I’ve always marveled at the religious spectacle of those from the Philippines who re-enact the torture of Jesus on Good Friday, some even going so far as to nail themselves briefly onto the cross. They endure Jesus’ pain to show penitence for the sins of the world and thus increase their faith. Growing up in a conservative mainline Protestant church, the crucifixion of Christ was mostly an intellectual idea. The donkey ride and the palms of the adorers, and then the joy of Easter and resurrection, was a far safer choice.
Though extreme and controversial, what strikes me about these acts of self-sacrifice is the sorrow and emotional drama expressed by the faithful over the brokenness of a world that would engage in such torture and violence. In 2017 one of the re-enactors, Ruben Enaje, who has been re-enacting the crucifixion for 31 years, devoted his Good Friday suffering to the victims of the deadly bombings of two Egyptian churches earlier that year.
The gospel record reports interrogations, where torture may or may not have occurred, as those associated with Jesus were asked by interrogators about who knows who and who has done what. But in the end the torturers and public executioners of Jesus’ day were quite adept at using the cross as an instrument of terror, meant to silence anyone who disagreed with the ruling order and designed to get those who knew something to talk. In other words, little has changed in the world of interrogation and intelligence gathering in the past 2,000 years.
How ironic it is then, that this week and into the months of April and possibly May, U.S. Christians and others will choose to accept or reject the nomination of Gina Haspel to serve at Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Haspel played a central role in a past torture program of the agency. In the early days of the Bush administration, she famously ran a black-site secret prison in Thailand where detainees were tortured with waterboarding and other inhumane abuse. As the torture program began to come under fire by members of Congress and even some members of the Bush administration, Haspel was involved in destroying evidence of about 100 videotapes of the torture, ensuring that there would be no accountability or record of the torture.
The U.S. Senate, which must approve Haspel’s nomination to the CIA, had its Easter moment in 2015 when it passed a historic bipartisan amendment banning CIA torture with a 78-21 vote. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) led the charge. McCain was himself a victim of brutal torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese in 1968 after he refused early release until every other detainee was released first. Some will try to say that CIA torture is now illegal, so it doesn’t matter if someone with this horrible record on torture heads the agency. But symbolism matters. Ask those who brought out the cross to meet Jesus. It’s time for this same bipartisan coalition in the Senate who rejected torture three years ago to re-enact the hope of Easter, not the dark cynicism of Good Friday, as Haspel goes before hearings and comes to the floor for a full Senate vote.