The Common Good
August 2004

The Theology of Torture

by Jim Wallis | August 2004

Fallible creatures are not to be trusted with empire.

Christian theology is uneasy with empire,

Christian theology is uneasy with empire, and the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison reveal why. More than politics is at stake in this scandal. Moral theology is also involved, and that is worthy of serious public discussion—especially when this war's commander-in-chief speaks often of his Christian faith.

The Christian view of human nature and sin suggests that we are fallible creatures and thus not good at empire. We cannot be trusted with domination, becoming too easily corrupted by its power and too often succumbing to repression in defending it. Therefore, we should not simply be shocked at the evil we have seen in the horrible prison photos, but also sobered and saddened by that same potential in ourselves. History teaches that domination can make good people do bad things. The British did horrible things in Northern Ireland, the French in Algeria, and we Americans in Vietnam. Brutality is the inevitable consequence of occupation and domination and an enduring part of the cycle of violence.

In Iraq, young Americans are being shot at and blown up every day. The frustration and anger at being daily targets is enormous. To "set the conditions" for the interrogation of prisoners that might yield critical intelligence and, perhaps, relieve some of that frustration, both soldiers and commanders clearly crossed the line. Now the detainee scandal is distracting attention from another, equally alarming consequence of this occupation: a growing tolerance for civilian casualties in U.S. counter-insurgency military operations. Again the memory of Vietnam haunts.

The fundamental theological issues in the prisoner abuse story and the increase of civilian casualties involve the nature of occupation itself, and domination as the consequence of empire—the strategy that appears to be the Bush administration's unapologetic choice for fighting terrorism. Christian theology suggests that domination is oppressive and corrupting for both the dominated and the dominator. In preferring the virtues of human dignity, justice, and humility, Christianity implicitly teaches that empire is not the best strategy to fight terrorism. In fact, the domination policies of empire often make terrorism worse by producing tragic behaviors that terrorists use to fuel their murderous agendas. The pictures from Abu Ghraib have already become recruiting posters for the next generation of terrorists in the Muslim world.

TRUTH-TELLING is also central to Christian theology, which teaches that falsehood has consequences. When a war is primarily justified by arguing imminent threats from weapons of mass destruction that are later revealed not to exist, essential trust in political authority erodes. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams recently warned of this very thing, declaring that "credible claims on our political loyalty have something to do with a demonstrable attention to truth." When "liberators" become "occupiers," greeted not with flowers but with an unexpected and bloody insurgency, the moral ground is further diminished. And when the only arguments left for war and occupation constantly invoke the horrors of "Saddam's torture chambers," American torture in those same chambers deeply undermines the authority of America's arguments and proposed solutions.

The question of moral agency has been much discussed in regard to the prison scandal. Just who is responsible for the horrific pictures and widespread reports of prisoner humiliation, illegal treatment, torture, and perhaps even murder at American hands? Those soldiers who abused detainees should be held morally and legally accountable, even if they claim to have only followed orders. If there were such orders, commanders should be held even more culpable. Both common sense and the dynamics of how "sin" operates in human beings and their institutions suggest that the "patterns of abuse" reported by the International Red Cross and human rights organizations are most likely true. We are learning that a climate of official toleration and even encouragement may have created pressure for young military police to "soften up" prisoners for interrogation.

The central point is that we always have choices and the responsibility to make ethical judgments based on moral values and established law. Positive moral agency was indeed active in this appalling scandal, when Spec. Joseph Darby reported the prison abuses and turned over incriminating pictures to his commanding officer because he "thought it [the abuse] was very wrong." Some of the most disturbing comments in this scandal have come from those who called Darby a "snitch" who should "never get home." Rather, Darby is a moral hero who should be held up to our children as a role model for what to do when their peers are bowing to pressure to do the wrong thing.

BUT OUR REFLECTION will be of little worth unless it takes us deeper than revulsion against "bad apples" who taint the reputation of the military, or investigations into the policies and atmosphere initiated by the chain of command, or even how high accountability should go—to military intelligence, the Secretary of Defense, or even the Oval Office. We must also address the "bad theology" that contributes to the problem.

When the White House promulgates an official theology of righteous empire, in which "they" are evil and "we" are good (and if you are not with us you are on the side of the "evildoers"), it contributes to an atmosphere that makes abuse more likely. And when leaders from the American Religious Right describe Islam as an "evil religion," they are, however indirectly, helping to set conditions for the abuse of Muslim detainees. Abuse and torture are always more likely when the victims are objectified, made into an "other" that is somehow different and less human than we are. The religious conviction that challenges us to see the "image of God" in every person is an absolute barrier to the practice of torture. It is also a moral foundation for international accords such as the Geneva Convention.

President George Bush is a Christian, but he did not listen to U.S. and world church leaders who overwhelmingly opposed the war in Iraq and who warned about many of the "plagues of war" (to use the language of the Vatican) that have transpired since. Perhaps he should listen to religious leaders now. American domination and empire is both bad policy and bad theology, and it will not succeed. Only international initiative and authority have a chance of repairing the damage. The United States must make the major contribution it clearly owes to reconstruction in Iraq, but only under somebody else's leadership. The domination of empire must be abandoned.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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