Monthly Archives: May 2011

Love and Torture

Torture has reemerged as a topic recently, with claims that waterboarding and other forms of torture led to the location and killing of Osama bin Laden. I haven’t pursued verification of this claim, because it doesn’t make much difference in my perspective. I don’t doubt that torture can produce some results useful to the torturer.

But the “ticking bomb” scenario depicted on 24 and the “manhunt” scenario seen in the killing of Bin Laden aren’t at the center of the torture issue. Those are instance of a sort of vigilantism, where an individual or a society has to bend the rules in order to overcome an evil so great that jurisprudence simply cannot be effective. In most cases (and torture is documented in over half of nations worldwide) torture is a form of governance before it is a method of interrogation. Certainly this has been the case in Latin American nations such as Chile, Brazil and Argentine, where the U.S. Army trained local military officers on torture techniques (src).

This kind of torture isn’t just a little innocent waterboarding between friends. A typical Argentinian experience was described this way:

They tie my ankles and writes and start to apply an electric prod to me, especially to my breasts, genitals, armpits, and mouth. They alternate the prod with groping, masturbation, all the time insulting me and uttering the most repugnant vulgarities. They try to destroy me, telling me that my husband has died, that I had been “cuckolded” [cheated on], that he was a homosexual and had abandoned his children, that he hadn’t thought about my parents and things of this nature. The torturer insisted that I insult him and he provoked me saying that surely I was thinking that he was a sadist and that I would call what he was doing “groping,” but that I was wrong: he was a scientist, which is why he accompanied all his actions with explanations about my physical makeup, my resistance, the foundations of different methods. (src)

What is interesting to me is the role of the church in societies that torture. Often, the torturers are members of the same national church as the ones they are torturing. One Argentinian prisoner was provided by his captor with what he called a “torturer’s prayer,” written on a scrap of paper. The prayer requests that the Lord “make my hand accurate so that the shot will hit its mark and put charity in my heart so that I will fire without hatred.”

Is this what it means to follow Jesus in loving our enemies? To pray that we will not hate him in our heart, even as we are torturing him? Is this what it means to submit to the authorities? To obey the Pinochet regime when it tells us to take political dissidents from their homes at night and secret them hidden prisons? Is this what it means to not burden the conscience of another Christian? To stand in spiritual solidarity with those who claim to be able to torture while simultaneously following the son of God, the very image of a torture victim?

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The Relative Unimportance of bin Laden’s Death

America invests its resources into killing its enemies.  Got that.  I have no especial problem with that; that’s what nations do.  As St. Augustine observed, human governments cannot create true justice, only try to destroy the most destructive elements of society in pursuit of a relatively less unjust world.  Any claim of human justice is a pretension to divine justice.

What I do have a problem with is these governments claiming what they did was justice.  From an Augustinian perspective, killing Osama bin Laden is not justice, it is only an attempt to prevent further, worse injustices from occurring.

Also embedded in the President’s speech tonight was the notion that America can do whatever she sets her mind to.  This is not through our “wealth or strength alone, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”  This is (as usual) an eschatalogical claim, a messianic claim.  We are the chosen people of God and we can do what we set our mind to (whether we consult God or not, it would seem).

And here Christians must object.  The United States is a nation, and nations can be more or less pagan, as Augustine affirmed.  But the only people of God are those who take in the body of God through communion and make up the body of Christ in the church.  To the degree that nations divide, rather than unite, the body of Christ, they are opposing themselves to the Kingdom of God.

Ultimately, what Osama bin Laden’s death is, is unimportant.  Of course, in a human sense it is as important as anyone else’s death.  It is a strong symbolic victory for the United States.  But it is not for that reason a symbolic loss for the church.  His death comes amidst a multitude of others: American, Afghan and Iraqi alike.  As Christians, we can call the nations we reside in to a more relatively just foreign policy, in an attempt to live peaceably with the world, though they often will not listen.

But at the center of our task as Christians, no nation matters.  We must only seek to exemplify as a body the self-sacrificial love of a God who would rather die for his enemies than to destroy them.