16 November 2005
by David Batstone
Christians of strong religious faith and sound moral conscience often end up in disagreement. Human affairs are a messy business, unfortunately, and even at the best of times we only see through a glass, darkly.
It is hard for that reason to call Christians to a universal standard of behaviour. At this moment, however, we cannot afford to dilute the message of Jesus into meaningless ambiguity. There are certain acts that a follower of Jesus simply cannot accept. Here is one: A Christian cannot justify the torture of a human being.
The practice of torture by American soldiers is a hot topic at the Pentagon, in the Congress, and in the White House at the moment. The U.S. Senate already has passed 90-9 a bill that prohibits “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” of prisoners in U.S. custody. The lead advocate of the bill, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), was tortured by his captors during the Vietnam War. According to The New York Times, the Pentagon adopted a policy last Thursday to rein in interrogation techniques. The new policy uses much of the same language as the McCain amendment – drawn in large part from the Geneva Convention – to adopt standards for handling terror suspects.
Remarkably, the White House opposes the Pentagon initiative, and threatens to veto any legislation to which the McCain bill gets attached. Vice President Dick Cheney has urged Republican senators to allow CIA counter-terrorism operations internationally to be exempt from the ban on mistreatment of prisoners, major newspapers reported.
On 3 November, Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff for then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, said during an interview on NPR’s “Morning Edition” that memos from Cheney’s office practically encouraged abuse of Iraqi prisoners. Though in “carefully couched terms” that would allow for deniability, the message from Cheney’s office conveyed the sentiment that interrogations of Iraqi prisoners were not providing the needed intelligence. Wilkerson said soldiers in the field would have concluded that to garner better intelligence they could resort to interrogation techniques that “were not in accordance with the spirit of the Geneva Conventions and the law of war.”
Republican senators are among the strongest voices in the growing chorus of criticism. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said, “I think the administration is making a terrible mistake in opposing John McCain’s amendment on detainees and torture.” And Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and co-sponsor of McCain’s measure, agreed: “I firmly believe that it’s in the best interest of the Department of Defense, the men and women of the United States military that this manual be their guide.”
When the existence of secret CIA detention centers became public this week, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) called for investigations – not about whether they violate laws governing human rights – but about how the information was leaked. But members of their own party are keeping the focus where it belongs. The Washington Post quoted Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) as saying, “Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees. The real story is those jails.”
Admittedly, Christians of good faith part paths when political conflict leads us to consider what constitutes a just and righteous war – or if any war can be just. Though we may not consent on the means, we do consent on the need to confront the spread of evil in the world. Yet we can all affirm scripture when it says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17, 21). When we confront evil with its own means, those means mark our own character.
In that regard, the practice of torture so fully embraces evil that it dehumanises both the torturer and the victim. No just cause can be won if it relies on torture to succeed. Democracy and freedom cannot result from a war fueled by torture, which is why so many Americans were shocked and angered by the disturbing incidents that took place at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
All the more so, Christians must oppose torture under any circumstances. Consider this: Who would Jesus torture? I cannot imagine Jesus finding a single “exemption” that would justify such an abuse of any individual made in God’s image.
Though I bristle whenever I hear someone refer to the United States as a Christian nation – it is such a loaded phrase - many in the Muslim world see us as such. How tragic it would be for Muslims to identify the message and mission of Jesus with torture and terror. We must not allow that to happen.
David Batstone edits Sojourners’ free weekly e-zine, SojoMail. This article appeared in SojoMail (www.sojo.net/sojomail) on 9 November. Used by permission.
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