Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

“Christian” Defenders of Torture

Previously on this blog, I had joyously highlighted the work of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), an interfaith effort to stop the torture and other human rights violations waged in the name of “fighting terrorism.” This effort was launched by the great Princeton theologian (and Barthian pacifist!), George Hunsinger.  When a specifically evangelical effort to oppose torture arose, Evangelicals for Human Rights, founded by an old friend, David P. Gushee (just recently hired to teach Christian ethics at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology), who drafted An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture which I was happy to sign (and which, I was pleasantly surprised to learn, used some of my work on the Christian historical roots for the development of human rights) , I was again pleased.  It seemed for awhile after 9/11 as if the U.S. churches were being turned, in large measure, to blind supporters of the government’s every whim and rabid, bloodthirsty nationalists who loved war.  These Christian developments against torture and for the protection of the human rights even of suspected terrorists are signs, I firmly believe, of a recovery of moral sanity.

But such a recovery will not be simple.  A reader named Kim who is connected to Messiah College has called attention to some recent “Christian” defenses of torture in the “war on terror.”  This article in the web edition of Christianity Today should not have surprised me since it is written by Keith Pavlischek, an old adversary of mine who attempts at every turn to defend a far right political theology.  I am not surprised to find that he is now employed by the right-of-center/misnamed Ethics and Public Policy Center.  And I am not surprised to find that First Things, the Catholic intellectual journal that defends rightwing political theology (a counterpart to the more progressive Catholic journals, Commonweal and the oddly-named America), has published a similar attack on An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture. 

The First Things article also attacks Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright, a noted New Testament scholar, for his “feckless political reasoning.” Wright’s crime? The dreaded bane of Neo-cons, seeing “moral equivalence” between terrorist attacks and on American responses.  “Moral equivalence” is neo-con code-speak for “it’s terrible if they do it, but okay if we do it because we are the Good Guys.”  Any attempt to hold Western nations (or, God help us, CHRISTIANS) to a HIGHER standard than international terrorists is labeled “moral equivalence” or “blame America[Britain, etc.] first” reasoning.  “Moral equivalence” is usually contrasted with “moral clarity,” which is Neo-con code-speak for “what terrorists do is so bad that ANYTHING done in response is clearly moral.”

Indeed, it seems that although most of the U.S. public has finally joined the vast majority of the world in condemning the invasion and occupation of Iraq, some Christian ministers are still defending it.  I don’t recall who said it, but the old proverb is still proving true, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and so not tried.” The cause of Christ is slimed every time we see these “Christian” defenses of torture, violations of international law, violations of human rights, and preemptive wars. (I believe Christ forbids all war, but Christian defenses of “preemptive war” is especially sinful–and insane.)


October 6, 2007 - Posted by | human rights., torture


  1. What gets under my skin about attempts to distinguish between “enhanced interrogation techniques” and torture is that it is equivocating on an issue that even the inquisition saw clearly. The manuals of inquisitors through the middle ages reveal over and over that the most common and effective form of torture was simple sleep deprivation. Stress positions, threats and other “mild” forms of torture were also used and frequently these were all that was necessary to produce confessions. The point is that we’re quibbling over distinctions that don’t exist.

    Torture is fundamentally psychological. Regardless of the technique used, the goal is to convince the subject that this can go on forever and keep getting worse unless they comply. If you’re using humiliation, or the rack, it is the same dynamic. Frankly, if we acknowledged the reality of this we would see that torture is rampant in our penal system. Those I know who have been in prison all have countless anecdotes about guards confiscating toothpaste, waking prisoners at odd hours for no reason, threatening violence (or actually using it), refusing prisoners toilet paper etc.. etc… all actions designed to break the prisoner down and make them compliant. Torture.

    Comment by Aric Clark | October 6, 2007

  2. the link to “the article” is the same as the link to “similar attack”

    Comment by Justin | October 6, 2007

  3. Thanks for this post. I’ve been meaning to say something about the article in Books and Culture by your “adversary.” It is truly an unfortunate article, one that seems to think the “Just War” tradition is not only beyond criticism but also a means of justifying American imperialism. I emailed the article to Dr. Hunsinger, and I hope someone, perhaps Gushee himself, will respond in print.

    Comment by D. W. Congdon | October 6, 2007

  4. Thanks, Justin. I corrected the link problem.

    David, I will contact Gushee and hope he responds. Since Christianity Today has regularly posted his stuff, there should be no problem.

    Aric, your words are wise. In fact, when several months back there were defenders of waterboarding, I pointed out that Americans had prosecuted people who practiced that as a form of torture before–both others (Japanese who waterboarded U.S. POWs) and our own (U.S. interrogators of Vietnamese POWs). Any of the methods described as “possible” (since no one will confirm anything) “enhanced techniques” would get any police officer in the nation in trouble. We define “torture” in both U.S. and international law as “cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment.”

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 7, 2007

  5. I read the articles. I’m confused. This document was written by somebody named Gushee. He says that war is justified but that torture is not justified. The Christianity Today article points this out. Gushee supports just war. But he also supports the human right to life and the sanctify of human life. The Christianity Today article points out that this is not consistent. If human rights are a seamless garment, how can he support both the sanctity of human life and the right to kill people in war? I think this is what Kim was trying to say. I would like to see someone committed to nonviolence point this out, maybe Congdon or Hunsinger. I don’t understand why Gushee doesn’t just come out and say that he is committed to gospel nonviolence and not war. Did he really defend Bush’s war in Afghanastan? I would like to see a dialogue between someone truly committed to nonviolence and someone like gushee.

    Comment by Justin | October 7, 2007

  6. Justin,
    I, Michael Westmoreland-White, am committed to nonviolence in all things. Dave Gushee is not. That puts HIM with the majority of all Christians and you and me in the minority. If you want to ask HIM about that, Google him, and contact him. I am not in the business of running friends down.
    I have written on nonviolence and on torture. I have said what I will say on this.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 7, 2007

  7. Well, OK, I guess I can contact him. But I just figured that since you and Gushee were good friends and since you are both PHDs and are very smart you or another person committed to nonviolence could explain what seems to be a very bad contradiction with Gushee. (I just don’t see how forms of torture such as loud music, stess positions and sleep deprivation are never allowed but killing is allowed–Gushee’s position) I’m sorry if this is an inappropriate place for such dialogue. PEACE

    Comment by Justin | October 7, 2007

  8. Anoher view on all this


    Comment by anon | October 8, 2007

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