Torture and Religious Practice


  • William Schweiker

    1. William Schweiker is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago. He is also the Director of the Martin Marty Center. His most recent books include Theological Ethics and Global Dynamics: In the Time of Many Worlds (Blackwell 2004) and, with David Klemm, Religion and the Human Future: An Essay on Theological Humanism (Blackwell, 2008).
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Abstract:  This essay explores the connection between religious practices and torture with specific reference to the debate in the USA about ‘waterboarding’ as part of the so-called War on Terror. After isolating some defining features of torture, the essay examines the historical background of waterboarding in the symbolism of Christian baptism and how this symbolism was used during the Inquisition and the Reformation as part of the torture of heretics and others. Mindful of this sordid use of a Christian rite meant to celebrate new life, the essay thereby clarifies Christian responsibility in the political order. That responsibility requires uncovering the religious roots of some forms of torture, resisting their use by the State, and, further, seeking to render current Christian practice both humane and life giving.

The Religious and the Demonic

The great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich noted that the religious and the demonic are often related. While religion can be a source of healing and hope, the demonic also can break through religious forms and spread death and destruction.2 If one turns from theology to the history of religions and the work of anthropologists, Tillich's observation is plainly confirmed. Religious practices are sometimes tied to violence in rituals, but also in wars and the quest for empire. There is the idea of “sacred violence,” which is to cleanse and redeem a place or a people from evil done and suffered.3 For Christians, Christ's agony on the cross is believed to be the very center of the drama of redemption. Israel is formed into the people of God through the Exodus, and the terrors and wonders God worked on the Egyptians. Yet it is also the case that religious people have been subjected to violence and torture for their beliefs and practices; the crucifixion of Christians by Nero, for example, or the rise of global religious violence over the last decades.4 Torture also has been inflicted on those deemed to be heretics or viewed to be in league with the demonic, such as witches. The strange and paradoxical connection between religion and violence is longstanding and widespread. Why should this fact be any different in our age of global cultural and religious interactions?

In what follows, I am interested to explore ‘torture’ as a kind of violence, the legitimacy of which is in question. And I want to link torture to religious practice, by which I simply mean some ritualized activity in which religious beliefs and convictions are enacted in ways to form life and to articulate the faith of a community. Obviously, I cannot treat the whole question of violence and religious practice. I am more interested in human acts of evil through unjustified works of torture. More precisely, the topic of this essay is how religious practices that are meant to communicate new life can be encoded and concealed in acts of torture for what are claimed to be good political purposes. When that happens, nothing short of an irruption of the demonic occurs within our social life, which threatens to demean and destroy the very nature of human community. I will have something to say about torture and religious practice generally, but I intend in this essay to concentrate on the current debate within the USA about ‘waterboarding.’ As we will see, there are Christian roots to this form of torture that need to be articulated, explored, and analyzed. Religious ideas and symbols form a deep background to torture too easily hidden behind public discourse. One task of the scholar, theologian, pastor, or priest is, accordingly, to be a counter-voice in the public arena and thus to bring to light religious impulses and meanings hidden from view. We must articulate religious meanings buried in social and political discourse so that believers and non-believers alike can decide how rightly to respond in humane ways.

Let me begin by clarifying how I want to approach the topic of torture and what it means for Christian theological ethics. I then turn to explore and assess the religious roots of waterboarding.

Torture and Christian Thinking

Questions that swirl around religious practice and torture readily center on a cluster of concepts: violence, torture, evil, the demonic—to name just a few. In fact, I have already used these terms in the opening paragraph of this essay. Some clarity about these ideas, or at least those important to the present reflections, is thereby necessary from the very outset. What is more, I have already noted that these matters fall under various forms of thought: theology, the history of religions, anthropology; and also sociology, law, history, and the like. It is therefore important to be clear about how one approaches the topic of torture. Additionally, one also needs clarity about the perspective from which an act or event is seen, interpreted, and evaluated. This too already has been intimated. The Israelites fleeing the tyranny of Egypt saw in the destruction of Pharaoh's men a mighty and saving act of God. From the perspective of those very same men, as well as their families and friends, an unjustified evil was visited upon them. Similarly, the execution of Jesus was, if we take the biblical narrative seriously, something the Roman authorities found justified or at least a tragic necessity; but from the perspective of his disciples, matters appeared quite differently. The question of perspective is even more complex when we admit that race, sex and class shape human perception. We can explore the meaning of torture shortly, but it is wise at this point to note the form of thought and perspective that informs my argument.

The Issue of Perspective

Of course it is both popular and accurate to insist on the ‘situated’ nature of human knowing, and thus the inevitable relativity of perspective. No human being sees the world from God's perspective, and, because we are fallible creatures, no individual or community has a complete grasp of any situation. What is more, how we see the world—that is, how we understand and orient existence—is shaped, come what may, by what we care about and value. Different values and cares give rise to divergent understandings of an event or social structure. This essay, for instance, is written from the perspective of a first world Christian who is deeply concerned about the moral meaning of his faith and how it might be lived responsibly and humanely. It is also the case that I am a university professor and that I lived in a high-modern, wealthy, and differentiated society. All of this obviously affects how I understand the world and evaluate moral and political questions.

However, the facts just noted, as well as my gender, class, etc. do not in and of themselves justify the conclusions reached below. The truth of an ethical judgment purports to be something other than simply an expression of a person's opinion, perception, or identity; or the beliefs and practices of some community. If that is not the case, then moral claims are utterly relative and there is no means to show that one course of action—say, torture—is worse (morally speaking) than another course of action—say, care for the poor. Moral judgments are then reduced to nothing more than preference. Thankfully, no serious minded individual or community endorses mindless relativism, even if the popular media and culture seem to advocate it. The real task is to grant the fact of “situated knowledge,” but to avoid the consequence of moral relativism in which it is impossible to make moral judgments. If an action or policy—say the use of torture unjustly by a nation state—is judged immoral, then the judgment claims to hold for every similar case. Thus, when I argue later that waterboarding is immoral that means it is wrong anywhere and at anytime, and that no specific situation or appeal can justify its practice.

Everyone has made invalid judgments, of course. Ethics, among other things, aims to help us think clearly and stubbornly so that we might make valid judgments about human conduct and character. Again, this does not imply omniscience, as if one can escape their skin or reason without error, but it does establish a standard at which moral reasoning can and should aim. The only way out of ethical reasoning is to deny reason itself—a very dangerous thing to do in human life—or to embrace moral nihilism, the belief that there is nothing worth calling good or evil, right or wrong, just or unjust. I assume that Christians are not moral nihilists and thereby are committed to the labor and joy of moral reflection. Where Christians differ is in the form or kind of ethical thinking they undertake: virtue ethics or divine command ethics and so on. But in any case, commitment to careful thinking about how to live rightly and faithfully remains a part of the Christian life.

These points about the situated character of knowledge and also the challenge of ethical reasoning help to explain the specific stance adopted in this essay. As just noted, there are different patterns of moral thinking found among Christians. Some like to think about the life of faith in terms of the development of virtue; others, say Lutheran and Reformed thinkers, speak about God's governance of life through the so-called “two kingdoms doctrine.” There is also the tradition of Roman Catholic natural law ethics. The purpose of this essay is not to explore these different forms of ethics and how they would assess and respond to the question of torture. For instance, many in the history of the Inquisition, as we will see below, found reasons for torture, but so too did Calvin in the tragic case of Servitus. There are plenty of reasons for repentance for the misuse of Christian convictions.

Responsibility Ethics

In my view, the most adequate form of ethics for current Christian thought is a kind of responsibility ethics. This kind of ethics signals the fact that the Christian life is always a matter of responding to the living God in and through our responses to others and the world in which we find ourselves. Further, responsibility is about the use or suffering of power. That would seem especially important in thinking about torture. The emphasis in responsibility ethics falls, then, on the contextual nature of human life, emphasizing that we must always respond to others and the surrounding world mindful of the ways that these relations place limits on human power but also sustain our capacities for action. Given this emphasis, it might appear that “responsibility ethics” is nothing more than what use to be called “situation ethics,” and, therefore, is unable to address the pressing moral and political issues of our time that demand more precise standards of judgment.5 It is hardly surprising that, in fact, some theologians criticize responsibility ethics precisely along these lines and have urged Christians to adopt other moral positions.6 I think that judgment and its attendant recommendation are incorrect. Difficulties only arise when ‘responsibility’ as such is made the norm of an ethics so that all one is to do is to respond to each and every situation without any measure or norm for one's responding. But few (if any) thinkers have actually held that idea.

The various forms of responsibility ethics found among theologians and philosophers share the conviction that human existence is situated and responsive. They differ in how they formulate the norm for deciding what counts as a proper moral response. Since I cannot argue the point in this essay, I will simply stipulate how I formulate the imperative of responsibility: in all actions and relations respect and enhance the integrity of life.7 Responsible existence is about responding in ways that respect and enhance, rather than demean and destroy, the fragile integrity of forms of life. Actions that do demean and destroy the integrity of a life cannot be judged good and responsible. I realize that the strong judgments I make in this essay about the immorality of waterboarding might surprise some readers, given their assumptions about an ethics of responsibility. The fact is, however, that these judgments are utterly consistent with the outlook and orientation of existence from the perspective of responsibility for the integrity of life.

The Church-State Relationship

One last matter about perspective and moral reasoning among Christians with respect to torture needs to be noted. Throughout the long history of the church, believers have understood their relation to the political and civic order and authorities in different ways. Some Eastern Orthodox thinkers talk about a ‘symphonic relation’ between the church and the state. In modern democracies, like the USA, there is the proper insistence on the separation of the church and state. Other Christians believe that the task of the church is to be a kind of counter-culture to the wider social world, and therefore not to try to transform the world but to witness to it.8 Still others, including myself, believe that the task of the church in its witness to its faith is to strive to “reform the nation,” as John Wesley put it. This does not mean the imposition of a Christian order on the state, but rather, to work for a society in which justice and care are increasingly salient features of civil life. Whereas some Christians would only engage the question of “torture” in order to show the sin of the world and the demand for Christians to witness for peace to the world, from the perspective adopted here things are more complex. The root conviction, as the grand legacy of the Roman Catholic and Protestant thought has always insisted, is that Christians rely on and thus must contribute to the social order. Insofar as Christians rely on the state for the sake of some measure of civil stability, then there is a commensurate obligation to work for the peace and justice of the social order. The kingdom of God will not be ushered in through human labor, and Christians must be realistic about the good that can be accomplished in the civil realm. Nevertheless, the responsibility of Christians is to participate in social life for the sake of the peace and well-being of the neighbor.

There is, then, urgent need for a careful analysis of public discourse among Christians in the USA with respect to the on-going debate about torture in the War on Terror. While I have deep misgivings about the very idea of a War on Terror, and I certainly judge the current war in Iraq to be morally unjustified, my concern in this essay is more specific. It is to bring to light and to explore religious meanings in public discourse. This is especially true when believers, often unaware of the religious significance of acts of violence, support policies that violate the best insights of their own convictions. Not only do I find ‘waterboarding’ categorically unjustified, but I also want to show why Christians in particular should seek to end its use. On the way to that conclusion, let me turn next to conceptual and historical issues.

Torture: Its Meaning and History

In a standard dictionary or encyclopedia definition, torture is deliberately inflicted pain by a person on another person.9 This action can take many forms: beatings, electric shocks, the rack, the injection of drugs, isolation, waterboarding, and so on. Yet several features are necessary for the infliction of pain to be an instance of torture. Five features seem basic: (1) at least two persons are involved, so torture excludes instances of self-abuse; (2) one person has control (physical and/or mental) over the other(s), so torture is not a matter of combat in which control is in dispute, or revolt as the usurpation of control (justified or not) by the oppressed; (3) the infliction of pain in an act of torture must be extreme, purposeful, and systematic, that is, it is deliberate and harsh, rather than unintended or accidental; (4) there is the purpose of dehumanizing the victim for the sake of some end, like gaining a confession, obtaining information, punishment, conversion, or intimidation of the victim and his or her cohorts; (5) the act of torture might be directed immediately at the victim, say, to get him to convert or confess, or the victim might be the means to get a third party (say a family or some religious, political, or ethnic group) to convert, confess, release information, etc. We should add that features (4) and (5) taken together are meant to exclude from the definition of torture acts of sadism even if, one must admit, sadistic impulses and pleasures seem to attend the practice of torture. I leave aside for the sake of this essay the idea of the torture of animals. That is, of course, a crucial issue but it is not the focus of these reflections.10 For present purposes, this definition and the five formal features of torture will suffice.

Of course, all the features noted can be contested (and they are), and there can be debates in specific cases of whether an act or policy is in fact an instance of torture. For example, in the use of torture by the US government as part of its War on Terror there have been questions about whether specific acts of inflicting pain reached the threshold needed to count as ‘torture.’ The Bush Administration has, by and large, continually tried to raise the threshold in order to allow increasingly intense forms of interrogation to be used and yet to escape the label ‘torture.’ There are also debates about what constitutes ‘dehumanizing’ actions. Is the presence of a menstruating soldier during the interrogation of a Muslim prisoner on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks on US citizens dehumanizing, since Muslim men are not to have contract with menstruating women? Was the presence of such female soldiers at interrogations intentional and deliberate? Other questions have been raised about the treatment of the Qur'an in interrogation sites, as well as the rights of prisoners to practice their religion. These and other specific issues have been debated regarding US policy, as we all know. Still, the formal features of torture remain in force as the means to decide when an act is an instance of torture. What is debated is whether a specific policy or act is in fact an instance, and thus qualifies as an actual act of torture.

There is, sadly, a horrendous history of cruelty and torture. Certainly torture has been used for thousands of years. Greek and Roman law, for instance, specified that only slaves could be tortured. Yet in some instances citizens were tortured because of treason. During the Inquisition and the Reformation era, as noted below, torture was used; and in the American colonies there was the torture of suspected witches. Despite efforts during the Enlightenment to stop torture for humanitarian reasons, with the 20th century horrific examples of torture were practiced in Nazi Germany, the Gulags in the Soviet Union under Stalin, in Cambodia and elsewhere. The attempt to stop or at least control torture culminated with the adoption, in 1984 by the United Nations, of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. But, in fact, the convention has often been ignored, not only by authoritarian and police states, but most recently by the USA itself.

What Justifies Torture?

Before exploring further the history behind waterboarding, another conceptual issue must be noted. In the flurry of the 2008 presidential campaign, various candidates took starkly different stances on waterboarding. In this form of torture an individual is tied on his or her back with the head down, and there is forced inhalation of water into the lungs in order to induce the sensation of drowning. Some candidates condemned the practice as outright torture (McCain, Clinton, Obama, Edwards); others refused to condemn waterboarding if, in an extreme case, it could save millions of American lives (Giuliani, Romney, Thompson). Within this political debate the topic was rightly divided into two separate but related questions: is waterboarding a form of ‘torture;’ and, given the defining features of torture, are there situations in which waterboarding is justified?

The argument for the possible justification of torture turns on features (4) and (5) of torture noted above, that is, the aim or purpose of inflicting pain. We will see later that this is especially confusing with respect to waterboarding since it conceals a religious purpose within a supposedly political one. However, the current debate about torture focuses on extracting information for a political purpose, namely, the security of the USA and its citizens. Several assumptions are behind the debate: that we could infallibly know that someone had vital information that would in fact save millions of lives (the so-called ‘ticking bomb’); that torture would extract this information without distortion; that the procedure would work infallibly; and, finally, if the information was secured truthfully and infallibly, it could be put to good use in good time. None of these assumptions is warranted. And, interestingly, already during the Enlightenment there was opposition to torture not only for humanitarian reasons but also because it was argued that torture is not necessary to obtain evidence for conviction or political purpose. Current expert opinion and empirical evidence, like the work of Psychologists for Social Responsibility and also a conference at Georgetown University held in 2006, concur that torture is an ineffective means to gain reliable and truthful information. The scenario of the lone knower of critical information whose torture would save millions of lives is the stuff of cheap spy movies and bad examination questions in ethics courses. It is a ploy of political manipulation in order to justify acts of torture by playing on the fears and hopes of citizens.

The question of what could justify—that is, make morally acceptable—an act of torture is complex, because the answer can shift depending on the larger purpose of the action. For instance, torture might be believed to be justified as a way to bring a heretic back to the faith or to gain a confession important for salvation. From a political perspective, an action deemed to be torturous might be judged proper if it could save citizens' lives or gain useful information that would foreshorten armed conflict. The 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, in his book On the Genealogy of Morals, thought that torture and punishment was a social means to create memory in people for the purpose of controlling them.11 The point is that the justification of torture usually is tied to some larger political, religious, cultural, or social goal that is believed to provide the reasons for acknowledging the torturous action as morally acceptable—that is, as a morally right means to a good political, religious, or social end. The irony, of course, is that sometime those ‘ends’ can be used to trump other beliefs about how human beings should be rightly treated, thereby leading to a kind of moral madness, a reckless and inhumane use of destructive power.12 That is the case with extreme forms of torture. We will see in a moment how a political purpose has co-opted a religious one in the case of waterboarding.

With some of the features of torture in hand, and a bit of history as well as the questions it poses, I want to turn now to waterboarding and its strange connection to the Christian practice of baptism.

Waterboarding and Baptism

In terms of the question of definition of waterboarding as a form of torture, matters are legal and visceral. International conventions through the United Nations provide ample guideline; and, as commentators have noted, if waterboarding is not torture it is not clear what else to call it, despite the Bush Administration's penchant to alter and amend definitions. Those who condemn the practice of waterboarding are right on three scores, even if some political leaders continue to disagree with the truth of the conclusion: those who condemn torture are right for moral and humane reasons and thus properly insist that the United States join other civilized nations and condemn torture; they are right that waterboarding is without doubt a form of torture; and, they are right to question the potential of this and other forms of torture actually to gain useful information in the proposed scenario. In other words, not only by definition, but also with respect to political purposes, waterboarding is immoral and ineffectual. It is ethically and pragmatically unjustified or unwarranted.

Less often observed is that the practice of waterboarding has some of its roots in the Spanish Inquisition, and also in the persecution of Anabaptists during the Protestant Reformation and the so-called Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation (of which the Inquisition was one part).13 To be sure, the practice has been used elsewhere by the great state-run machines of death and terror. However, while some presidential candidates also have admitted the roots of waterboarding in the Inquisition, what has not been noted—astonishingly enough—is the distinctly religious meaning of this form of torture, a topic that bears some reflection, at least briefly. Why the use of water? Why did this specific practice develop as a way to torture heretics—whether the heretic was an Anabaptist or, in the Inquisition, a Protestant of any stripe as well as Jews, suspected witches and others? Once we understand the religious meaning of the torture, how should Christians respond?

The Religious Significance of Torture by Water

Why the use of water? Consider a tiny fragment of a complex history. In the case of the Anabaptists, the answer to the question about water is simple and clear. Roman Catholics and Protestants alike persecuted the Anabaptists, or “re-baptizers,” since these people rejected infant baptism in favor of adult baptism. The use of torture and physical abuse was meant to stem the movement and also to bring salvation to heretics by means of a kind of baptism. Protestants under Zwingli were the first to persecute Anabaptists; Roman Catholic authorities executed Michael Sattler in 1527. King Ferdinand declared that drowning—called the “third baptism”—was the proper response to Anabaptists. Water as a form of torture is an inversion of the waters of baptism under the (grotesque) belief that it can deliver the heretic from his or her sins. It was believed—at least since St. Augustine—that punishment, even lethal in form, could be an act of mercy meant to keep a sinner from continuing in sin, either by repentance of heresy or by death.

The background idea or purpose, then, was originally the claim that torture or punishment could save the sinner from further sin that would endanger his or her soul. Interestingly, beliefs about divine mercy and the ultimate good of salvation were the fuel driving polices that justified the use of torture. The theological question that has to be asked then, is whether or not the centrality of the cross in beliefs about salvation is the driving force behind the logic of redemption through suffering; or, conversely, if the singularity of Christ's suffering should defuse all ideas about that vision of redemption. In my judgment, both of these impulses are found within Christian piety. One theological task facing this generation of Christians is to work continually to block any interpretation of faith that might lead to the use of suffering for the sake of redemption. Christ and Christ alone brings atonement. But these matters of soteriology are best treated in another essay.14

In the Inquisition, the practice was not drowning as such, but the threat of drowning, and, symbolically we can say, the threat of baptism. The tortura del agua or toca entailed, like waterboarding, forcing the victim to ingest water poured into a cloth stuffed into the mouth in order to give the sense of drowning. Because of the broad symbolic meaning of ‘water’ in the Christian and Jewish traditions (e.g., creation, the great flood, the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus and drowning of the Egyptians (!), Christ's walking on the water, and, centrally for Christians, baptism as a symbolic death that gives life, as in St. Paul's theology of baptism in Romans 6), the practice takes on profound religious meanings. Torture has many forms and meanings, of course, but torture by water as it arose in the Roman Catholic and Protestant Reformations drew some of its power and inspiration from theological convictions about repentance and salvation. It was, we must surely say, a horrific inversion of the best spirit of Christian faith and symbolism.

This poses questions. Is it the purpose of the United States nowadays to seek the conversion, repentance, and purity of supposed terrorists and thus give waterboarding on the trappings of a religious rite? Is waterboarding a kind of forced conversion hidden within a political action and thereby all the more powerful as a tool in the hands of the state to demonize its enemy? Does this signal a breakthrough of the demonic within political and military action since a religious rite is being subverted for immoral ends? These questions are so buried in public discourse that their full import is hardly recognized, even by devout Christians.

The Ethical Mandate to Denounce Waterboarding

With some history in mind, we now come to the reasons why Christians must denounce waterboarding as unjustified and thus immoral. There are three reasons at least. First, waterboarding and virtually all forms of torture aim, as we have seen, to dehumanize the victim for some political, religious, or social purpose. Yet it is a dictate of morality that the humanity of a person, their own integrity and inviolability as an individual, can never be made only a means to some end that demeans or destroys her or his humanity. Recall the imperative of responsibility: in all actions and relations we are to respect and enhance the integrity of life. Waterboarding is aimed precisely at the disintegration of a person's own sense of self; it aims to make the victim pliable, complacent, and thus a functionary within some other political purpose. As an attack on humanity—an attack on the dignity of persons and their unique capacity to be agents in the world and their own lives—waterboarding and many other forms of torture are immoral. That is the case no matter what supposed political, religious, or social purposes claim to justify the use of torture. Given Christian convictions about the worth of persons and the gift of life, there are reasons to endorse this wider, and not specifically Christian, condemnation of torture.

Second, as a form of political action supposedly justified by the good of citizens' security, waterboarding, as we have seen, encodes within itself aspects of a central Christian practice (baptism) and thereby uses this practice to a political end. Christians are instructed by Christ to render unto Caeser's what is Caeser's. Yet they are not to allow their practices of faith to be used for political ends. Not only does this accord with the logic of the separation of church and state, a logic crucial for the free exercise of Christian faith itself, but it is also a solemn demand on the church not to betray its distinctive convictions and practice. Baptism is entry into the Body of Christ, into the church, and thus cannot and ought not be tied to the question of political citizenship. Stated otherwise, Christians view the world in which they dwell and for which they have some responsibility not only in terms of political realities, but also though the Church and the whole realm of creation and nature. Christian responsibility is falsely delimited when the political order defines the scope of responsibility.

Beyond these two reasons to oppose this form of torture, there is a deeper and more powerful reason for Christians to denounce waterboarding. The core of Christian faith is about the gift of new life through Christ and the empowerment of life in love. Baptism is the sacrament and practice of new life. In this practice the dignity of human beings as active agents of love in the world is both announced and enacted. The act of waterboarding, conversely, is a practice of death-dealing where the victim is violently deprived of his or her power to be an active force, a responsible agent, in the world. This practice is meant to induce fear and dread to the point that the victim is rendered passive, subservient, to the torturer's power. Baptism, again, is a practice meant to embolden new life and empower Christian freedom. In this respect, the practice of waterboarding, despite it roots in Christian history, is, in fact, an affront to the very nature of Christian faith. For religious as well as moral reasons Christians are called to oppose the practice of waterboarding.

Conclusion: Faced with a Choice

In the light of the religious meanings and background to waterboarding, Christians in the USA have to make a choice. This choice is part of their wider understanding of the place of faith and responsibility in the political order. Christians may decide to repudiate and repent a sordid legacy that now finds grisly, if hidden, expression in current practices of torture and thereby work for the most humane expression of their faith. They can reject any claim by the State to have the right to use this form of torture, especially given connections to the most woeful expressions of Christianity. Christian responsibility demands actively working to transform political policy and practice in order to render them more just, more peaceful.

Conversely, Christian communities can fall prey to fear and questionable reasoning, and thus continue to support an unjust and vile practice that demeans the nation's highest political and civic ideals even as it desecrates one of the most important practices and symbols of Christian faith. Or they can retreat behind the walls of the church and claim to witness to the world about peace while horrific acts of violence are done against prisoners to no viable political or moral end.

Like the symbolism of baptism itself, it is a time, I judge, for repentance, the affirmation of new life, and the humane expression of religious convictions. This requires that believers know the possible distortions and abuses of their convictions, and that they labor unceasingly to live out their beliefs and practices in ways that respect and enhance, rather than demean and destroy, the integrity of life. Religious people can no longer allow their beliefs, practices, and symbols to be used for political and ideological purposes that violate our shared, if fragile, humanity.


  • 1

    This essay is an expansion of “Baptism by Torture” which appeared in Sightings, an on-line publication of the Martin Marty Center of the University of Chicago Divinity School on November 29, 2007 Another version of the essay appeared in New Theology Review, Signs of the Times, May 2008.

  • 2

    Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology 3 vols. in 1 (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1967).

  • 3

    Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. P. Gregory (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977). Also see Curing Violence, eds. Mark I. Wallace and Theophus H. Smith (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge, Press, 1994).

  • 4

    See, Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Los Angles, CA: University of California Press, 2003) and Bruce Lincoln, Religion, Empire and Torture: The Case of Achaemenia Persia, with a Postscript on Abu Ghraib. (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2007).

  • 5

    For the classic statement of the position see Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics: The New Morality, intro. James F. Childress (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997).

  • 6

    For a discussion of this matter and many others see The Oxford Handbook of Theological Ethics, eds. Gilbert Meilaender and William Werpehowski (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

  • 7

    William Schweiker, Responsibility and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

  • 8

    For an ardent representative of this position see Stanley Hauerwas, Christian Existence Today: Essays on Church, World, and Living In Between (Durham, NC: Labyrinth Press, 1988).

  • 9

    For example, The Pocket Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 6th ed. (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1978), or for some of the features of torture see the entry on “torture” in Grolier Encyclopedia of Knowledge (Danbury, CT: Grolier, Inc. 1991).

  • 10

    On this see Mary Midgley, Animals and Why They Matter (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1983).

  • 11

    Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and the Genealogy of Morals, trans. G. Gilffing (New York, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1956). For a more recent study in a similar vein see Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. A. Sheridan (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1977).

  • 12

    On the idea of ‘moral madness’ see William Schweiker, Theological Ethics and Global Dynamics: In the Time of Many Worlds (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).

  • 13

    Ole Peter Grell and Bob Scribner, Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

  • 14

    On the need to provide a reconstructive interpretation of religious convictions that is both responsible and humane, see David E. Klemm and William Schweiker, Religion and the Human Future: An Essay on Theological Humanism (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).