interrogation techniques. In 1252, Pope Innocent IV formally sanctioned torture as a means of extracting “truth” from suspects during the Medieval Inquisition. Similarly, torture was used as a means of obtaining confessions during the Spanish Inquisition, where people under suspicion of heresy were strapped to a rack and had their limbs pulled in different directions until they admitted to wrongdoing. Even today, there are people masquerading as serious theologians who try to justify the CIA’s tactics by quoting acts of cruelty and violence detailed in the Old Testament. They lift up God as a “man of war,” pulling verses from the books of Exodus and Judges out of context to create a warped spirituality that condones the abuse of a human being in order to ostensibly save the life of another (even though torture at Gitmo didn’t actually help save lives). Their core argument, apparently, is that a criminal has “forfeited his right to life and his dignity by his own evil actions,” which apparently gives Christians full license to abuse their mind and body at will.
But just because these horrific examples and ideas exist doesn’t make them remotely Christian. Setting aside the fact that stripping someone of their human dignity and right to life is profoundly theologically problematic, these positions blatantly disregard Jesus’ repeated, plainspoken insistence that his followers love their enemies, turn the other cheek, and to refrain from returning evil with evil. If you want to use the Bible to justify torture, you have to arbitrarily insert a nonexistent “unless” into those biblical passages, and selfishly grant humanity the power to exact judgement that is supposed to be God’s alone.
But you can’t do that — at least not in a way that jives with Christ’s words and deeds. This is why so many Christian groups and denominations have published statements condemning torture in all its forms, and in 2006, dozens of American faith leaders from a wide variety of religious traditions signed a declaration saying that torture “violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear.” Even Christian groups that ascribe to versions of “Just War” theology/doctrine — or the belief that lethal force, in extreme cases, is spiritually justified — condemn torture as abhorrent. Pope Francis has criticized Guantanamo Bay and said that even solitary confinement is a form of “physical and psychological torture.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which also opposes the death penalty, calls torture “blasphemous.” Richard Land, former president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has defined waterboarding as “torture” that “violates everything [Southern Baptists] stand for.”
There is so much agreement on this point that faith leaders almost immediately released statements condemning the tactics described in the Senate report, with Bishop Oscar Cantu, the chairman of the U.S Catholic bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, saying that the cruelties described in the document “violated the God-given human dignity inherent in all people and were unequivocally wrong.”
Perhaps most ironic of all is how the experience of these prisoners, although mostly Muslim, share parallels with Christ’s own story. Like Jesus, many of the men in Guantanamo Bay were laughed at and mocked, even though there often wasn’t sufficient evidence to justify their imprisonment in the first place. Like Jesus, many of these prisoners were beaten mercilessly. And like when Jesus was hanging on the cross, many who had the power to help them — including far too many Christians — stood by silently, doing nothing.
Were all of the men in Gitmo innocent like Jesus? Of course not, but as the faith leaders listed above point out, seeking Christian justice is not the same thing as condoning persecution — Christ is not a savior who tortures. Christ is a savior who suffered, was tortured, and died, only then to turn around and model a new way of life that begins with radical forgiveness, not vengeance.
Ultimately, the results of this poll beg a troubling question: if Christians cannot stand against torture — the very tool used to kill Jesus — what do they stand for?