Guest Commentary: Who would Jesus torture?

I was a guest panelist a few years ago at a Southern Baptist Seminary symposium on Christianity and the new war in Iraq. In an otherwise somber discussion, I got the single laugh of the evening when I quipped, “You see, I’m much more conservative than my fellow panelist, (Seminary) President Al Mohler. I take seriously Jesus’ words on violence.”

We all laughed. But four years later I’m not laughing.
Now is no time for conservative-moderate divisions. Now is the time for religious communities to join hands in a spirited discussion about our nation’s tactics in combating evil — not whether they are strategically effective, but whether they are spiritually right. We must raise our collective moral voices in the wake of the recently passed legislation that permits our nation to use “aggressive interrogation techniques” on prisoners who might have useful war information.

Prisoners considered “enemy combatants” by our government can be detained and held indefinitely without charges, and they cannot challenge their standing in court. They have, in short, no way out, and will be at the mercy of the government’s interpretation of what constitutes torture. Within bounds are tactics such as extended sleep deprivation, hypothermia and “waterboarding,” which simulates drowning.

Where is the outcry from those who read their Bible every day before or after they read the newspaper reports that Congress approved this torture? What interpretation of Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies,” encourages legislating torture? WWJT: Who would Jesus torture?

American churches of all denominations are embroiled over what constitutes a faithful response to a variety of social issues such as homosexuality and abortion. Meanwhile, the soul of our country drifts farther afield from the clarion message of the church’s leader: Be healers, blessers, reconcilers, lovers, agents of peace.

Jesus’ message is belittled as naive by many politicians and patriots. Instead, they advocate an “all’s fair in war” strategy that temporarily shelves values they would normally hold dear. This is to be expected, for many politicians and patriots hold different values and see life from a different vantage point than Jesus’ followers. My only question for them is, in the words of TV counselor Dr. Phil, how’s that working out for you? Has fighting fire with fire been an effective way to contend against hatred?

But to those committed to following Jesus, I ask: Where are you? Why aren’t you waving your Bibles, quoting chapter and verse, holding protests on the Capitol steps, demanding a hearing?

Since the fourth century when the Roman Emperor Constantine co-opted Christianity into a ward of the state, the church has done a “cut and paste” job on Jesus’ words (long before Thomas Jefferson ever got such a notion). Civil religion tilted the focus of faith to being good citizens and helpful assistants in the agenda of the state, rather than applying Jesus’ message: Love others. Heal rather than hurt. Defend rather than destroy. Bring God’s vision to reality. Jesus didn’t just talk about nonviolence, he embodied it.

It is time for the church to awaken from sleep and speak unequivocally about the teachings of its founder.
What if, instead of attempting to elicit questionable information from enemies through torture, the church exhorted our government to see detainees as human beings, to feed them well and to treat them with decency?

I’m no interrogator, but I wonder if information could eventually be gained by engaging prisoners in meaningful dialogue about their grievances against our country, finding common ground between our faith traditions, discussing moral options, seeing their humanity and invited them to see ours.

What if “love your enemy” led us to find common cause with those we now seek to kill and who want to kill us? What if we acted as we teach our children: Don’t hit. Talk about your problems until you come to a solution.
I know. This idea sounds as ludicrous as a lion and a lamb lying together, or turning the other cheek, or going the second mile. I can’t help it. It’s an occupational hazard.

Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church. Contact him at [email protected]