Time for Lent: Christians and Torture


(system) #1

Torture is not currently receiving the level of attention that it attracted over the past few years. Regardless, I decided to include torture in this Lenten series on peace and justice because not only will it be an on-going issue in the “War on Terror,” but it also acts as a window into Christian moral reasoning.

Whatever rationales are used to defend the use of torture, as Christians we look to Jesus’ life and teachings as we set our moral compasses. Given Jesus’ demonstration of enemy love, one might think that Christians would be overwhelmingly opposed to torture. However, in 2009 the Pew Research Center found that higher frequency of church attendance was positively correlated with more permissive views on torture. That is, Justifying torture sometimes or often rose from 42 percent for those who seldom or never attend church to 51 percent for those attending monthly or a few times a year and to 54 percent for people attending at least weekly.[1]

Clearly, influences other than Jesus’ teachings are contributing to these trends. The golden rule of treating others how we want to be treated cannot be the dominant moral force behind the above data. Interestingly, one study found that including an allusion to the golden rule significantly altered respondent attitudes. In a sampling of Southern Evangelicals, the percentage asserting that torture is never or rarely justified jumped from 38 percent to 52 percent when the survey question was rephrased as, “The U.S. government should not use methods against our enemies that we would not want used on American soldiers.”[2]

As I stated in the introduction, these findings provide a unique window into how U.S. Christians evaluate moral issues. The above study on evangelicals also looked at respondents’ ethical thought processes and found that they relied on “life experiences and common sense” more than on “Christian teachings or beliefs” when forming opinions about torture, 44 percent and 28 percent respectively. Rather than look at this as someone else’s moral shortcoming, each of us should consider our own thought processes. What are the primary influences on my social ethics? This may not be easily answered for any of us, but I believe it is an important topic for prayer and reflection.

The topics we have previously considered in this series have had both governmental and personal facets. For example, individuals and congregations can mentor and tutor youth independently of national educational policies. In contrast, torture, as defined by the UN, is specifically an act of the state.[3] Therefore, actions to end or investigate torture necessarily involve confrontation with the government, and this can be problematic for Christians who wish to remain far from politics. My conviction is that Christians must speak truth to power, and as nonpartisan activists we can speak truth to both sides of the aisle. We must speak against torture no matter what political party advocates its use.

To ignore this duty is to give government leadership impunity, the “exemption from accountability, penalty, punishment, or legal sanction.”[4] Opotow quotes Penrose on the significance of impunity: “Impunity is the torturer’s most relished tool. It is the dictator’s greatest and most potent weapon. It is the victim’s ultimate injury. And, it is the international community’s most conspicuous failure.”[5]

Today, I encourage you to stand for a complete disavowal of torture by signing this petition by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT)Statement of Conscience. Incidentally, Adventist Peace Fellowship is a member of NRCAT.[6] You can learn more by watching this video, reviewing NRCAT’s educational resources, or reading Evangelical Declaration against Torture on the Evangelicals for Human Rights website.[7] Consider working with your pastor to determine which of these NRCAT worship materials would be acceptable and useful for your local congregation. Finally, take a stand against impunity and support a Commission of Inquiry.

[1] “The Religious Dimensions of the Torture Debate,” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: Publications, April 29, 2009, http://pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=156.

[2] Adelle M. Banks, “Poll Shows Support for Torture among Southern Evangelicals,” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: Religion News, September 11, 2008, 1,

[3] “UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,” June 26, 1987, http://www.hrweb.org/legal/cat.html.

[4] Susan Opotow, “Reconciliation in Times of Impunity: Challenges for Social Justice,” Social Justice Research 14, no. 2 (June 2001): 149.

[5] Ibid., 149.

[6] http://www.adventistpeace.org

[7] http://www.evangelicalsforhumanrights.org/. Also, read “Torture” by Reagan Demas in The Revolution, Heather Zydek, ed., pp. 139-153.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2272