Mark 15: 16The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. 17They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. 18And they began to call out to him, "Hail, king of the Jews!" 19Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. 20And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

Holy Week and this year’s season of Lent are a time when Scripture and current events overlap, especially in the matter of torture. Whatever we may say about the theological and salvific nature of Christ’s death on the cross, we must also acknowledge that what He suffered, from the moment of His arrest, was torture. Christ died for our sins. And He died by state-sanctioned torture. The passion narratives make up major chunks of the Gospels even if the events only took up a few days in Christ’s thirty-year life among us. One reason for that is that the first generations of Christians would read or hear them knowing that they very well could face much the same trials, and would be called to stand faithfully by their confession as did Jesus.

Its pretty much an open secret that torture is now a weapon in the arsenal of our country’s "War on Terror." But now its called, "Enhaced Interrogation Techniques." I am not in any position to evaluate the efficacy of "enhanced interrogation techniques," although the rationales and scenarios used to justify it strike me as a very long logical stretch. As a human being however, I can and must say something about the moral depravity of torture as an action or a policy, and about its terrible physical, emotional and spiritual effects for the victims. Survivors of torture describe life afterward as a process of "trying to put the soul back into the body."

And as a pastor and a Christian, I can and must say something about the moral and spiritual effects of torture upon all of us, even of its presence and permission, whether we should ever find ourselves being tortured (slim chance, I hope) or not. As a character in George Orwell’s 1984 admitted, "The object of torture is torture." In other words, gathering vital information by the only means (allegedly) possible is not just a rationale or objective for torture; it serves as permission, a cover, a fig leaf for the brutality in people that finds expression in, among other things, torture. The ends and effects of torture are: 1) the sense of power derived from cruelty and domination over others; 2) the intimidation into obedience of both enemies and citizens through the overt and implied threat of torture; 3) the cheapening of public values and morals, so that independent and responsible citizens become obedient subjects, enured to the sufferings of others, and willing to carry out any policy of their government, however reprehensible and illegal. Torture thus becomes a powerful assertion of the state’s or the leader’s ultimate sense of absolute worth, above and beyond the law and the people it is supposed to serve. I can’t think of any other rationales for excusing or engaging in torture.The morally and spiritually contagious effects of torture on the wider society are evident in the growing popularity of "torture porn," the depiction and deployment of torture as a plot device, and for entertainment, in movies, books and television.

On one hand, we might say that the decision of so many governments to take up the power to destroy life as we know it through nuclear weapons makes the decision to justify and employ torture small potatoes. But recent developments around torture, in America at least, represent a political, moral and spiritual sea change. Now there is a claim to the right to act above and beyond the law (military, federal, state and local) and against the constitutional guarantee against "cruel and unusual punishment" by persons and agencies within the government. How can that not risk cheapening everyone’s respect for the rule of law? Maybe this isn’t all that new, either. Except for the degree of openness and the claims of rightness about it.

As Christians we must resist, as did Jesus, the actions and the effects of torture–or at least the threat thereof–upon all of us. We must not let ourselves be infected by the attitude that inflicting pain is real power, that might makes right and that the end justifies the means. Christ’s life and teachings permit no divorce of ends from means. We must not let the official support of violence and cruelty cheapen our values and corrupt our moral sensitivity. We must not let the implied fear of torture, which, though aimed at enemies, can’t help but frighten citizens, render us silent, passive and discouraged.

On one hand, I am very much surprised that I now live in a country that reserves the right to torture, without ever having emigrated. Especially one whose founding documents so eloquently enshrine the rule of law and human dignity. On the other hand, I should not be surprised at what human nature cooks up and justifies. But every day, when I pray, "Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me (Ps. 51)," I trust that I am reinforcing the spiritual fire wall between my spiritual and moral center, and the thickening clouds of moral confusion in the world around us. But keeping ourselves pure from the spiritually and morally contagious effects of torture is only a start. One way I have pushed back actively is by contributing to Center for Victims of Torture I consider the little bit I can give to them an act of atonement for the use of torture in my name, by my country. I wish I could do more.

What do you think?

Mathew Swora, pastor

Emmanuel Mennonite Church



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