A Christian’s lament over the Pew torture poll

David Gushee teaches Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta.  He taught the same subject at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary while I was a doctoral student back in the early 90s.  He is also president of Evangelicals for Human Rights.  When the Georgia professor learned that 62% of white evangelicals support the use of torture he had to ask himself if these folks have the slightest idea what their purported Master stands for. 

True to his evangelical heritage, Gushee took it to the Lord in prayer.

Gushee is asking much the same question I addressed in “The religious roots of southern punitiveness“.  I fear that support for torture among southern white evangelicals is likely well in excess of 62%.  Asking why white evangelicals support torture is much like asking why these kind, good-hearted people are so enamored of a criminal justice system predicated on torture (physical and pschological). 

Prison may not be hell; but it’s as close as you can get this side of dying.

Please give Dr. Gushee’s prayer your careful attention and tell me what you think.  Also, check out this piece in The American Prospect’s FundamentaList that draws a parallel between Abu Graib-type atrocities and the brand of aggressive evangelism currently flourishing in the American military. 

A Christian’s Lament

Dear Jesus,

Everyone seems to be talking about the poll put out last week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. They found that 62 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe “the use of torture against suspected terrorists to gain important information” to be often or sometimes justified. Only 16 percent of this group — a community that by self-definition is very, very serious about following you — believes torture is never justified. That number was lower than any other group polled.

I think that what really got people’s attention with this poll, Lord, is that both evangelical identity and church attendance were positively correlated with support for torture. Thirteen percent more evangelicals said torture was often or sometimes justified than in the general population. In other words: The more often people go to church, the more they support torture. So those of your followers who go to church every week support torture at 54 percent, while those who seldom or never go support it at 42 percent.

These results have bounced around the country all week, reinforcing the opinion here that Christianity — the faith that purports to be related to loyalty to you, Jesus — leads people to support torture. It would be easy for casual news-watchers to conclude that if you want to end torture in this country, the best thing to do would be to empty out the churches. What a negation of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20)! We could call it the Great De-Commissioning!

But, Jesus, can it be that the problem is that the churches are already empty? Can it be that the institution that you founded to advance your mission in the world is already empty of any understanding of what it might really mean to follow you? Is it already empty of people who take your teachings and example so seriously that they might have the capacity to resist seductive and dangerous ideas floating around our culture — like the idea that if torture “works” to “protect national security,” and thus is something that followers of Jesus Christ ought to support as good loyal Americans?

Is your church already empty of courageous leaders who are willing to lose their jobs in order to say a resounding NO to a heretical idea like that? Is it already empty of people who understand that if you are a Christian, you cannot serve two masters, like, for example, Jesus and National Security? Is it already empty of people who understand that because all human beings are made in your image, there are some things that we just can’t do to anyone, no matter who they are?

What is this thing called “Christianity” in this country, Lord Jesus? Does it have anything to do with you? It seems a strangely Americanized thing, a disastrously domesticated faith toward which people can nod their heads in loyalty as long as it doesn’t conflict with their full participation in whatever this country feels like it wants to do.

You founded an international, countercultural movement filled with followers who did everything you taught them to do to advance the peaceable and just reign of your Father in this rebellious world. We American Christians have turned it into a culture-religion that has nothing to say even about, say, waterboarding, slamming people repeatedly into walls, forced nudity, prolonged shackling, 11 days of sleep deprivation, psychological terror, sexual humiliation, religious desecration, and so much more! Or that even supports all of this to protect … America!

O Jesus, what have you to do with a religion like this? “I spit you out of my mouth” — these words of yours somehow come to mind (Rev. 3:16)!

Lord, you taught us much about resisting temptation. You talked about not giving the Devil a space in which to operate, and about cutting off the sources of temptation at the root (Mark 10:43-48). It seems like on this torture issue, Jesus, our nation got tempted by its fear and anger and grief to go down a road we had repudiated since our founding! When what we were doing first surfaced (Abu Ghraib, 2004), we all purported to be shocked, shocked. Now at least half of your people say it’s fine to do worse than what we did there! Where’s your Holy Spirit, leading us into righteousness and convicting us of our sins? Or, better, where is the responsiveness of your people to your Holy Spirit, the One who speaks truth to your people if we will but listen?

O Lord, you know that some of us have been fighting this torture thing for several years. We thought that America would come to its senses eventually. We thought that a transition to an anti-torture president would make a difference. Well, the policies may be changing right now, but support for torture among even your own self-identified followers remains sufficiently strong that it looks like, under a different president, we would go right back to doing it, and Christians would go right back to supporting it or just remaining acquiescent! The more torture memos that get released, the more we argue about whether torture is okay! Can nothing end this cancerous debate?

Jesus, this doesn’t look like a problem that can be solved through garden-variety activism. Another press conference, another media alert, another academic meeting, another document or article — none of this seems to make any difference.

Lord, it seems that the problem runs deeper than what such activism can solve. Clearly, your church in this land has been deeply corrupted. I’m still trying to figure out all the sources of that corruption, but it looks like some combination of an inadequate understanding of what the Bible really teaches, an inadequate grasp of who you really are, an inadequate commitment to your Lordship over all of life and thus our obligation to follow your teachings in all things, inadequate disciple-formation processes in our churches, inadequate leadership from the pulpit, inadequate social ethics (especially the lack of any firm commitment to human dignity and human rights), and inadequate understanding of the distinction between the church and the nation. I’m sure there’s more.

There are times when a church so badly misunderstands what it means to be church that it must be repudiated as fundamentally ungodly, fundamentally a negation of true Christianity. This has sometimes been called a status confessionis moment — a situation where the basic integrity of the gospel and the core witness of the church are at stake. Jesus, I believe this is one such moment.

Any church — congregation, parachurch organization, denomination, or group of individual Christians — that supports torture has violated its confessed allegiance to you and can no longer be considered part of your true church. Let them be anathema.

Jesus, I pray with all my heart for the survival of a remnant of faithful Christianity in this country. It goes far beyond torture. It has to do with whether we are really your people or are liars and hypocrites, just deluding ourselves on the way to Judgment Day.

13 thoughts on “A Christian’s lament over the Pew torture poll

  1. In the last week, 3 friends (all Evangelical Christians) have had email conversations about torture in light of the continuing news that surfaces about the role of the US in Iraq. In these conversations, I, a Reform Jew, have tried to understand the views expressed by my friends, one of whom seems to have justified torture in the name of keeping America safe. I so respect this friend – his knowledge and learning, his use of words, his heart. And yet, I was stunned to learn his views on torture. Reading what you have written, added to what Alan Bean has written, gave me comfort. You too may be interested in this – http://rac.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=1622&pge_prg_id=11303&pge_id=2888
    Thank you.

  2. This leaves me heartsick. What can I, a “progressive” Christian in an empire church, do? Should I show this to my pastor, and thus present her with a moral dilemma, or perhaps aleinate myself from her and from the congregation? If I show this to her, what can she do? If she voices these opinions from the pulpit, then she will be alienated from her congregation. I suppose I can cry, and like David Gushee, pray to Jesus, for myself and for my compatriots. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

  3. The problem with Christians–all of them, not just evangelicals–is that they have merged God and country in their minds, and anything that threatens country, threatens God (in their minds), and therefore, any measure however brutal or inhumane is justified if it makes “country” safer. That’s the reason that Jefferson and other founders were so adamant that we have separation of church and state. Christians have failed to carry out the message of Christ on world affairs, and only on judgment day will we know how seriously we have failed. JCB.

  4. I think one of the problems is the definition of “torture”. Abu-Graib was embarrassing for the detainees but it was by no means torture. The jailers were and should have been punished but what they did was not policy of our government. If you want to know what real torture is take a look at what Saddam did to his own citizens.

    I guess my question to some of you is—are we allowed to save American lives by using extra means (remember water boarding leaves no permanent damage)? Are we allowed to defend ourselves? I think some of us “spoiled westerners” need some reality therapy when it comes to the ways of the world.

  5. Dear 2oldstroke. What happened at Abu-Graib certainly looked like torture to me. You ask if we are allowed to defend ourselves? Who are you asking? Jesus would probably answer in the negative. If we are simply discussing this issue as cynical secularists your arguments might be persuasive. But how do you square your perspective with the teaching of Jesus? I don’t think you can and, more disturbingly, I don’t think you feel you should have to.

  6. Torture is bad, but what about the people we and our weapons are KILLING in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine? What would Jesus say about that? Our tax dollars are being used to end other people’s lives. I think TRUE Christianity and military service are fundamentally incompatible. Especially service for the American Empire. If you are a die-hard supporter of the military, I can understand how it might be a short leap to supporting torture.

  7. I think David Gushee is right on track. What is commonly called evangelical Christianity is no longer Christianity. This is precisely what happened to the evangelical church in Hitler’s Germany, a fusion of church and state which endorsed the use of brute force to accomplish it’s aims, which is why there was so little Christian opposition to Hitler in a country which had the highest church attendance in Europe. In cases like these the church is being used to perpetrate a false gospel. But this has been going on for centuries. The truth is that many Christians, if they really understood the inseparability of the gospel and nonviolence, would reject Christ outright. But this would be preferable to a church corrupted. In their zeal to win converts, churches have watered down the gospel to the point where it has become indistinguishable from the world, and according to the Pew poll even worse than the world. Perhaps it is time for the formation of an evangelical movement which makes nonviolence a core tenet of the gospel itself.

  8. Jim, the merger with God and country among Christians happened especially under Constantine, the first “Christian” Roman Emperor in the early 300’s. He forbade persecution of Christians. A good thing I would say. Who wants to be persecuted? But then he favored Christians against Christians. He allowed intra-Christian persecution, and guess what, the side he favored, as in the Arian and Donatist controversies, became orthodox Christian doctrine. If the Emeperor likes us, we must be right. The ghost of Constantine still haunts us. Only a few radical Christian groups (like the Amish), groups within mainline and Roman Christianity (like Pax Christi and the Baptist Peace Fellowship), and some “heretical” groups (like Jehovah’s Witnesses) dare to openly oppose the state when it comes to matters of national security. On matters of personal morality such as abortion and homosexuality, Christians are much more likely to openly oppose government policies.
    Charles Kiker

  9. Joe and others,
    You keep talking about the gospel. Can you tell me in just a few words what the gospel is? Like much of the evangelical Church, both left and right, the gospel is being lost. Here’s a hint—you don’t live out the gospel.

    As far as torture it all depends on what your definition of torture. Maybe you think that being yelled at a lot is torture?

    Nations are not Christians, people are Christians, unless of course you believe in collectivism.

    And Joe didn’t Jesus use violence in the temple to drive off the money changers? Jesus wasn’t Ghandi.

  10. Jesus was tortured.

    The Gospel is “The Kingdom of God is right here and now.” according to Jesus.

    Jesus was the new Adam, a re boot of humans into a new body called Christ.

    We are now his body.

  11. WHAT WOULD JESUS DO? That’s the question all who call themselves CHRISTians ought ask themselves. Is there ANY evidence (even one tiny shred) in Scripture that JESUS (Remember Him???? The unequivocal pacifist??? That radical dude on whom your religion is based? The one after whom you’re called to model your lives? “THE way, the truth and the life?”) would participate in waterboarding or other cruel, dehumanizing tactics? Interesting how the same so-called Christians who readily compromise scripture to condone torture won’t budge an inch when it comes to extending equality to women or gays. That’s because these people aren’t aren’t Christians. They are COWARDS who condone torture, bigotry, sexism, whatever necessary, to keep their fears (and they are many) at bay.

  12. Joe Leeman: Thank you for your post. You articulated what I’ve felt for a long time. I think those who are earnestly striving to follow Jesus need to stop being afraid to expose heresy when they encounter it. Evangelical “Christians” are taking Christ’s name in vain in the worst possible way, so it’s important to debunk bad theology whenever necessary.

    2oldstroke: You are right. Jesus was not Ghandi, but Ghandi greatly admired Jesus. He said: “I did once seriously think of embracing the Christian faith. The gentle figure of Christ, so patient, so kind, so loving, so full of forgiveness that he taught his followers not to retaliate (e.g. waterboarding) when abused or struck, but to turn the other cheek, I thought it was a beautiful example of the perfect man…”

    Ghandi also said: “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

    Gee, I wonder where Ghandi got such an impression of Christians?

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