Special Report

An Advent of Torture

'Tis the season of new moral equivalence -- but shouldn't North Korea and Russia demand an apology for being lumped in with the U.S.?

By 12.17.06

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The United Methodist Church's social action agency is celebrating the season of Advent by spotlighting the issue of torture. The three international culprits who are cited are North Korea, Russia, and the United States. Needless to say, it's the latter that gets most of the coverage, though the mere citation of communist North Korea for criticism is, for the Religious Left, remarkable.

America's third largest religious denomination maintains the largest church lobby office in Washington, D.C., known as the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. Headquartered in the prominently placed United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill, the agency, with its $5 million budget and two dozen or so employees, commonly morphs the Gospel into a political message of the left.

The Methodist lobby office's Advent devotional recalls Israel at the time of the first Christmas. It was a "a land of displaced and dispossessed people," who were "war-weary, overtaxed and heavily indebted," "military occupied, useful as a buffer zone to the Empire; bruised by ethnocentrism, had little access to equitable systems of health care, sustainable economic development, and [with] family systems and generational relationships [that] had broken down."

In short, the suffering Hebrews at the time of Jesus were a combination today's oppressed Palestinians, the occupied people of Iraq, and the oft-cited 40 million Americans who lack health coverage. (Interestingly, the Methodist devotional does not specifically mention the Jews or Israel by name. Describing Jews as oppressed people might contravene the Religious Left's preferred emphasis on the Jews as today's main culprits in the Middle East.)

The devotional emphasizes that the (unnamed) people of Jesus' time were oppressed by "religious fundamentalists, driven by their greed and egos, betrayed the weak to curry favor with the strong." They inflicted "scorch and burn tactics, corruption and collusion, their secret prisons and mock trials rained down on those who dared to stop and speak out, protest and question what was going on."

In other words, the Pharisees of 2,000 years ago were the equivalent of the Religious Right and its Bush Administration allies.

The Advent devotional then gets around to the real topic of the holiday season: torture.

"Torture destroys us, but we are convinced that it can protect us," the devotional warns ominously. More bizarrely, it refers cryptically to "bodies [that] are ritually tortured in homes -- places we are taught to feel safe, in churches -- where we are promised sanctuary, and by governments -- where we are taught to pledge our loyalty?"

Living with the "mind of Christ" requires rejecting those "responsible for legitimizing torture" and "debunking the sheer hypocrisy that peace is founded on strategies of state security with its capstone ritual torture of those perceived to be enemies and threats."

The devotional then shifts to "advocating for justice on specific issues" by learning about the "places and people who are being victimized and brutalized." It includes a "few summaries" of torture reports from the around the world. There is as brief report about human rights abuses in North Korea, based on information from Amnesty International. "Long-term food shortages have been a primary factor in the increase of public executions for such things as stealing food, as well as prisons and labor camps lacking adequate food to feed the inmates," it notes. "For North Koreans who attempt to escape, their punishments can include long sentences of imprisonment in harsh conditions, forced abortions for pregnant women, and water torture whereby prisoners are tied up and forced to drink large quantities of water." There is also a short reference, based on reports from Human Rights Watch, to Russian troops in Chechnya employing "electric shocks and beatings with boots, sticks, plastic bottles and rubber cables."

After the perfunctory mentions of North Korea and Russia, the Advent devotional gets to its real target: the United States as a practitioner of torture. Citing Amnesty International, the devotional says that 17 "children" have been detained by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay. Citing Newsweek magazine, it notes that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved 16 interrogation techniques for "uncooperative detainees" that included: "prolonged standing, removal of detainees' clothing, sensory deprivation, hooding during questioning, using detainee phobias to induce stress, shaving of beards, grabbing, poking or pushing, sleep adjustment, exposing detainee to an unpleasant smell."

The devotional adds that there were also non-approved techniques common at Guantanamo, such as: "exposure to cold weather or water," "face slap or stomach slap," "waterboarding, or the use of a towel and dripping water to induce misperception of suffocation, threat of death to detainees or relatives, sleep deprivation."

In Afghanistan, the devotional notes, U.S. "interrogators were removing clothing, isolating people for long periods of time, using stress positions, exploiting fear of dogs and implementing sleep and light deprivation." Meanwhile, at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, there was "punching, slapping and kicking detainees; forcing naked male detainees to wear women's underwear...letting a dog bite and severely injure a detainee, and taking photographs of dead Iraqi detainees."

Typically, Advent devotionals focus more specifically on the Nativity story rather than current events. But for the Religious Left, the Scriptures only have relevance as metaphors for explaining their favorite political bugaboos of today.

Opposing torture is laudable, obviously, and the rare Religious Left acknowledgment that all is not well in North Korea is slightly refreshing. But the inability to make moral distinctions among various governments is spiritually obtuse. Are North Korea, Russia and the United States the main practitioners of torture in the world today, with the U.S. deserving the most condemnation? And is exposing detained terrorists to "unpleasant smells" the moral equivalent of North Korea's 58 years of totalitarian brutalization, under which hundreds of thousands have perished?

The Methodist devotional refers readers to the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, whose sole objective is to halt alleged torture practices by the U.S. "Let America abolish torture now -- without exceptions," it insists, without admitting that U.S. law already prohibits torture.

Hundreds of thousands around the world are victimized by state-orchestrated torture, most of them by communist and Islamist regimes. But communist and Islamist torture will never excite the indignation of the Religious Left. For it, even the Christmas season is a time for condemning the only government that religious leftists have any interesting in condemning: their own country's.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.