It is clear to me that the problem of torture is like a bone caught in our national throat. We can't swallow it, but we can't quite spit it out. And so we are choking on it.
The sound of choking can be heard from various directions:
In recent congressional testimony on waterboarding given by Attorney General Michael Mukasey, CIA Director Michael Hayden, and others, the torture issue has been front and center. The basic import of this testimony is that the Bush administration has at last admitted that it has employed waterboarding (simulated drowning, a recognized torture technique for centuries). Administration representatives say waterboarding is not presently occurring but suggest that such techniques could still be employed with the approval of the Attorney General and the President. This stance apparently will not change under the current administration, despite fierce opposition from many Americans of all faiths and political perspectives.
This week Senate leaders are trying to pass an anti-torture amendment with teeth. The context is the 2008 Intelligence Authorization Bill. The amendment would apply the interrogation restrictions imposed on the military by the Army Field Manual onto the CIA. This would ban waterboarding and a host of other cruel and inhumane acts. It appears that this legislation, which passed the House, faces doubtful prospects in the Senate. (Immediately is a very good time to contact your senators about this issue.)
The presidential campaign has had a number of surprises. Among them is the ascendancy of presidential candidates who oppose all forms of torture, and the decline or collapse of those who take the current administration position. Now, of course, these anti-torture candidates, such as Senator McCain, are being flogged as too moderate and too soft on torture.
The Bush administration announced this week its plan to prosecute six detainees linked to 9/11, including Khalid Shaik Muhammad, the purported mastermind of that terrible attack. Muhammad is among those whom the administration has admitted to have waterboarded as part of interrogations. The admissibility of any “evidence” he offered up under waterboarding will be just one among many issues raised by the trials of these men — if the public is given access to news of these trials at all.
Given developments in the presidential campaign, it is now very possible to envision an election in which both major party candidates resolutely oppose torture. For this I can only thank God, even as others apparently gnash their teeth in frustration.
However, the fight against torture is not over until it is really over. This will require the ongoing efforts of advocates to help cement a cultural, religious and ethical consensus against torture over the next year or more. If our nation does elect an anti-torture president, we will still need to help that person implement their intentions into law. And this will require strong support from Baptist and evangelical communities, which have not broadly engaged this issue.
That is not entirely true. Many influential voices in the national (and international) evangelical community have come out strongly against any resort to torture. Many mobilized around our 2007 “Evangelical Declaration Against Torture,” which can still be signed at www.evangelicalsforhumanrights.org.
Few of those hundreds of signatories are Baptists — as of now. The stance of the official Southern Baptist Convention leadership was signaled by attacks on the declaration through Baptist Press, with no opportunity given to me or anyone else involved with the declaration to respond.
I am more surprised by the silence from moderate Baptist leaders and the centrist-progressive kinds of Baptists who gathered at the New Baptist Covenant meeting. It is my hope that their general silence on torture does not signal consent or acquiescence but simply a lack of focus amid other pressing issues.
A religious community that selected Luke 4 as its central text, that lifted up Jesus Christ our tortured Savior and Lord, and that emphasized peace, justice and mercy, cannot be sanguine about our national use of torture in the war on terror, can it?
David Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University. This article is distributed by ABP.