Can the use of torture ever be justified for Christians?
My Old Testament professor at Concordia College in Moorhead instilled in his students a need to see the drama of the biblical story. He wanted us to read the texts, even those very familiar to us, as if for the first time. He wanted our reaction to be fresh. We should be surprised each year by the resurrection story.
Holy Week had its own real-world sense of drama this year. As the Christian community was preparing for the week during which Jesus was beaten, intimidated, and executed, the federal government was fighting about the relative effectiveness and morality of torture as policy by the United States.
The U.S. Senate at the end of February had passed an anti-torture bill which the U.S. House had already okayed in December. This legislation would have banned the use of harsh interrogation methods with detainees by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. These intelligence-gathering groups would have been required to follow the same rules as the military, as set out in the Army Field Manual.
The bill provided guidelines concerning interrogation of prisoners. The practical impact of this bill would be to outlaw such methods of torture as waterboarding.
But a week before the commemoration of Palm Sunday, President George W. Bush vetoed this legislation, saying, “The bill Congress sent me would take away one of the most valuable tools in the war on terror.” Supporters of the veto say that such methods are necessary to gain information concerning terroristic activity.
The margins of passage in the House and Senate do not make an override of this veto very likely.
Before I get to the religious aspect of this debate, let’s look at a couple practical ones. I believe that it is fair to say that every sane person wants to stop the reoccurrence of a 9/11-level terrorist event. And yet people disagree in about equal numbers and with equal fervor about whether our fear of such an event happening again should guide our decisions about the use of torture to gain information.
The Center for the Victims of Torture (CVT) in Minneapolis was the first U.S. organization dealing directly with international victims of torture for political purposes. With more than 20 years in this field, CVT has much to say about what it believes are the myths about torture.
CVT argues that torture does not provide reliable information. Even experts within the intelligence-gathering field readily admit that is is undependable and can pull people’s attention off of better ways to obtain more reliable information.
There is also a slippery slope in the use of torture. It does not remain a methodology used only against the most notorious detainees. It becomes a regular means used against a wide variety of people. And it has a corrosive effect on the perpetrators as well. According to CVT, interrogators must be manipulated in order to continue to use such techniques against other human beings. Everyone involved is dehumanized.
CVT also wants the U.S. to remain in the position of moral high ground. Under the President George H.W. Bush, America was seen as a consistent leader against the use of torture in international circles, according to representatives of CVT. This country no longer enjoys the respect of other nations in this regard.
I know someone who was the victim of torture and am haunted by her experience. Sr. Dianna Ortiz , an American Ursuline nun, had moved to Guatemala to teach poor children to read. At a time when many religious people were considered a threat because of their work with poor people, Dianna was abducted by a Guatemalan police unit. In their custody, she was gang-raped, burned more than 100 times with cigarettes, lowered into a pit filled with bodies – some dead, some still barely alive – who had been tortured. At least one American with ties to the U.S. embassy was present during her interrogations, according to her testimony.
When she returned to the U.S., Dianna lived with friends of mine in a shared house in Washington, D.C. The women who had the bedroom next to Dianna’s reported that she didn’t sleep for more than 40 minutes at a time for many, many months.
Eventually, in an effort to find out more about the American who was present in her torture, she went on a hunger strike. She demanded documents that would help her understand what had taken place and why. (Although her campaign did not yield information for her, it did help another person, giving Ortiz some sense of closure.)
Christians certainly believe in works of mercy, and often in acts of justice. Many of these activities are perceived by ruling authorities (like those in Jesus’ time) as subversive, perhaps even terroristic. So what’s a person of faith to do?
I personally cannot see a way for Christians to justify the support of torturing another person who is also created in the God’s image.
While there are few attempts to “proof text” the use of torture, they are rather unimpressive…from any point of view. But the central themes of biblical theology would challenge support for the concept of torture, I would argue. Jesus’ injunctions on how we treat our neighbors (and his redefinition of who is our neighbor), the consistent standard of welcoming the stranger, and, of course, “do unto others” pragmatism that Sen. John McCain would so deeply understand based on his own experience.
So what would an appropriate political strategy look like? Again, the Center for the Victims of Torture offers some important components:
* End extraordinary rendition (the moving of prisoners to countries with even less humane practices), secret prisons, and forced disappearances;
* Ban the use of information obtained through unlawful coercion, specifically torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment;
* Establish the Army Field Manual as the minimum standard for the treatment of all detainees during interrogations conducted by all U.S. personnel (including contractors) anywhere in the world;
* Release all documents regarding U.S. interrogation and detention policies;
* Register with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) all detainees in U.S. custody anywhere in the world, and grant access to those detainees by the ICRC and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture;
* Restore judicial review (habeas corpus) so detainees can challenge their detention and treatment;
* Provide victims with legal remedies and as full a rehabilitation as possible as called for by the Convention Against Torture;
* Hold accountable U.S. officials who are responsible for authorizing and/or implementing the use of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.
The most common response to advocating a policy that requires the elimination of torture tactically goes something like this: Can you live with a situation where there is another 9/11-like attack which could have been prevented if someone would have simply tortured a detainee to get the necessary information?
Well, that is a very powerful hypothetical. And, truly, bearing that responsibility would be excruciating. But I would ask back: Can you live with the fact that teenage boys are being humiliated and tortured, leading them to the depths of a hatred that could well result in their decision, if ever released, to perform an act of terror? If detainees eventually perform such acts, are proponents of torture willing to live with that responsibility?
The Christian community should certainly not bless a policy of torture. I believe it should be at the forefront of efforts to ensure the end of such a policy.
Jesus saw the need to confront the power structure of his time. And, like Ortiz, he was held and tortured. He was also killed. As Christians we are not silent about his persecution and death. We should refuse to be silent on the torture of his brothers and sisters as well.