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.