'Christians' Wink at Torture

Anyone harboring doubts that the institutional Church is
riding shotgun for the system, even regarding heinous sin like torture, should
be chastened by the results of a recent survey by the Pew Research Center.

Who but the cowardly crew leading the "Christian" churches
can be held responsible for the fact that many of their flock believe torture
of suspected terrorists is "justified?"

Those polled were white non-Hispanic Catholics, white
Evangelicals, and white mainline Protestants. A majority (54 percent) of those
who attend church regularly said torture could be "justified," while a majority
of those not attending church regularly responded that torture was rarely or
never justified.

I am not a psychologist or sociologist. But I recall that
one of the first things Hitler did on assuming power was to ensure there was a
pastor in every Lutheran and Catholic parish in Germany. Why? Because he calculated,
correctly, that this would be a force for stability for his regime. Thus began horrid
chapter in the history of those who profess to be followers of Jesus of
Nazareth but forget his repeated admonition, Do not be afraid.

A mere seven decades after the utter failure of most church
leaders in Germany, their current American counterparts have again yielded to
fear, and have condoned evils like torture by their deafening silence.

What kinds of folks comprise this 54 percent? An informal
"survey" of my friends suggests these are "my-country-first" people - like the
fellow who recently gave me the finger when he saw my bumper sticker, which
simply says "God bless the rest of the world too."

They are people accustomed to hierarchy and comfortable
being told what they should think and do to preserve "our way of life." They
place a premium on nationalism, which they call patriotism, and on what the
Germans call Ordnung. I suppose that
this may be part of why they go to church regularly.

It's a problem that has existed for almost 1,700 years, ever
since 4th Century Christians jettisoned their heritage of non-violent
resistance to war and threw in their lot with Constantine.


Nowhere is the phenomenon of obeisance to hierarchical power
highlighted more clearly than in the Grand Inquisitor story in Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky,
who could plum the human heart as few others.

In the tale, Dostoevsky has Jesus joining the "tortured,
suffering people" of Seville during the Inquisition. The Cardinal of Seville
immediately jails and interrogates Jesus, telling him that the Church has
"corrected" his big mistake. Rather than donning "Caesar's purple," Jesus gave
us freedom of conscience.

While it has been 130 years since he wrote Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky captures
the trap into which so many American "believers" have fallen in forfeiting
freedom through fear. His portrayal of Inquisition reality brings us to the
brink of the moral precipice on which our country teeters today. It is as
though he knew what would be in store for us when fear was artificially stoked
after the attacks of 9/11.

Here is how the cardinal ridicules Christ for imposing on
humans the heavy burden of freedom of conscience:

"Didst thou forget that man
prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good
and evil? ... We teach them that it's not the free judgment of their hearts,
but mystery, which they must follow blindly, even against their conscience. ...
In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet [and] become obedient. ...
We shall tell them that we are Thy servants and rule them in Thy name. ... We
shall tell them that every sin will be expiated if it is done with our

Recently, prominent Baptist layman and distinguished senator
from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham, gave a gratuitous hat-tip to the
Inquisition. At a May 13 Senate hearing discussing interrogation techniques
like waterboarding, Graham explained that, "One of the reasons these techniques
have been used for about 500 years is that they work."

I was reminded of one of the things Gandhi said about
Christians: "Everyone in the world knows that Jesus and his teachings were
non-violent except Christians."

And the reason that regular churchgoers don't seem to know
this is because the historical Jesus is not preached.

My guess is that those who go to church on Sunday expect a
modicum of moral leadership. If the pastor is silent on torture, then
torture must somehow be okay. How easy it is then to cede one's conscience to
an American-flag-draped pulpit.

Jesus (and
Luther) Didn't Really Mean It?

A progressive Lutheran pastor in Dallas asked me recently to
give a talk to his parish on the issues I had been addressing in my writings.
It struck me that since George W. Bush had moved into their neighborhood, I
might ask the congregants how they thought they should relate to someone who
had given written approval to torture.

I was too clever by half - naive, actually. I would show
them the "smoking gun" memorandum signed by George W. Bush on Feb. 7, 2002,
which the Senate Armed Forces Committee has determined "opened the door" to all
manner of detainee abuse, and then I would challenge them by quoting Martin
Luther who, after all, was one of their own.

I chose the following passage, which is cited by George
Hunsinger in an essay he wrote in 1987 (appearing in his book Disruptive Grace):

"If," wrote Martin Luther, "I
profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the
truth of Gods except precisely that little point which the world and the devil
are at the moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may
be professing him. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is
proved and to be steady on all the battlefield, except there, is mere flight
and disgrace if one flinches at that point."

Hunsinger emphasizes that faithfulness to Jesus of Nazareth
is always situational, that one can spout impeccably orthodox theological truths
and still be "fatally disloyal." Genuine loyalty is proven where it counts - in
the pitch of battle, where it really costs something. Writing 22 years ago,
Hunsinger was already addressing what he called "an overwhelming spiritual
collapse, in which we have lost touch with even minimal standards of morality:"

"The prevailing sense seems to be
that, if the demands of biblical morality contradict the dictates of national
security, so much the worse for biblical morality. ... Dungeons ... torture,
and death are described as belonging to the free world. ... War criminals
in high places we honor. ... Acts of aggression we celebrate as noble deeds. ... of
preemptive self-defense. Orwell has become our destiny. ...

"The passive acquiescence of a
Christian community which has lost its moral conscience in matters of state
contributes substantially ... to misery and oppression. ... 'Seek your own welfare
above all else' has become the maxim of the day."

Hunsinger has earned the right to criticize those who
confess Jesus of Nazareth "from the safety of some remote enclave, where
confession may be true but costs nothing." He is professor of systematic
theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, but was so aghast at U.S. practice
of torture that he devoted untold time and energy to founding the National
Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT).

Luther Not
Popular in Dallas

I suggested to the gathering of Lutherans that Dallas, where the "decider" on torture is now their
neighbor, might be where the battle rages for them. I had very few takers.

"But he kept us safe ... isn't it better to fight the
terrorists over there than to fight them here?"

There was little appetite for listening to THAT Luther in
that Lutheran church. The pastor shared with me later that he had encountered
all manner of criticism for having invited someone "disrespectful" of George W.

Despite the turbulence I caused, the pastor thanked me for
coming, but noted that "torture is not high on anyone's agenda." In a brief
thank-you note he wrote, "I believe that if the full scope of the nation's use
of torture comes to light, there may be need for churches to propose confession
and repentance, as a positive witness for the rest of the world."

Presbyterians: To
their credit, the Presbyterians have been more outspoken - some of them at

In 2006, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church
(U.S.A.) called on Congress to convene an independent investigative body to
establish responsibility for the abuse of detainees and, if appropriate, to
recommend the appointment of a special prosecutor.

The clerk of the General Assembly followed up on April 23,
2009, with an appeal to President Barack Obama to work with Congress to
establish a non-partisan Commission of Inquiry to bring "an understanding of
what happened, how it happened, and who was accountable," adding,

"If those responsible are not held
accountable, nothing beyond wishful thinking and admonitions exists to compel
future leaders to resist the temptation to torture in times of fear or threat."

Good for the Presbyterians, I thought. It was the perfect
lead-in to my Sunday evening talk to a Dallas area Presbyterian congregation. I
complimented the assembled on the gutsy appeal by the clerk of their General
Assembly on April 23; I found myself looking out at blank and quizzical stares.

This congregation was no exception to the general rule that
courageous statements at high official levels do not find their way into Sunday
sermons, much less parish workshops. A disappointment, but hardly a surprise.

Methodists: The
United Methodist General Board of Churches and Society, acknowledging the
results of the Pew survey, is also supporting an independent inquiry into

Top executive Jim Winkler has been very direct:
"Shame, shame, shame on any Christian who could imagine there is any
justification of torture against another human being. I cannot conceive in my
wildest dreams of Jesus Christ giving any blessing to torture."

It is another question, of course, as to whether the
findings of Pew reach the pews.

As for the Dallas Methodists, Southern Methodist University
has shown itself eager to host George W. Bush's presidential library and an
independent institute to sponsor programs to "promote the vision of the
president and celebrate" his presidency.

The protests of thousands of Methodists, including prominent
alumni of SMU's School of Theology pointing to the policy of torture, fell on
the deaf ears of the Methodist bishops and trustees who blessed the enterprise.

Catholics: Sadly,
the U.S. Catholic bishops cannot find their voice on torture. This is history
repeating itself, for Hamlet-like Pope Pius XII kept trying to make up his mind
on whether he should put the Church at some risk in Germany, while Jews and
other minorities were been tortured and murdered.

In 1948, the French author/philosopher Albert Camus was
invited to address a Dominican monastery; the friars wanted to know what an
"unbeliever" thought about Christians in the light of their behavior during the
30s and 40s. Camus rose to the occasion with these words:

"For a long time during those
frightful years I waited for a great voice to speak up in Rome. I, an
unbeliever? Precisely. For I knew that the spirit would be lost if it did not
utter a cry of condemnation. ...

"It has been explained to me since
that the condemnation was indeed voiced. But that it was in the style of
encyclicals, which is not all that clear. The condemnation was voiced and it
was not understood. Who could fail to see where the fault lies in this case?

"Christians should voice their
condemnation loud and clear, in such a way that never a doubt, never the
slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest person. ... They should
get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken
on today."

And today? True to form, laudable statements and papers have
been produced and placed in in-boxes in the bowels of the bishops' bureaucracy,
but they rarely find their way in any form to the pulpit on Sunday.

I am a Catholic, and initially was happy to find, by a search
of the bishops' Web site that there is a Catholic
Study Guide
titled "Torture is a Moral Issue." It was developed in
collaboration with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the group
Professor Hunsinger founded.

This was news to me. Had any of my Catholic friends heard of
this? The answer from a representative sampling, including progressive
parishes, was No, not one. So I called the bishops' staff to inquire as to why
the study guide on torture had not been published and made available to pastors
to use in their preaching or in workshops.

I was told that it was "not designed as a publication,
because there was uncertainty as to how much demand there would be for such a
study." A publishing run would not be cost effective unless it produced at
least a thousand copies and this particular subject matter might not warrant
that kind of run. (There are some 70 million Catholics in this land.)

As for Pope Benedict XVI, he arrived here in Washington in April
2008, a week after media reports that the most senior officials of the Bush
administration had met regularly at the White House to plan which torture
techniques might be most appropriate for which high-value detainees. He said

All the more strange, it would seem, since Jesus of Nazareth,
after all, was tortured to death. If the pope had an opinion on torture, he
kept it to himself.

What about the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints?

My small random sampling of the information available shows
a strong propensity among Mormons toward Dostoevsky's caricature of a strong,
top-down authoritative church, but with the notable exception of at least one
person who could, and did, think for herself - to her own peril.

The most prominent Mormon with torture connections is Jay
Bybee, a devout Mormon with undergraduate and law degrees from Mormon-owned
Brigham Young University.

As leader of the Justice Department's Office of Legal
Counsel in August 2002, Bybee approved a memorandum indicating that
interrogators could apply virtually any harsh techniques, so long as the pain
involved was less than that accompanying "serious physical injury, such as
organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or death." In my view, his
memorandum must surely be the most shameful text ever to appear beneath
Department of Justice letterhead. It was among the memorandums released by
President Obama in mid-April, over the strong objections of many top officials.

A lively debate rages among Mormon lawyers over the morality
of Bybee's approval of harsh interrogation techniques. Dan Burke, a law
professor at the University of Minnesota, was incensed to learn that a fellow
Mormon could justify such actions. "I cannot believe that the practice of
torture is acceptable to anyone who claims to be a disciple of Jesus Christ,"
said Burk.

Not so fast, say other Mormon lawyers - David Wenger of New
York, for example.

"I would personally be uncomfortable writing a memo on how
the administration could legally justify torture of people, but I don't think
it's against the tenets of our faith," Wenger told the Salt Lake Tribune. "One might believe that the value of ready
access to torture-obtained intelligence outweighed the negative," said Wenger.

Yet another Mormon, a woman Army specialist named Alyssa
Peterson, was clear on the morality of torture. She adamantly refused to take
part in applying torture techniques approved by Bybee.

She walked away from an interrogation in the "cage," where
Iraqis were stripped naked in front of female soldiers, mocked and burned with
cigarettes. Three days later, on Sept. 15, 2003, Peterson was found dead of a
gunshot wound at Tal Afar base in Iraq. The Army said her death was a suicide.

It gets worse. The two faux-psychologists to whom CIA
leaders turned to show them how to torture, James Elmer Mitchell and Bruce
Jessen, are both Mormons. They are still widely referred to by other U.S.
interrogators as the "Mormon mafia."

Add to the mix Robert Walpole, the CIA analyst who wove out
of whole cloth what has been referred to as "The Whore of Babylon" - the worst
National Intelligence Estimate in the history of U.S. intelligence. "Iraq's
Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction" dated Oct. 1, 2002, was a
deliberate - and successful - attempt to deceive Congress into authorizing war
on Iraq.

In his memoir, At the
Center of the Storm
, former CIA Director George (slam-dunk) Tenet praises
Walpole as a "brilliant analyst." In a transparent attempt to defend Walpole
against charges of being "hell bent on war," Tenet insists that Walpole is "one
of the most unlikely people to be accused of being a war hawk."

Tenet notes that Walpole did not think an attack on Iraq
justifiable - and Tenet makes a point of adding that Walpole is a Mormon
bishop. Did Tenet think that that should do it as far as credibility was
concerned? In the end, of course, Walpole did what he was told in managing the
production of the Estimate that paved the way to war.

I know there are many Mormons besides Alyssa Peterson with
integrity. It remains a mystery to me why so many of the ones who gain
prominence seem to lose their sense of right and wrong when they are asked by
hierarchical authority to do things they know are wrong.

In sum, with respect to the Christian churches I believe
author Chris Hedges portrays the situation neatly, if sadly:

"The utter failure of nearly all our
religious institutions - whose texts are unequivocal about murder - to address
the essence of war has rendered them useless. These institutions have little or
nothing to say in wartime because the god they worship is a false god, one that
promises victory to those who obey the law and believe in the manifest destiny
of the nation."

The Good

Who would have thought we would have to turn to the Chairman
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to carry the moral ball on torture.

Adm. Mike Mullen has called his commanders on the carpet. He
is reliably reported to have been so "appalled" and "disgusted" after viewing
some of the abuse photos being kept under wraps by the Obama administration
that he warned senior military officers on July 10: "We haven't all absorbed or
applied all the lessons of Abu Ghraib."

Mullen ordered that more be done to halt detainee abuse. He
is quoted as saying, "We're better than this; and now we have to show it."

Hopefully, Adm. Mullen will stay around long enough to start
a thorough clean-up of the torture mess - at least in the military. He has
acted responsibly and with integrity on a number of issues; the country is
lucky to have him in that very senior post. For it is clear that, as long
as demagogues keep insisting that we are "at war" with global terrorists, all
manner of abuse can be heaped on "the enemy."

It's always the same "during wartime." Here's what one
widely admired U.S. general had to say about the German enemy during WWII. It
is an attitude about which we must be aware, so that we can guard against it:

"My God, I actually pity those poor
bastards we're going up against," said General George Patton. "We're not just
going to shoot the bastards, we're going to cut out their living guts and use
them to grease the treads of our tanks. ...

"Don't worry; I can assure you that
you'll do your duty. The Nazis are the enemy. Wade into them. Spill their
blood. Shoot them in the belly. When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that
a moment before was your best friend's face, you'll know what to do."

for the Church?

Don't. Don't
wait for the churches to speak out against such violence. We have seen
enough of their vacillation to know that for us this would be a cop-out.

Sad to say, the same challenge facing Salvadoran Archbishop
Oscar Romero before he was assassinated faces us. And we must have the courage
and honesty to act, like him, in placing ourselves where the battle rages:

"A church that doesn't provoke any
crisis, a gospel that doesn't unsettle, a word of God that doesn't get under
anyone's skin, a word of God that doesn't touch the real sin of the society in
which it is being proclaimed, what kind of gospel is that?"

We cannot avoid the challenge; it is up to us. We have to
supply what is lacking in the institutional church.

There is hope. As St. Augustine pointed out 1,600 years ago:

"Hope has two children. The first is
anger at the way things are. The second is courage to do something about it."

With those two, well, I think we can. Yes we can.

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