After all, their religious symbol is an ancient instrument of torture

The US government has recently come out with a report about the CIA’s torture of detainees from 2001-2009. And Christian responses have been revealing.

Who would Jesus torture?    (

Who would Jesus torture? Presumably, Muslims would be high on the list….

Predictably, there have been a small number of liberal Christian bloggers who have tried to argue that “true Christianity” is not compatible with supporting the use of torture. Such bloggers ignore 2000 years of Christian history (which has included crusades, witch burnings, pogroms, and the Inquisition, among other horrifically violent events), as well as large parts of their scriptures in favor of a few cherry-picked pacifist-sounding verses about turning the other cheek and loving your enemies.

But Christians who are less inclined to whitewash the history of their faith and more honest about the contents of their scriptures quickly set the record straight. Take the response of the American Family Association‘s Bryan Fisher, who reminds Christians that

“Christianity is not a pacifist religion. The God that we serve is described in Exodus 15 as a ‘man of war.’ Now we often think of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, but let’s not forget, according to Romans 19:13, when he comes back … he will be riding a white horse and wearing his own robe, dipped in blood. That is a robe that is worn by a warrior who is inflicting casualties on the foe. So this is gentle Jesus, meek and mild; when we comes back, his robe is going to be dipped in blood because he too is a warrior.”

It should be kept in mind that not only is Fisher forthright about the contents of the Bible, but his pro-torture stance is representative of the majority of white American Evangelicals:

“A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll finds that Americans, by a 59-31% margin, believe that CIA “treatment of suspected terrorists” in detention was justified.

Remarkably, the gap between torture supporters and opponents widens between voters who are Christian and those who are not religious. [….] Sixty nine percent of white evangelicals believe the CIA treatment was justified, compared to just 20% who said it was not.”

How to understand these remarkable statistics? It is not just a question of what the Bible says, or even the long history of Christian violence. So much of Christian art, music and devotional writings even today celebrates the story of an innocent man who suffers a horrific death by torture—and it is only by this unfathomably cruel and unjust act that (according to the story) sinful humanity can be saved from having to suffer an eternity in hell. Torture upon torture.

Many Christians even wear the cross, an ancient torture and execution device reserved for criminals with low social status, around their necks. Nowadays, they make films about it, which bring every single gory detail of the story alive for the audience.

It may not be politically correct to say this, but perhaps the dark roots of this acceptance of torture lie in these religious ideas and practices? Christians tell even their own small children this story of the torture and execution of an innocent man for the crimes of others… and they tell them that it is all about God’s love and mercy. How can this not be confusing to adults, let alone children? How can it not unconsciously predispose people who have had such a religious upbringing or who share such beliefs to accept torture as sometimes necessary to save America from its enemies? To sanitize it with the use of anodyne bureaucratese such as “enhanced interrogation techniques”? To celebrate it, even?

And if this is what Christians say in defense of torture in public, on the record, where the whole world can see and hear them, what are they saying when they are among themselves??

*        *        *        *        *        *        *

Yeah, it’s satire.

The Dark Mark. And no Order of the Phoenix in sight. Yeah, and Dumbledore is dead. (

The Dark Mark. And no Order of the Phoenix in sight. Yeah, and Dumbledore is dead.

Satire of the double standard, where Muslims are forever held hostage to literalistic readings of quranic verses and history and the interpretations of nut-bars such as the Daesh/ISIS/IS by white conservatives, and branded as intrinsically alien to America (as well as to “the west” generally). Somehow, it is assumed that white Christians can and do look at their scriptures and history and religious leaders critically, to select the good of these and to leave aside the bad… but Muslims (who are mostly brown or black) innately lack this ability. That being a Muslim is like being one of Voldemort’s death-eaters—no matter how ordinary or harmless a Muslim might seem to be, their belief system operates much like the Dark Mark. Branded on their very skin, while it is usually covered by clothes and may appear to fade, at any time it can come back to life and urgently summon the death-eater to do Voldemort’s bidding, unleashing murder and mayhem on their unsuspecting neighbors….

It makes a bizarre kind of sense. At least, when the religious beliefs in question belong to Others.

Satire. Accompanied by flashbacks.

When the news about the torture report broke, I was blindsided by several things. Horror. Flashbacks. And raw, almost feral fear.

Because for me, torture is not some theoretical issue that happened to some poor unfortunates way, way back centuries ago… or that maybe happens to Others who live Somewhere Else Far Away From Here but has nothing to do with me really. Torture for me is all too real, and it isn’t at all distant. Nor is is somehow far removed from western Europe and North America. Modern torture equipment and techniques have long been an international business. And selective outrage is a long-running political game.

I was never under the illusion that the CIA wouldn’t torture. Because what imperial power doesn’t torture? For that matter, how many individual human beings, given the power to inflict pain, suffering and humiliation on someone they see as not-quite-human and assured that they will never be called to account for their actions, would hold back? Some would turn from it in horror, but all too many wouldn’t.

But with public responses to the torture report, the illusion that “we” (white America) are somehow “above that” has been publicly shattered, with some conservatives openly justifying the torture of Muslim detainees because they are “animals” and violence is supposedly the only language they understand. One does not have to know much twentieth century European history to know where this type of rhetoric leads.

Torture. On the inside of my eyelids are some things that I can’t unsee. In my mind, there are stories of interrogations, of panicked political refugees that I can’t unhear. In my bones, the knowledge that there are people out there who find enjoyment in pitilessly manipulating the physiological processes of the bodies of others, against their will. Who know that if they threaten this or touch that or probe here or deprive you of sleep for X number of days or shackle you in this position for such-and-such a period of time that Y will happen. That they know your body and mind better than you ever can, that whenever and however they want, they can possess you and break you and laugh as you shatter into a million pieces….

Of the many stories, there’s one in particular that has haunted me for years. That I can’t forget. A man was being tortured by the secret police, and in unbearable pain began to cry out, “For the sake of Allah….!” But the torturer laughed and said, “Allah?! There is no Allah. Here, only I am Allah.”

This story was told to me partly as a way of telling me that a particular secular regime of a Muslim-majority country (that famously used torture) was evil. But it was also told to me because it deeply disturbed the teller.

When I heard that story, I understood that torture is shirk. And wondered why it was not ever presented as a theological problem in the circles that I moved in. Why it was that torture when done by secular Muslim regimes against Islamist opponents, or by “western” armies pointed to their moral bankruptcy, but torture carried out by “pious brothers/Islamic movements” and called something suitably Islamic was somehow okay. Why not even those who were most vigilant about uncovering shirk in customary practices noticed the shirk in torture.

But the time that elapsed between that initial realization of mine and my conclusion that torture and other forms of violence are shirk (even—or especially—when they sanitized by suitably religious language) was long. Which I guess is to say that while most (all?) religious systems contain resources that can be drawn upon to oppose torture, whether such resources actually play a significant role in shaping individual or community attitudes is another much more complicated story….

It is beyond horrifying to see and hear this evil celebrated openly. There really are no words.

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  1. #1 by nmr on December 22, 2014 - 2:22 pm

    There seem to be two primary arguments against torture.
    1. Do not torture people because torture is spiritually corrupting for both the victim and the torturer (victim is wounded, torturer has way too much hubris). It disrespects human dignity. Human dignity ought to be inviolable.
    This argument never works for the “ends justify the means” crowd. They will, inevitably, bring up some “24”-like scenario, such as “What if you have a terrorist who knows exactly where the nuclear bomb is and if you don’t torture him, he won’t tell you?!” Then they smile smugly. The fact of the matter is that torture is never like that. It’s more of a fishing expedition. “I think you know something important, so I’m just going to shame, pain, and humiliate you into telling me what it is you do know.”

    2. The information you get from torture is not useful. People will say just about anything to get themselves out of an uncomfortable situation. The ends do not justify the means, because the ends are of low quality. You could get higher quality information without using torture. This does not take into account the human dignity side of the argument.

    • #2 by xcwn on December 22, 2014 - 4:08 pm

      This way of talking about torture seems to me to be based primarily on the assumed life experiences of middle class “western” straight and cisgendered white males who have no personal experience with, say, sexual abuse. That is, nobody has ever put them in a situation where there were no boundaries to what could be done to them, against their will, and so they find it hard to even imagine what that would be like. So for them, torture is mostly a theoretical issue. They assume that nothing like it is likely to happen to them, or to people like them, at the hands of their own governments—it might happen to Others, but then those Others probably deserved it.

      But once governments torture, where does it stop? Especially once it becomes publicly acceptable to openly endorse and celebrate it?
      What does it do to people who live in a state where torture is a tool of governance, even if they themselves never suffer torture? (Unfortunately, I know the answer to that one too well.)

      The idea that “some people” (who are always Others, not Us, and oddly enough usually have darker skin) can only understand violence and so torture is a necessary option in dealing with them is dehumanizing. To everyone. And it’s especially weird coming from white people. Somehow, those Others are disposable, but our ancestors and older living relatives are just “complex human beings” who are redeemable despite their involvement in or tacit acceptance of the violence of colonialism, white supremacy (and for some, fascism)?

      As far as I’m concerned, there are some boundaries that just should not be crossed. Period. Spiritually corrupting or not. Humans have an almost infinite capacity for cruelty, and giving that any rein is a really really bad idea.

  2. #3 by Laury Silvers on December 22, 2014 - 11:10 pm

    My friend Kathleen Self did some work on how torture was used by the medieval Church to test guilt or innocence. A woman’s arm was burned in hot oil then wrapped in gauze. If there was a miraculous healing, she was innocent. If she healed normally, or got infected, or died, guilty. This is some old stuff.

    One of the things that struck me the most was how television shows like 24 made Americans more comfortable with torture. It’s narratives, whether those be religious narratives or secular ones that drive our ability to accept it.

    We need different stories.

    • #4 by xcwn on December 23, 2014 - 1:51 am

      Thank you for commenting.
      So, basically they set it up so that it would take a miracle for anyone to be “proved” innocent. Wow.

      I haven’t watched 24, partly because it would be way too triggering. It is disturbing that some people seem to take this kind of thing as entertaining. I agree that we need different stories.

    • #5 by Chris on January 2, 2015 - 10:06 am

      There is a book by the medieval Catholic church called “Hexenhammer” (circa “witch hammer”). It details the scholastic view of what makes a witch, what rituals witches practice (with a strong obsession with alleged black magic practices of rendering men impotent – a horrifying document of the machismo- misogyny of theologians), and rules for witch trials. The proof of innocence is in there in many variations – I remember the one where the convicted witch is to be thrown into a river with a millstone around her neck. If she sinks, guilty as hell. If she floats – she is to be exonerated.

      Of course the God that allegedly parted oceans will perform a petty mini-miracle by letting a woman float against the weight of a millstone should she be innocent!

  3. #6 by rosalindawijks on December 23, 2014 - 11:01 am

    Excellent posts, people!

  4. #7 by Dervish on January 1, 2015 - 9:19 pm


    Can I just gently point out that the penal substitution theory of atonement is a Western Latin theological doctrine. The ancient Church has quite a different soteriology, as transmitted through the East in holy Orthodoxy viewing Christ’s death on the cross as a healing for us. Our sinfulness, the state we have all inherited from our first parents, is a brokenness that can be seen in the actions of those calling themselves Christians as much as anyone else.

    I wanted to write this, because growing up in the West, even though I was not raised a Christian, I always thought that Latin-based Western Christianity was “the” Christianity. I never knew about the Eastern Orthodox even though I’d vaguely heard of Russians and Greeks who were ‘sort of like’ Catholics. It was this faulty understanding of Christianity that I rejected as a Muslim, but I never knew that the Church taught something quite different than the penal substitution theory.

    Having said that, you are correct in the distorted, myopic view of Islam and Muslims that Westerners have, foisting their own dark and twisted image on the Orient.

  5. #8 by Anonymous// on January 9, 2015 - 9:48 pm

    Salam: Marion Katz’s wonderful book on women and mosque access is awesome- you’d really enjoy it. She looks at legal doctrines, social practice and has a chapter on modern developments.

    • #9 by xcwn on January 25, 2015 - 4:57 pm

      Thanks–I’ll check it out.

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