By David Gushee
We live in a time and culture in which genuine moral discourse is rapidly disappearing –swallowed up by partisanship, spin, politics and self-interest.
By “moral discourse” I mean conversation between persons of good will about the rightness or wrongness of an action or policy, independent of all other considerations. By extension, Christian moral discourse would be conversation between Christian persons of good will about the rightness or wrongness of an action, independent of all considerations other than those deriving from our shared commitment to Jesus Christ.
That applies to torture.
For two years, I have led an evangelical human-rights organization that primarily exists to foster moral discourse about the rightness or wrongness of the United States’ treatment of detainees held in our nation’s military and security efforts since 9/11. Those of us involved in this effort became persuaded two years ago that numerous aspects of U.S. detainee policy were morally wrong. The most important thing that was wrong with that policy was that officials within the United States government had decided to authorize the cruel and abusive treatment of at least “high-value” detainees. This determination was rooted in the questionable belief that this was the best way to get important information out of them during interrogations.
Published accounts of the particular kinds of harm inflicted on detainees have now emerged from a variety of credible sources — including government investigations, the Red Cross, previously secret government records and interviews with those who witnessed what happened. In a number of cases, detainees were treated so cruelly and abusively that — by any recognizable historic definition — they were tortured. These judgments were made at the time by dissenters within the government with firsthand knowledge of what was occurring.
Our shared identity as Christians and shared commitment to following Christ is what drove Evangelicals for Human Rights toward taking a stand on this issue. As evangelical Christians, committed to Jesus Christ and seeking to live out our faith in him, we could not remain silent. We could not square living for the tortured and crucified Savior with supporting the torture of human beings. Nor could we accept that we should remain silent, because silence signals acquiescence.
For us, torture became a moral issue, and remains a moral issue. It is a moral issue if it happens in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Syria, Cuba, Zimbabwe or in any other of the 190 or so countries on the planet. It is a moral issue if it is being inflicted by our citizens or upon our citizens, by our fellow-believers or upon our fellow-believers. We dream of a world — and therefore work for a world — in which no one ever tortures anyone for any reason ever again.
Since the beginning of our effort we have faced critics who could not accept that any group could take such a stance without an ulterior motive. Rarely willing to offer full-throated defense of torture, our critics most often tried to attack our motives, charging that we were politically motivated — simply leftists in Christian clothing, peaceniks unconcerned with American security.
Such attacks do not fare well when one considers what has now been revealed about the bitter internal struggles within most executive-branch agencies, the intelligence community and the military about the slide into abusive and cruel interrogation practices after 2001. Large numbers of Republican political appointees, together with career military officers of high rank and long-serving non-partisan civil servants, rose up in resistance against this decisive turn against American values.
This story is told extraordinarily well by Jane Mayer in her critically important new book, The Dark Side. Every American, every Christian, should read it. It was encouraging to me to know that at the very same time that “Christian” critics were charging evangelical human-rights activists with being unpatriotic leftist peaceniks, military and civilian officials within the Bush Administration were declaring in fierce arguments that what was happening was torture and that torture is simply immoral.
I leave it to those Christians who defended — and still defend — such policies to explain themselves before God and man.
A representative group of those who have stood against torture will be gathering at Mercer University in Atlanta for a national summit on torture on September 11-12. Hosted by the university, Evangelicals for Human Rights, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and a dozen other co-sponsors of various faiths and perspectives, our conference will explore “Religious Faith, Torture, and Our National Soul.” Almost 50 conference leaders will reflect on our nation’s wrong turn and the steps needed to return us decisively to our core national values. Registration closes September 1 and seating is by now extremely limited. Review the program lineup and register at www.evangelicalsforhumanrights.org .
Hopefully, this particular issue will soon pass from the scene. But when the next one comes up, will Christians be any more equipped than the last time to deal with a moral issue for what it is, precisely as a moral issue demanding a faithful Christian response, rather than default to the diatribes offered on talk radio?