Culture At Large

For Christians, there is no torture debate

Branson Parler

The release of the Senate report on torture has reignited debate around the topic. I think most Christians would agree that torture is wrong for a number of reasons, including its violation of the inherent dignity of the human person. But two other facets of the recent conversation are worth reflecting on from a Christian perspective.

First, this discussion is often couched in consequentialist language. That is, the end justifies the means. Both Senate Democrats and CIA representatives have focused on whether the torture methods produced results, including the the killing of Osama bin Laden. But if torture is an intrinsically evil act, then no good results can justify its use. To torture a concrete person, a concrete body, in order to preserve the abstract value of human life, dignity and freedom is incoherent. What we are doing directly undermines what we say we value.

Of all people, Christians can afford not to be consequentialists. The doctrine of the resurrection is an affirmation that faithfulness to God trumps mere survival. If the choice is between doing evil and suffering evil, the latter is clearly to be preferred, because death is not the end of the story. What is the advantage of gaining the world (including life, liberty and happiness) and losing your soul?

Second, some have argued that releasing this information will provoke more violence among terrorist groups or nations who already dislike the United States. This viewpoint problematically blames those who bring injustice to light rather than those who actually commit injustice. This argument does, however, offer a powerful insight: the knowledge and memory of injustice committed can serve as a powerful and perpetual justification for ongoing violence.

If the choice is between doing evil and suffering evil, the latter is clearly to be preferred, because death is not the end of the story.

But is this remembrance and retaliation something limited to terrorist groups? No. In fact, it goes to the heart of how nationalism shapes and forms us. In the American context, the calls to “remember” and “never forget” are constantly reiterated, both on national holidays and through everyday rituals. The national anthem re-presents the violence and victory of the initial revolution against the British, a remembrance that serves the present by calling us to perpetually fight for liberty. The call to “never forget” the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany serves as a perennial justification for World War II, but is often coupled with an intentional forgetting of Allied actions, including the firebombing of Dresden, the weapons of mass destruction used in Japan and our alliance with the atrocious Stalin. In our own time, the call to “never forget” 9/11 often serves to rally support for a perpetual “war on terrorism,” and torture itself as part of that war. So we end up with mirror images: American nationalism, which wants to constantly hold 9/11 (and other past injustices) before us; and terrorism, which wants to constantly hold American torture (and other past injustices) before its adherents. Who will deliver us from the endless cycle of remembrance and retaliation?

In the face of this constant re-presentation of injustice, Christians offer a different kind of remembrance. As we gather around the Lord’s Supper, a table given to us by a backwater Jewish rabbi tortured to death by a first-century superpower, we are called to remember. This remembrance took the first followers of Jesus to the heart of the empire that killed him, but not to take their revenge through carefully constructed plots and meticulously timed bombs. Instead, they went to Rome to bless those who persecuted them, to overcome evil with good. What better indicator that the Lord’s Supper does not build up barriers, but breaks down walls? Those of us who are American Christians must examine ourselves, for if we sit at the table of our tortured Lord while supporting the sort of acts depicted in the Senate torture report, we may well find ourselves guilty of failing to discern the body of Christ, broken by us and for us.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Theology, News & Politics, World, Justice, North America