By David Gushee
Follow David: @dpgushee
In Fall 2005, while I was teaching at Union University, and two years before I moved here to Mercer University, the editors of Christianity Today magazine asked me to write an analysis of the morality of torture for their evangelical readership. I complied with this startling request and produced what became a cover story, released Feb. 1, 2006. I sought to show that the United States was indeed torturing people. And I said unequivocally that torture is always morally wrong and can never be supported by Christians.
This was at the time a controversial opinion. It was certainly not universally shared among my fellow Christians. I remember some quite colorful communications directed my way. That article changed my life and opened up a period of activism that dominated my next three years, essentially concluding with the new president’s executive order in January 2009 banning torture once again.
I review this history to say three main things:
First: The December 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program came as a shocking new revelation only for those who were not paying attention over the last decade. Most of the information was known long ago, and much was reported in 2013 by the Detainee Treatment Taskforce of the Constitution Project, on which I served.
Second: A minority of us Christians, Baptists, and evangelicals, along with others, were saying a clear no to torture when it was actually happening, and the document trail proves it. Beyond my individual efforts, I point to the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the Evangelical Declaration against Torture (of which I was principal drafter but worked in a team with others), and which was approved by the National Association of Evangelicals, and the efforts of Evangelicals for Human Rights from 2006 to 2009 and the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good after 2009.
Third: Some visible Christian individuals and institutions in December 2014 finally said that the United States tortured people, and that torture is wrong. But many of these were saying something very different in 2006 and 2007, sometimes in opposition to my own work. For a disturbing review of Southern Baptist voices (and silences), see this piece by Brian Kaylor. Better late than never for those who have finally renounced torture. But their very journey from support or complicity to rejection offers important moral lessons about ideological seduction and how one gets disentangled from it.
* * *
Let’s go back to 2005-2006 for a moment.
Torture is not new. Some government or rebel group is torturing some unfortunate victim every day in our unjust world. It is one of humanity’s worst and most common crimes, an enduring temptation for those movements and nations seeking to ensure their security or simply to terrorize those subjected to their power.
What was new in 2005, though, was that the United States, global defender of human rights, was accused of descending into the practice of torture. What was also new was a growing national debate over two things, really: whether the United States was actually torturing people, and, if so, whether such torture could be morally justified on grounds of national security.
The increasingly intense national debate had been triggered by the release of the appalling photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, as well as reporting trickling back from our war zones and prisons overseas, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo. A free press was doing its indispensable work, finding out what was being done in our name in all kinds of shadowy places.
In the early 2006 cover story for Christianity Today, I began with a number of documented accounts of gross mistreatment of prisoners in U.S. custody. Then I quoted scholars who defined torture as the “infliction of severe pain (whether physical or psychological) by a perpetrator who acts purposefully and on behalf of the state.”
I made clear that torture is banned absolutely by international law, by treaties to which the United States is a signatory, and by U.S. criminal law. No exceptions to the ban on torture are permitted in any law, convention, or treaty banning torture.
I then argued that the Bush Administration had attempted to carve out maximal room for aggressive interrogation while claiming it was not crossing over the line to torture. I then tested that demurral by listing interrogation techniques that been officially approved, including prolonged standing, removal of detainees’ clothing, sensory deprivation, hooding, prolonged interrogations, use of dogs, shaving of beards, grabbing, poking, or pushing, sleep adjustment/deprivation, and waterboarding.
I then listed (apparently) unapproved but sometimes practiced measures that, according to reports, included punching, slapping, and kicking detainees, religious and sexual humiliation, prolonged shackling, exposure to severe heat or cold, food or toilet deprivation, mock or threatened executions, letting dogs threaten and in some cases bite and severely injure detainees, and taking photographs of such things as well as of dead detainees.
I said that the unapproved measures appear to have been particular prevalent in CIA interrogations, among private U.S. contractors serving the military, and among military police at places like Abu Ghraib.
I made it clear that the practices being undertaken by the U.S. government could not credibly be denied to be torture, even though our government was using euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation techniques” to do precisely that.
Then — besides the fact that torture violates U.S. and international law — I made a principled Christian argument for why torture must be viewed as always and absolutely wrong, and why Christians must reject it and never participate in it. In summary, that argument was:
(1) Torture violates the dignity of the human being.
(2) Torture mistreats the vulnerable and violates the demands of justice.
(3) Authorizing torture trusts government too much.
(4) Torture dehumanizes the torturer.
(5) Torture erodes the character of the nation that tortures.
I stand by the claims I have made since 2006: The United States sank below its principles, violated its own laws, and damaged its standing in the world when it resorted to torture after 9/11.
Our nation has never really come to terms with what we did. Nor have we reached a consensus that torture is wrong. This was evidenced by fiercely divided reaction to a report that was passed out of the Senate on a bipartisan vote, as well as by the fact that the federal government has no plans for further investigation, prosecution, or even pardon of those responsible for violating our own laws.
Christians in America have also not come to terms with our complicity. Those who defended or played weaselly word games about torture from 2004 to 2008 have never apologized. The fact that evangelical Christians still support torture at higher rates than other Americans has not been repented by anybody representing evangelicals. The collapse of American Christian credibility signaled by our complicity with torture has not been broadly addressed as the wheels of our religious subcultures keep rolling along.
Torture is evil. The U.S. government authorized torture, while calling it by another name. Only a minority of Christians said an absolute no when this torture was revealed. Only a minority today say an absolute no. Some still defend it explicitly. We still have much to repent as 2015 begins.