As a Christian, I believe God endows all people with certain unalienable rights. One of the most fundamental of these is the right to not be tortured, no matter what someone may justify as the reason. Hollywood often obscures this obvious truth by suggesting that it can be heroic to brutalize someone. Think about all of the movie scenes where torture leads to the confession that saves humanity or solves the crime.
In a very different vein, The Report opens in theaters on Nov. 15. This Amazon Studios film is a graphic and historically accurate, though fictionalized, account of torture that juxtaposes the brutality of torture with the reality of its ineffectiveness. The film reveals the truth we already knew: From a national security perspective, torture serves no purpose other than revenge.
From 2002 to 2008, right after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) launched a detention and interrogation program in Guantanamo prison and secret prisons across the world. They tortured well over 100 prisoners in a misguided and likely illegal intelligence-gathering operation. The Report dramatizes the six-year mission of Senate Intelligence Committee staffer Dan Jones (Adam Driver) as he worked tirelessly in a windowless office in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. His investigation revealed a terrible truth to the nation: Years of torturing detainees at Guantanamo prison and secret CIA black site prisons around the globe produced no actionable intelligence.
For anyone who wants to understand what happened in the CIA’s torture program and the extensive efforts at the highest levels of government to cover up the truth about the program, The Report is ideal. While the film is not a documentary, it is probably the best way we can learn about this dark chapter of U.S. history short of reading the full 500-page summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Torture Report.
The exact relationship of Christians to the truth is hard to pin down lately in this nation. Political dialogue has broken into extreme factionalism, facts seem to be harder to assess, and morality seems to get more and more relative. This is a conundrum that has led many Christians, despite what we know happened to Jesus Christ on Calvary hill, to accept the wrong-headed belief that torture is a necessary part of the toolbox governments, from Rome to Washington, D.C., in order to keep us safe.
I’m reminded of the American spiritual and old hymn, “Were You There?”
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nail'd him to the cross? (Were you there?) …
Were you there when they pierced him in the side? (Were you there?)
In the haunting refrains of this song, what someone perceives to be the facts don’t really matter. At the moment of torture, disagreements over what it means theologically to see the life of your savior brutally ended up on the cross aren’t relevant. Questions about whether this would be the end for the early Jesus movement weren’t yet on the tongues of anyone. Of course, we know, this wasn’t the end. And despite telling the story of the torture and death of Jesus, this spiritual is also entirely contemporary as well. With its roots in slavery, and likely first sung by enslaved African Americans in the U.S. where torture was a part of daily life, it cries out the painful reality of those who live in the presence of Jesus' death. There are times when it’s just enough to say, “O sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”
In this sense, whether torture works, which the film clearly shows to be a lie, is the opposite question the Christian viewer should be asking. What matters is that torture is wrong. It should be and can be as simple as that for believers.
In 1948, Winston Churchill told the British House of Commons: “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” The Report is a powerful film, and the scenes of torture are hard to watch. Something in fact has been done about ending the CIA’s lies, secrecy, and coverups as a result of the U.S. Senate investigation described in this film. Though the Senate Intelligence Committee has never released the full report on torture, a heavily redacted 500-page executive summary was released in December of 2014.
As a direct result of the work of the committee and the release of the summary, action in Congress led by the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) resulted in a bi-partisan 78-21 vote in 2015 of the U.S. Senate to amend the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act and permanently ban the CIA from ever torturing detainees again. President Obama signed the act into law. President Trump has not re-started the CIA torture program despite likely support for it by some in the Administration. History hasn’t been repeated, at least so far.
The National Association of Evangelicals, as well as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, several mainline Protestant denominations and other faith associations, played an important role in bringing an end to the U.S. government’s use of torture.
NAE President Leith Anderson, in a 2015 letter to the U.S. Senate that was read in part on the floor of the Senate by Senator John McCain in the debate leading up to the vote to end CIA torture, wrote that “The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) opposes the use of torture as a violation of basic human dignity that is incompatible with our beliefs in the sanctity of human life. The use of torture is also inconsistent with American values, undermines our moral standing in the world and may contribute to an environment in which captured U.S. personnel are subjected to torture.” The NAE’s opposition to torture goes back to the “Evangelical Declaration Against Torture” that was adopted in 2007.
The final refrain of the hymn is “Were you there when the sun refused to shine?” It’s time to bring the full story to light and release the full 6,000 pages of the Torture Report. Though this nation appears to have ended CIA torture of the kind shown in the film, the healing and self-reflection on what it means to have officially tortured people has just begun . The Report could kick start the process for Christian pastors and laypeople to take the lead on this important spiritual work. It’s time for another national discussion on torture as a moral issue.