This is not the piece I wanted to produce the same week I celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Yet, as Martin Luther King Jr. said in his 1967 speech at Riverside Church, I must address the recent U.S. Senate report on state-directed torture “because my conscience leaves me no other choice.”1 The barbaric and dehumanizing treatment of suspects in U.S. custody is one of the great moral issues of our generation, yet despite the shocking nature of the report’s findings, the whole matter seems to passing out of the collective American conscious in bored acquiescence. Meanwhile, Christians, men and women who should be the champions of the dignity of creatures made in the image of God, toe partisan lines on the issue rather than stand on the Gospel.2 The readiness of worldly minds to embrace torture is troubling, if not unsurprising. The readiness of Christians to do so is unconscionable.
Make no mistake, the cruelty on display by American agents goes well beyond the bounds of the normal process of investigation. I might be astonished that educated, Western professionals would commit such acts if I hadn’t recently read a history of Nazi Germany. It pains me to draw that comparison, but I can find no other appropriate analogy for the bizarre cruelty on display here. Their actions speak for themselves:
Beginning with the CIA’s first detainee, Abu Zubaydah, and continuing with numerous others, the CIA applied its enhanced interrogation techniques with significant repetition for days or weeks at a time. Interrogation techniques such as slaps and “wallings” (slamming detainees against a wall) were used in combination, frequently concurrent with sleep deprivation and nudity…The waterboarding technique was physically harmful, inducing convulsions and vomiting. Abu Zubaydah, for example, became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth…” Sleep deprivation involved keeping detainees awake for up to 180 hours, usually standing or in stress positions, at times with their hands shackled above their heads. At least five detainees experienced disturbing hallucinations during prolonged sleep deprivation and, in at least two of those cases, the CIA nonetheless continued the sleep deprivation… At least five CIA detainees were subjected to “rectal rehydration” or rectal feeding without documented medical necessity. The CIA placed detainees in ice water “baths.” The CIA led several detainees to believe they would never be allowed to leave CIA custody alive, suggesting to one detainee that he would only leave in a coffin-shaped box. One interrogator told another detainee that he would never go to court, because “we can never let the world know what I have done to you.” CIA officers also threatened at least three detainees with harm to their families—to include threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to “cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat.”3
The list goes on to include such things as withholding a bucket for defecation from a detainee as punishment and administering medical care for the sole purpose of continuing what can only be reasonably be called torture sessions. Never mind the crimes of the detainees, many of whom would never see a trial owing to the illegal methods of procuring evidence or confession.4 The conduct of the government’s agents is beyond disturbing. It is reprehensible and, in our parlance, sinful. This is brutality on the level of Jesus’ treatment at the hands of the Romans. This is rebellion that rejects man as the imago dei and severs our connection with God. This is sin, for which Christ died.
The body of American Christians stands at a crossroads. Are we so in love with the security and comfort that this country provides—and that these abhorrent tactics supposedly protect5—that we are willing to look the other way when such acts are done in the names of Americans? Are we ready to reject the apostle’s commands to “Repay no one evil for evil” (Romans 12:17) and “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21) simply for the illusion of material security? The answer is yes, if a recent poll is to be believed.
“A majority of nearly every group—non-whites, women, young adults, the elderly, Midwesterners, suburbanites, Catholics, moderates, the wealthy—said that torture of suspected terrorists can be often or sometimes justified. A majority of only one other group beyond liberals and Democrats disagreed: people with no religion.6
Turning a blind eye, or even approving of such cruel behavior, is spiritual sickness. There is no love, justice, or honor in these things. No fruits of the Spirit can bloom in an atmosphere of torture. By condoning torture or by allowing the delusion that torture is merely the cost of freedom, we Christians are asphyxiating ourselves. We are cut off from Scripture and cut off from God. We are cut off from the one who breathed life into us, the one who made us in his image.
The all-too-ready acceptance of barbarity is a dark portent for the body of American believers. Days from now, we celebrate the night on which the God of Creation entered our world as a helpless child, whose teary howl was a defiant call to battle against the wicked authorities of the world. His small cry was like a lion’s roar to the forces of evil that long held humanity in chains. This Christmas season, we must ask ourselves, “Do we stand with Rome or with the lion?”
1.King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” Riverside Church, New York City, New York. April 4, 1967.
2. Badger, Emily. “From moderate Democrats to white Evangelicals, nearly every demographic group believes torture can be justified.” Washington Post, December 12, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/12/16/from-moderate-democrats-to-white-evangelicals-nearly-every-demographic-group-believes-torture-can-be-justified/
3. U.S. Senate, Select Committee on Intelligence.”Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program. Findings and Conclusions.” December 9, 2014. Pages 3-4.
4. Iglesias, David. “Why Torture is a Complete Failure.” Christianity Today. December 16, 2014. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/december-web-only/christian-response-to-senate-torture-report.html
5. The Senate report concludes that such activities actually damage America’s global mission.
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright © 2000; 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Photo: Guernica, by Pablo Picasso. 1937.