Current Events, Misplaced Jesus, Theology — February 17, 2011 at 2:47 pm

American Evangelicals Fail the Torture Test


“Do Muslims torture Christians worldwide?” I found these words scrawled across the white space of a poster promoting our upcoming anti-torture conference. This brief addition was a ‘question’ in roughly the same sense that writing on Facebook walls and poking one other is a ‘friendship’.

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(Click on the picture to the left to see the words written on this poster)

That is, it was sort of a question. But it seemed more an interrogation than an inquiry—its tone that of demand more than dialogue. And here it’s worth noting that both the conference and this poster are at Duke Divinity School, a seminary where budding pastors and theologians are learning how to ask questions in better ways, clearer ways, and we hope, more Christian ways. So what prompts someone, presumably a Christian, to rewrite the question of torture in this way? What impulse lies buried inside it, and what’s at stake in performing out that impulse?

Perhaps the impulse behind the question is bound up with a perceived need—felt deeply among evangelicals—to articulate a new, sort-of-Christian ethic for the War on Terror generation, one which can redress a profound national and religious sense of feeling wounded, violated and vulnerable in the post 9/11 age.

The findings of a survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life last year seem to identify what this new ethic looks like: White evangelical Christians were more likely to support torture—including the Bush Administration’s ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’—than people who rarely or never attend religious services. In other words, the more often a person attended an evangelical church, the more likely they were to support interrogation techniques that many political leaders – even some supporters of the War on Terror — have explicitly labeled, condemned and rebuked as “torture”.

Sadly, the implications of this study often show up in conversations I have with evangelicals regarding the U.S. torture program: “Do you think the terrorists are going to share your ideals? What about this news story I read about a jihadist, or a beheading or a kidnapping? Should Christians just clutch their noble principles and watch these things happen?”

Because that option seems impossible, and since imagining creative alternatives seems no less impossible, this impulse toward security begins to stand in need of a new mode of moral justification. It therefore must be transmuted into an unstated — but often implied — new Christian ethic that goes something like this:

The way we act in the world as Christians—that which counts as right and wrong for us—is not to be determined by Jesus, nor even by us, but instead by the terrorists themselves, the very people we deem the most evil in the world. Because they torture, we torture. Moreover, because our cause in the world is more just than theirs, we have the right, even the duty, to utilize ‘tragic necessities’ like the euphemistically-named ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. In other words, because we are more moral, we have the duty to be immoral.

Regarding the complicity of Christians in this logic, my friend Travis quipped, “If there’s anything Christianity is about, it’s treating others the way they’ve treated you.” But this new sort of-Christian ethic goes even beyond this: It says, “Do unto others as you fear they might do unto you and your loved ones.”

To the extent that American Christians continue allowing their government to torture—motivated by ever-growing fears and the demands of feeling secure—they must also recognize they no longer stand with Jesus in the world.

Consider the rather not-new ethic of one of Jesus’ closest disciples, the Apostle John:

“In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4.17b-18).

In short: those who are freed from fear of punishment by God’s love are also free (not to mentioned called) to love their neighbor – even if that neighbor is an ‘enemy’. It’s also not without significance that Jesus, the one who taught his disciples to love their enemies, was eventually tortured to death.

Yet in the meantime, as the U.S. torture program rolls on with no mass protest from American Christians, we must come to terms with our rationalizations for torture sort of making sense, hundreds of victims of detainee abuse sort of getting justice, the American nation sort of being a democracy, and the churches sort of being faithful to Jesus. Which is of course to say, allowing torture to continue unimpeded simply cannot be sensible, just, democratic or faithful to Jesus at all.


  • Great post Matt. Have you seen this?


    “From a Christian perspective, every human life is sacred. As evangelical Christians, recognition of this transcendent moral dignity is non-negotiable in every area of life, including our assessment of public policies. This commitment has been tested in the war on terror, as a public debate has occurred over the moral legitimacy of torture and of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees held by our nation in the current conflict. We write this declaration to affirm our support for detainee human rights and our opposition to any resort to torture.”

  • Thanks, Chris.

    Yes, David Gushee, one of the key drafters of that statement, is a good friend. NEP is also very supportive of our Duke Conference, Toward a Moral Consensus Against Torture, and they posted an article on us here:


  • Well written Matt. Ironically, the logic you’ve outlined above, that because our side is more moral than theirs, we are justified in acting immorally, is exactly the same logic that the terrorists use.

    Unfortunately, this dehumanizing ideology tends to cast a wide net. The terrorists believe they’re justified in killing any westerner, even civilians. Some on our side believe we’re justified in torturing or attacking any Muslim, even if they are not radicalized. Unfortunately, these indiscriminate actions have the effect, through fear and vengeance, of radicalizing more and more people on both sides.

    Two households, both alike in dignity,
    In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
    From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
    Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

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