The Theology of Torture

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.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2004
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