Why Christians Should Pay Attention to the Torture Report

Three ways forward for Christian communities.

It is impossible to sufficiently summarize the barbarism described in the Senate’s recently declassified report investigating the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. Not only did torture take place, but it did so regularly and systematically, sometimes on otherwise cooperative subjects, and at least one of every five detainees was an innocent person captured by mistake or prejudice. In the end, it appears to have revealed little, if any, actionable information, and was intentionally hidden for the better part of a decade.

Perhaps our greatest challenge as the church during this time will be carrying the tensions inherent to the Christian faith as we move forward as a country. Scripture commands we love our enemies. It also calls for justice for the wicked. It charges Christians to submit to authority while chronicling a long history of civil disobedience when authority rises against God’s kingdom and nature. We know the foundation of our response is prayer for our leaders — wisdom, prudence, and justice are found in the shadow of the Spirit we adore — but what else can we embrace to move forward together?

Here are three things Christians should keep in mind as they orient themselves toward this moment.

1. Knowledge of the truth does not put people in danger.

Scripture’s ardent call to know the Truth — Christ, himself — assumes we understand the darkness in our own heart and world. The idea that we are better off not knowing the reality of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program is a smokescreen to cover the real reasons citizens of our country are in danger: willful usurping of our own legal system, cold-blooded violation of international law, rancorous disregard for humanity, and egregious impunity.

The Senate report pulls few punches when it comes to then-President Bush’s decisions, but it doesn’t dig too deep on how much senators themselves may have been privy to. (They seem to see it as implausible that the president would know as little as they say the Senate knew.) For his part, former Vice President Dick Cheney told the New York Times, “the [CIA’s Advanced Interrogation] program was authorized.” The threats to murder detainees’ children and rape their wives, the humiliation of being forced around naked, the physical abuse and functional drowning, the psychological conditions that lead to the mental collapse of both guilty and innocent minds, were all, in Cheney’s words, “absolutely, totally justified.”

Darkness is used in scripture as a metaphor for evil, but also for ignorance. What was in the dark about America’s actions toward the citizens of other countries is now in the light. Those of us who will interact and respond as an extension of our faith should read (at a minimum) the first 25 pages of the report for ourselves. Senator Feinstien’s forward and the Committee’s list of 20 findings as written up on those pages can serve as foundations of conversations within our churches as we pray and engage together.

2. Scripture’s response is about human rights, not politics.

The foundation of human rights in modern society comes directly from the pages of scripture. Evolution says only the fit survive — the weak are to be destroyed. Majority-rules defends the weak only when it is convenient — they are on their own if they fall outside the majority’s favor. Even our own legal system is insufficient, especially as there is now precedent for superseding it at will.

A legal advisor to the CIA noted that one prisoner’s “planned interrogation” included, “isolation in total darkness; lowering the quality of his food; keeping him at an uncomfortable temperature (cold); [playing music] 24 hours a day; and keeping him shackled and hooded . . . wearing a diaper, [with] no access to toilet facilities.” In the case of Gul Rahman’s imprisonment, “uncomfortable temperature” meant he was left bound naked on a cold floor until he died. A medical examiner listed his cause of death as hyperthermia. It was later determined that Rahman was not who the CIA believed he was and had been wrongfully imprisoned — “a case of mistaken identity.” Just four months after Rahman’s savage interrogation and death, the officer in charge received a $2,500 bonus for “consistently superior work.”

Not all team members found reward in their actions, however. On August 8, 2002, just months into the program, an email was sent revealing that the torture sessions left “several on the team profoundly affected . . . some to the point of tears and choking up.” The next day an email indicated that “two, perhaps three [personnel are] likely to elect transfer away from the facility.” Torture, as it turns out, travels in more than one direction.

“There is, finally, no intelligible (much less persuasive) secular version of the conviction that every human being is sacred; the only intelligible versions are religious,” observes Yale law professor Michael Perry. In Perry’s book, The Idea of Human Rights, he builds an academic argument around something the church should teach more often: there is no sufficient reason to care for another human being if humanity isn’t made in the image of God.

3. Christians should look to Christ as we cultivate justice.

Branches of government and political parties were designed to create balance, not division. The church is ill-intentioned if our goal is to empower a particular party to “win” — especially to the detriment of the message of scripture. We want Christ to be known. Through scripture, we can begin the conversation about the sanctity of all human life. Our government’s response to “Black Lives Matter” comes at a time when we have our nation’s first black president and attorney general — what will it take before Arab lives matter? Must we wait for our country to catch up, or will the church rise up and lead?

Faith communities will respond to this report in a variety of ways. Some will influence through policy and diplomacy, others through activism. This is part of the beauty of the Christian church — we are diverse, yet united in Christ, who we look to as the ultimate promise that all will be made right. Although we labor for what is right, we await the sufficient justice and beautiful mercy of Christ. This is the heart of this season of Advent, in which we currently find ourselves. Together we can commit ourselves to cultivate restoration and human flourishing through our faith in Christ as we long for the future, crying, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Steven Dilla
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  • Martin Hughes

    Well, suppose that some bad guys were preparing to bomb your church at a time when your family and 100 others were gathered there to listen to a special address by a leading human rights lawyer. You’ll arrive a bit late and have to scrape bits of lawyers, pastors and loved ones off the walls. Burning fragments of sacred books proclaiming that everyone’s sacred will float through the foetid air. Forgive horrific imagery, but I must ask starkly – would you rather that the attack should go ahead or that the bomber’s family should be tortured horribly,reveal the truth and have the attack frustrated? I think we must face up to this sort of question.
    I can well understand the reply that ‘I’d rather, as a matter of my own feelings, have the torture than the explosion but that does not make torture objectively the right choice’. Indeed I think that the pro-torture propaganda through fictions in which our heroine is saved by our hero wielding a cattle prod or much worse is profoundly misleading in that the fiction operates as a closed world with the longer-term consequences excluded. But we should still face the question rather than merely explode with righteous indignation when we think of Dick Cheney.
    To say ‘only religion can make us think of people as sacred’ is misleading in at least two ways. It’s true that only religion can introduce religious terms such ‘sacred’ into the discussion, but that may not preclude ethically satisfying language’s being found from other sources. Also, religion has a way of interpreting sacredness in rather startling fashion, as with the Inquisition and its way of having people’s vile bodies burned to save their sacred souls.
    However, let good prevail. Let us find the peace of God.