By David Gushee
The recent release of four key memos from President Bush’s Justice Department does not exhaust the revelations that are still to come related to the brutal interrogation policies of our government in the years following the 9/11 attacks. But the memos and a recently leaked February 2007 Red Cross report on the same subject now provide us the best evidence yet concerning both what the Bush administration authorized, in its dry legalese, and what the implementation of those policies actually looked like as experienced individually by its victims.
In my role as president of Evangelicals for Human Rights, I have been part of a religiously motivated anti-torture movement (the National Religious Campaign Against Torture) since the summer of 2006. As an evangelical, I can say unequivocally that my commitment to this cause has been motivated by faith-inspired indignation against my government’s degradations of human dignity.
It is this same faith-based commitment to human dignity that has motivated my treatment of other issues on this page. For example, in September 2008 I suggested that Christians who supported Sarah Palin should take the opportunity to rethink their restrictions on women’s leadership in evangelical churches. In March 2009 I stated my opposition to abortion on demand and the destruction of embryonic stem cells for research and called on President Obama to deliver on abortion reduction. I am also opposed to the death penalty and degrading television entertainment, and support universal health care and humane immigration reform.
What all of these positions have in common is a commitment to a holistic ethic of the sacredness or dignity of human life. Like many Christians and other people of faith, I believe that every human being is sacred in God’s sight and must therefore be treated with dignity by other human beings — from womb to tomb. Such dignity involves acting to preserve and protect the life and dignity of all people and to act on behalf of full human flourishing. This is an ancient, comprehensive religious and moral vision of human dignity. It has policy implications, but is not fundamentally a political stance. A consistent pro-life, pro-dignity ethic forces its adherents to take some positions that will seem “liberal” on certain issues and, on other issues, positions that will seem “conservative.” The problem is not the inconsistency of the ethic, but instead the crippling limits of our political categories.
When I began to notice the news trickling out that there appeared to be some abuses in our treatment of detainees in the “war on terror,” I became concerned precisely because, in my religious worldview, even terrorists or suspected terrorists — even enemies in war or suspected enemies in war — are human beings whose dignity must be respected.
And precisely because we fear and hate them so much, vigilance is all the more required — because the fine tissue of moral and legal protections for human rights can tear most easily when we are most afraid and angry.
Our coalition’s efforts against these policy abuses ran into opposition of all types. At a political level, this was to be expected. But what I think most surprised and disappointed me was the stance of so many of my fellow evangelical Christians. What we all supposedly share in common is a passionate commitment to Christ and to living according to biblical principles. But when it came to the idea that even people in Guantanamo and secret CIA prisons were human beings made in God’s image, this for many was a bridge too far.
Our movement was accused of exaggerating the problem and failing to define torture adequately. We were labeled as leftist pacifists who didn’t care about national security. We were accused of being divisive and of distracting evangelicals from real problems like gay marriage. We were treated as naïve for not “realizing” that the “war on terror” was a new kind of war requiring the abandonment of quaint human-rights protections. The most serious moral arguments against our cause suggested that we misunderstood the canons of just-war theory and the use of legitimate force in national self-defense.
Now we know that the United States government authorized, in various combinations, prolonged sleep deprivation; prolonged forced nudity; dietary manipulation; abdominal slaps and facial slaps (not to mention the occasional beating and kicking); repeated waterboarding; shackling for extended periods to walls and ceilings; dousing with water as cold as 41 degrees; confinement in dark, cramped boxes; confinement in boxes with insects believed by the detainee to be dangerous; and “walling,” or slamming detainees against walls. The Red Cross report reveals that the repeated combination of many of these techniques was employed in a number of cases, and that report (by the international agency responsible for monitoring governments’ compliance with international human-rights standards) describes this treatment as torture. I challenge anyone to read the Red Cross report and not feel that unmistakable wave of nausea that comes with witnessing sickening human degradation.
I am grateful that President Obama has repudiated this “dark and painful chapter in our history” and has released at least some of the key documents that help us see how that chapter began. There is more to be done at the national level: We need the release of all torture-related documents; we need an independent, nonpartisan truth commission with subpoena power and the analytical ability to make a full report; and we need legislation that cements into place the legal changes that can make any return to these practices much more difficult.
I am hopeful about these policy changes and am working for them. But what really keeps me up at night is worrying about the large part of a religious community — my Christian community — that far too often supported, acquiesced to or euphemized torture. And much of that community refuses to repudiate that stance even now.
What I am really worried about is the weakness of our commitment to the comprehensive sacredness and dignity of human life made in God’s image. I don’t necessarily expect Machiavellian security hawks to understand this non-negotiable Christian moral commitment. But I do expect Christians to be Christian.
Maybe that is expecting too much.