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.
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??
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Yeah, it’s satire.
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.