Saturday, April 23, 2011

Torture is a Moral Issue (part one)

Last month, I attended a conference at Duke University, “Toward a Moral Consensus against Torture.” The conference was organized by Prof. Amy Laura Hall, who is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School and a member of our own Southwest Texas Annual Conference.

The first keynote speaker was George Hunsinger, Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and an ordained Presbyterian minister. Hunsinger began his keynote address with a quote from Dr. King that has stuck with him over 40 years: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” The clear reference was to the church’s almost complete silence in the face of the Bush administration’s authorization of torture and abuse.

Hunsinger waited and listened for months after the revelations at Abu Ghraib for the church to say something. Hearing little public outcry, he moved to create a national organization, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), rooted in the singular thesis that torture is always immoral, illegal and ineffective. They have an excellent website at

One of the discouraging realities about U.S.-sponsored torture is that it has not ended under the Obama administration. Guantanamo has not been closed and even when it does close, it appears that some prisoners will be kept in other facilities indefinitely. Obama also pledged to close the secret prisons, and while some may close, others will continue. Other than lower level personnel, no one in command has been held accountable to the torture that took place in the military prison at Abu Ghraib.

Hunsinger founded NRCAT as a way to focus on torture as a moral issue. The question for Hunsinger is not whether torture “works” nor how our use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” might affect world opinion of the United States. His point is that torture is morally wrong. Torture and inhuman treatment of prisoners not only harms the victim, it also harms the one who inflicts torture. Our common religious heritage values the treatment of all persons with decency and respect.

For me, the most alarming reality about torture is that the vast majority of Christians condone the torture of suspected terrorists. In a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, 71 percent of Americans gave thumbs up to torture. 79 percent of white evangelicals okayed torture under certain circumstances; 63 percent of mainline Christians approved torture. One of the oddest relationships the study illuminated was that the more one went to church, the more likely they were to approve torture.

How did we get to this place, where the ones who follow the Prince of Peace approve of the cruel and degrading treatment of other human beings? Why has the church been unable to shape the moral values of its members?

My prayer is that the church, both members and leaders, will find its spine and reflect its fundamental conviction in the intrinsic worth of all human beings, in whom we see the hand of the creator, the face of Christ and the breath of the Spirit.


  1. It is discouraging, isn't it? So many people fear that "turning the other cheek" is evidence of weakness, yet if we who are theologians teach it properly, the obvious connection to the immorality of torture becomes clear. We are all equal before God, so how can we possibly condone the physical, psychological, or emotional abuse of another human being?

    Sadly, I suspect that a tremendous amount of the folks who "approve" of torture do so only because those being tortured are "other" - not Christians, not Caucasians, not Americans. I've heard outcry about the conditions Bradley Manning is allegedly enduring based on the fact that "He's an American" rather than that he's a human being. When I point out that he's no different from anyone else who has suffered torture, there's always a great big BUT in the rebuttal.

    Sad, and I pray with you for the change of hearts necessary to end torture for all of God's children.

  2. I think that the support of something that is so clearly wrong is often a case of emotional and spiritual distance. If you, as a relatively comfortable Christian have never experienced torture or it's aftermath in any personal way, then you are likely not to feel it in any personal way. While we think of our faith as grounded in the spirit, it's often also associated with emotion. But when we maintain distance and do not connect emotionally, well, as humans we're not going to resonate with the victims and may even logically justify the actions of perpetrators. After all, they did it to protect us against the evildoers, right?

    Sometimes, we humans can go so far as to seek and even grow our distance from the truth - the easier it is to stay in our comfort zones. There's a great song by Bruce Cockburn called "Justice" with the lyric - "Everyone loves to see justice done. On somebody else".

    At the end of the day, anyone who has had first, second or third hand experience with torture or abuse is outraged and appalled by it in any form. But for the many Christians in America who have no personal emotional experience with it, we are called to a higher moral ground, to take the next step to get connected with it spiritually, and to consider it first hand. We need to do the work, and connect with the facts and the personal stories through research, conversation and community.

    But to take no position or to condone it is sadly the position of many who chose to remain distant and 'comfortable'.

  3. Great post, John. Thanks for opening my eyes to the present administration's lack of follow through.
    Mardi Wareham

  4. Pastor John,

    Thank you for bringing the tragedy of our nation’s participation in torture back to our attention. I am saddened that the issue has fallen so quickly from our awareness, though I suspect that many, like I, were horrorfied at its first revelation. I am grieved that the church has been mostly silent on a matter which contradicts our Christian imperatives to honor all people as children of God and to work for the peace of Christ in our world.

    We must remind ourselves that torture is not only immoral; it is illegal. The United Nations Convention Against Torture, ratified by the U.S. in 1994, makes this clear: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” The United States has been respected worldwide as a country governed by law, not by immediate fears or exigencies. We Christians must lead in returning our nation to its professed values. Martin Luther King’s conviction that there comes a time when silence is betrayal is wise counsel for us today.

    Betsy Singleton