Christians and Torture


A recent Pew Forum poll indicated that church-going Christians in America, especially fundamentalist Protestants, favored the use of torture as an interrogation method in the case of national emergencies. But Evangelicals were hardly the clear winners, as regularly attending Roman Catholics were not far behind. A number of commentators, picking up on this, have suggested that the Christian theology of atonement, sometimes known as the "substitution theory" of redemption, is to blame. After all, or at least it is argued, if one believes that humanity is "saved" from its sins by the torture and suffering inflicted upon Jesus, would not this lead almost directly to the conclusion that today we can be protected from national dangers by inflicting torture and suffering on our nation's enemies?


Maybe so: but quite the contrary, I would argue that, from a theological and historical viewpoint, really radical Christianity demands, and in fact, has always preached, and eventually led, to just the opposite. Indeed, it was through the radical Christian idealism of such groups as the Quakers and Mennonites that slavery was abolished, that the torture and execution of criminals was replaced by a prison system that (at least at one time) sought to rehabilitate rather than simply punish them, and that even today, anti-war pacifism and anti-death penalty (and not just anti-abortion) activism flourishes among those Christians who take the message of Jesus most seriously.


How then explain the results of Pew Forum research poll? I think the reason is quite simple. Psychologically speaking, church-going, as apart from really living one's faith and its demands in daily life, tends to be driven by the quest for security. In times of national emergency, it is this same sense of security that is most severely threatened, and that almost every society, even the most liberal, has from time to time succumbed to panic and fear and the belief that violence will somehow protect us from rather than only promote more violence.


On the other hand, that political and religious conservatism often go hand in hand should surprise no one. In fact, it should be obvious to anyone who reads or takes the gospels seriously, that it was the religious conservatives -- those who valued security above all else and who most feared losing what they already had -- and not the people who longed for change, who conspired with the political powers of Jesus' time to have him executed.


So while it could be that the image of the tortured and dying figure of Jesus on the Cross -- which is far from being as terrible as the real thing must have been -- still offends some, it also must be admitted that it has been sometimes perversely misused to habituate people to suffering. Nevertheless, the real message contained in any "substitution theory" of atonement one should think by now would be clear. If the greatest evil imaginable was inflicted on Christ who suffered in our place, anyone who tortures anyone today is, in fact, committing the blasphemy of seeking to crucify Christ -- the God who became Man to identify himself with all humanity -- still another time all over again.

                                R W Kropf   5/9/09                                      Torture.doc