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
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.