It’s more than a little confusing when people who say they’re Christians are more supportive of torture than self-identified “unaffiliated” Americans, and it’s downright surprising that those who regularly worship support torture more than those who rarely attend religious services.
A favorite Psalm sings, “You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day.” But when modern “arrows” are explosives, it’s awfully difficult to be unafraid.
Therefore, it might be understandable that fear causes most Americans to feel that torture of suspected terrorists is often or sometimes justified, apart from justice.
However, it’s more than a little confusing when people who say they’re Christians are more supportive of torture than self-identified “unaffiliated” Americans, and it’s downright surprising that those who regularly worship support torture more than those who rarely attend religious services.
Soon, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to release its report from an 18-month probe into the CIA’s use of torture — abuses including long-term isolation and sensory deprivation, extremes of heat and cold, water-boarding, sleep deprivation, forced stress positions and worse. Elsewhere, the Department of Justice is investigating the torture deaths of some detainees, so the issue is again being debated.
It should be discussed prayerfully as well as politically. After all, the Romans tortured Jesus, beating and scourging him and placing thorns on his head and a spear in his side during his crucifixion, presumably because they wanted to extract information about a feared Jewish uprising against the empire as much as inflict punishment. Even if his treatment is seen as destined, his suffering and pain were real, and the brutality shameful.
But there seems to be a feeling — probably fueled by fear — that torture might be needed for national security, so maybe it’s logical, if not exactly defensible. Of course, St. Paul in Romans 3:8 clearly wrote that doing evil to achieve good is forbidden.
Still, politicians such as Illinois’ Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk sure seem to rationalize torture. In May, Kirk defended torturers and criticized Intelligence Committee investigators, saying, “These Americans did their jobs at the direction of the President of the United States. This politically motivated investigation will have a chilling effect on the work of their colleagues and other national security professionals in the U.S. government.”
That may ring true for many. Polls say more Americans support some torture than oppose it. The breakdown ranges from 49 percent of the total U.S. population supporting and 47 percent opposing, according to the Pew Research Center, to 60 percent supporting and 39 percent opposing, according to Roper.
Meanwhile, 62 percent of evangelical Protestants think torture is OK; 51 percent of Catholics; 46 percent “mainline” Protestants; and just 40 percent unaffiliated.
Defying a reasonable assumption that mercy would correlate with church activity, polls find that people who worship at least weekly are more likely to support torture than others. Frequent churchgoers back torture 54 percent to 44 percent; people who worship monthly or less 51 percent to 46 percent; and people who seldom or never attend religious services 42 percent to 53 percent, all according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the 2008 GOP nominee for president and a victim of torture during the Vietnam War, recently repeated his longtime objection to torture, writing, “So-called enhanced interrogation techniques … are prohibited by American laws and values, and I oppose them.”
Clarifying that finding terrorist leader Osama bin Laden did not result from torture, McCain went on to say that “under torture, a person will say anything he thinks his captors want — true or false — if he believes it will relieve his suffering.” Mistreatment of enemy prisoners endangers our own troops, who might someday be held captive.
“This is a moral debate,” he added. “Can’t we all agree that the most obvious thing we can do is stand as an example of a nation that holds an individual’s human rights as superior to the will of the majority or the wishes of government?”
Social psychologist Sidney Callahan of the nonpartisan bioethics research institute the Hastings Center recently wrote, “The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church states that the prohibition against torture is ‘a principle that cannot be contravened under any circumstance.’”
But fear is powerful. Sometimes it causes a thirst for revenge, which can lead to torturing captives. That runs counter to the Christian Church’s moral traditions and Catholic Bishops’ statement about restoration being preferable to retribution after wrongs are done.
Those Bishops in 2006 wrote a study guide, “Torture is a Moral Issue,” encouraging the laity to oppose torture on the basis that everyone has an inalienable dignity as a result of being created in the image and likeness of God. Respect for human dignity is key to much Christian ethical reasoning, and torture violates that dignity, the Bishops said.
As the debate is rekindled, two other Scripture passages may comfort: “Do not be afraid; only have faith” (Mark 5:36) and “… the just shall live by his faith.” (Habakkuk 2:4).
Contact Bill Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org.