The Evangelical Left made much of U.S. “torture” policies under the Bush Administration. Like the obliteration of the Death Star in “Star Wars,” that administration’s conclusion presumably would have mollified Evangelical Left activists. But the campaign earnestly continues. Does President Obama now stand accused as a torturer too? Duke University’s seminary is hosting an anti-torture conference (“Toward a Moral Consensus Against Torture: A Gathering of Students, Clergy, People of Conscience, and People of Faith”) later this month, prompting one seminarian recently to blog: “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.”
So in the eyes of some, “torture” evidently did not end with Bush. One of the torture conference sponsors is the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which explains that President Obama “only halted torture — he does not have the authority to end it completely.” Apparently for the torture concerns to subside, there must be a “thorough investigation” of U.S. torture polices, Obama’s executive order against torture must be legislatively ratified, Guantanamo as a “symbol of our country’s use of torture” must close, renditions must be further restricted, and the U.S. Army Field Manuel must ban “pro-longed isolation, sleep deprivation, and sensory deprivation.” Finally, Americans must repent of their purported pro-torture views, which illustrate “how corrupting the use of torture has been to the soul of our nation and the souls of our people.” Until Americans repent, “we will always be at risk of electing more politicians who support the use of torture.” The campaign against U.S. torture must continue.
Anti-torture campaigners cite a Pew survey showing actively church going evangelicals favoring the Bush Administration’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” more than non-churchgoers. The Duke seminarian blogger lamented that American pro-“torture” Christians are not basing their beliefs on Jesus but on “tragic necessities,” arguing “because we are more moral, we have the duty to be immoral.” This purported ethic declares: “Do unto others as you fear they might do unto you and your loved ones.” This Duke blogger argued that Jesus was tortured to death by His enemies yet still loved them, so His followers should do likewise. It’s a common theological confusion among evangelical pacifists that civil governments must have the same behavioral vocation as Jesus the Savior. The seminarian lamented that “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.”
Evangelical Left activists focused on purported U.S. torture typically do not define torture. Much ink and chatter is still applied to waterboarding, though evidently only three al Qaeda terrorists, all of whom seem to remain alive and healthy, were waterboarded, ending in 2003. This would be as though likeminded activists, in 1953, were still campaigning against the incarceration techniques applied to the Nazi war criminals at Nuremburg in 1945. Goering, Hess, Speer and the rest were kept under 24-hour surveillance, with the lights on, with no privacy, among other indignities, for many days, partly out of fear for their potential suicide, but presumably also partly owing to contempt for their crimes.
The Evangelical Left’s fixation on the no doubt extreme discomfort suffered by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Abu Zubayda and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri in the days after their capture in 2002 and 2003 seems odd, amid far greater horrors afflicting more innocent people globally over the last 8 years. This preoccupation doubtless rests at least partly on the Evangelical Left’s belief that the U.S. as the primary global hegemon whose misdeeds merit special condemnation. It is also true that most of the Evangelical Left, especially centered at Duke seminary, is pacifist. Any armed resistance to terror or aggression, in their eyes, is as wicked as the provoking depredations. This neo-Anabaptist position, for which Duke’s famed Stanley Hauerwas is best known, is increasingly influential among academics, clergy and activists. It is also a small minority position within Christianity, all of whose major traditions affirm the biblical understanding that God ordained the state to wield the sword in defense of order and justice. Does wielding the sword include the right to conduct “prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, and sensory deprivation” in limited cases? Reasonable people may disagree. But St. Paul, in his affirmation of lethal force by rulers, was surely aware that magistrates of his day relied on far more excruciating techniques.
Helping to organize the upcoming Duke torture event is distinguished ethicist and pacifist Amy Laura Hall, whom I am glad to count as a friend, though my arguments remain unpersuasive to her. She explained in a recent interview with Sojourners that the conference was prompted by Christians who are avoiding the “tragic details of our two wars — the use of torture, the military suicide rate, the number of civilians killed.” As a Methodist at a Methodist school, she expressed special alarm that it was a Methodist President who said “damn right” to waterboarding. George W. Bush, like other Christians, “tacitly accepted torture” to “keep us safe,” she regretted. Noting that the Duke event will include Muslim speakers, she recalled having “confessed to a Muslim friend recently that I am having trouble keeping up and staying sane reading about all that is being done to Muslims around the world in the name of our ‘war on terror.'”
Hall noted that the Duke event will feature former National Association of Evangelicals official Richard Cizik, ethicist David Gushee of Mercer University and Evangelicals for Human Rights, and ethicist George Hunsinger of Princeton Seminary and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. She lamented these men had been accused of “being ‘soft’ or ‘irresponsible’ due to their stance on torture,” and were even “punished by other men around them for not sticking to the standard line being sold to us for years on this issue — that ‘real men’ say ‘damn right’ when it comes to torturing brown people, ostensibly to protect white women and our white children.” This racial point is strange. Hundreds of 9-11’s victims were non-whites. Hundreds of U.S. military personnel killed in the War on Terror were non-white. Globally, most victims of Islamist terror are themselves Muslim, not Westerners. Arguably, the most brutalized victims of Jihadist Islam are black sub-Saharan Africans, especially in southern Sudan but also in Sudan’s Darfur and in Nigeria, as elsewhere.
A consistent pacifist ethic, as advocated by some organizers of the Duke torture event, requires surrender to Jihadist Islam and to all other marauding aggressions. This form of pacifism applied to terror prohibits not only all military force and “torture,” including “pro-longed isolation, sleep deprivation, and sensory deprivation.” It also must preclude even any police action or incarceration of terrorists, since all prisons are governed by armed guards. This pacifist ethic argues simply for yielding to terror, no matter how many innocents are slain, as a witness to faith. Dr. Hauerwas honestly and accurately admitted recently that faithful pacifism may lead to a “more violent world.” But the faithful must “know how to endure.”)
This argument for standing aside as innocents are brutalized and slaughtered is not mainstream Christianity and it was not the teaching of Jesus, the Apostles, or the Hebrew prophets before them. Such absolute pacifism, unlike traditional Christianity, is not applicable for regular people living in the real world. It is instead a hobby theme for insulated academics talking mostly to each other. The upcoming Duke conference may focus on “torture.” But its underlying premises seem devoted to divesting Christianity of all ethical practicality in favor of the ethereal.
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