Yesterday, I was walking by the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle, past a United Methodist Church, when I noticed a huge banner hanging over the front door. It read, “Torture Is a Moral Issue.”
I didn’t know what to think.
On the one hand, I know that torture is an issue that has a moral dimension. I’ve gone to seminary. I know that scripture says we should turn the other cheek, that love does not remember wrongs, that we need to forgive, that we should not kill, that we need to be peacemakers, and so on. All of which suggests to me that far from merely being a moral issue, torture should probably be thought of as an old fashioned, unadulterated sin—that is, if you mostly try to take the Bible at its word. Or is it more complicated than that?
My spiritual intuition says, “no.” But maybe not everyone agrees with me. Perhaps that is why we need a discussion, and we need a banner on a church to initiate the discussion. Except that there is something odd about this. You see, more Christians believe you can justify torture than non-Christians.
According to a Pew Forum survey in 2009, the less you go to church, the more likely you are to oppose torture. So, while 54% of churchgoers (and 62% of Evangelicals) thought torture is “often,” or “sometimes,” justifiable, only 42% of those who rarely attended church thought so.
So, since more church goers than non-church goers think torture is okay, maybe this banner was hanging over the front door of this church for the sake of that church’s members. Maybe the pastors of that church thought that it was the Christians who entered those doors who needed to be challenged to rethink their attitudes about torture.
On the other hand, given that this was a liberal United Methodist campus church, I thought—my gut told me, actually—that the sign was not meant especially for that church’s members. It was probably meant for anyone who thinks that torture is merely a means to an end, Christian or not. It was meant for the pragmatic majority, to suggest to them that “no—it isn’t just the end that matters, it is the whole thing, from beginning to end. And it is the principle that matters.” The people who hung the sign would then mean by it something like, “torture is a moral issue, not just a pragmatic one.” Even when the end that the means is supposed to justify is something as sacrosanct as “the national interest,” the morality of torture in and of itself still matters and must be discussed.
Or maybe the people who hung the sign just wanted people to ask what they meant—by torture, that is. Water boarding? Sleep deprivation? Solitary confinement? Not letting you speak on the phone to your loved ones more than once a week? Being subject to rape, abuse, violence that is a normal part of prison life in North America? Being forced to live in the most efficient gang-education institutions in the world? Is that torture? Or are just some of these things torture?
Or maybe the people who hung the sign wanted to reacquaint people with the word “moral,” as being a word that has a life beyond its use by the (so-called) moral majority—a word, for example, about God’s gracious attitude to prisoners. It is before him, after all, that scripture says the groans of prisoners will finally arrive (Psalm 79:11, 102:20). And perhaps it was a divine response to those groans that Jesus died on a torture rack himself, also groaning.
And perhaps it was in anticipation of that death that before he died, Jesus said something like, “If you want to find me, go to a jail. I’m the prisoner (Matt. 25:36).