Why Torture is Wrong

By Rev. Rich Lang, District Superintendent
Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church, Seattle District

Delivered in Spokane, Washington on September 9, 2017

I've been asked to give a religious response to this presentation.  There is a coherent and consistent religious voice that crosses all religions and is often referred to as the Golden Rule:  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  As a Christian pastor I cannot speak for all religious expression, but within a Christian moral framework, a framework that has at its very core and center, an imprisoned, tortured criminal, a proclaimed threat to the State (a terrorist if you will), I can say that one would think that the notion of torturing others would be forbidden.   Unfortunately, there are far too many polls that indicate that Christians are supportive of torture, particularly the torture of suspected terrorists.   So I do want to confess that, particularly since 9/11, the Church (Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical and Protestant) is quite contradictory and incoherent in its moral reflection on the subject not merely about torturing suspected terrorists, but also war ethics in general, and the ethics of domestic imprisonment and the increase of militarized policing throughout America.  In other words the Church quite often parrots the propaganda of the State rather than the experiences of the crucified.  In this it ceases to be a unique or even useful voice at the table of public discourse.

So with that as a preface let me begin by locating the issue of torture onto the bigger field of the Global War on Terror. ---- The State is telling us a story that we are under attack and need to be afraid.  We are, in other words, all living under conditions of trauma.  Our trauma is rooted in 9/11 … a day when 19 mostly Saudi Arabian men outwitted the multi-layered trillion dollar defense systems of America, conveniently on a day when war-exercises were taking place which so confused a response that it limited the capacity to respond from the areas attacked.  The 19 Jihadists managed to highjack four planes, crashing two into NY Towers causing three buildings to free-fall into their own footprint, crashed a plane into a Pennsylvania field evaporating it, crashed a fourth into the world's most heavily defended building in the most heavily defended city, and then in the aftermath other terrorists managed to leak out an anthrax attack on two Democratic Senators just in time to pass an unread Patriot Act that, in effect, ceded the power of Congress into the Executive Branch transforming it into a Unitary Executive operating under a perpetual "State of Emergency" that is now in the 16th year of our nation's longest war.  Our trauma is rooted in that narrative.  The immoral actions of James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen are rooted in that narrative.  And Christian affirmation of torture is rooted in that narrative which I interpret to be a State-sacred narrative of which I am a heretic.

Given that narrative of traumatic fear America has radically changed so that, in the words of Dick Cheney, we are now a nation that "works the dark side".  From this moral base of the dark-side, torture makes sense, as does indiscriminant drone attacks that kill far more civilians than military targets, as does an economy dependent upon permanent war, surveillance and tracking of citizens, mass incarceration and conditions of torture in our public and private incarceration system, punishment of whistleblowers,  militarization of the police, oppression of investigative journalism, and with the Trump administration, the singling out of minorities and people who are not Anglo-Saxon as threats to the civil order.   If reality is defined as everyone is out to get us, and we are the exceptional nation absolutely necessary for law and order, then what we are currently experiencing is a morally plausible universe --- a dark side universe.  Another way to say this is we are now living the ethics of Empire, rather than the ethics of a democratic republic dependent on law rooted in the decision making capacity of free citizens, and of checks and balances that disperse power into several different spheres of influence.

A dark-side Empire cannot and does not respect or value the sacred worth of the individual.  Dark-side ethics are all about dominance and submission, dependent upon the obedience of high priests like Mitchell and Jessen, and all those whose value is rooted in their service to the State.  Christians, at least once upon a time, had a moral base rooted in a story that all of us are creatures of a Creator and have inherent rights to dignity and integrity.  Christians were trained to see reality from the perspective of the crucified, of the enemy if you will.   Such a moral base would compel us to question narratives that create the conditions where some are scapegoated to make the rest of us free.

The issue of torture ---particularly because it was a top-down driven imperative---that is Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, their lawyers, the Justice Department, the top brass of the military-intelligence community etc. – knew of it, approved of it, welcomed it ….  Obama's shift to terror through drone attacks, the bulking up of our Special Forces, the continual use of private militias, alongside Trump's flippant "fire and fury" persona causes us to ask a basic pastoral and systematic question about our leaders and the institutions that govern our life.  Are our leaders psychopaths?  Are our institutions a threat to the ongoing relevance of our Constitution?  … The politics of trauma, of dominance and submission lend credence to our Christian suspicions that the System itself is becoming destructive of life … working the dark side is causing us to slide into the Demonic.

In such a context, if the Church is still capable of a useful moral voice, it has only one thing to say to the State.  Like Jonah to the Ninevites, our only word to say is REPENT!  It would say ---- resist and rebel against the imperial hungers for domination and addiction to power.  Take up the side of the crucified not only in America but throughout the world.

If the State were to repent it would look a bit like this:

1.)   We would prosecute those who have broken US and international law as it pertains to torture.
2.)   We would end solitary confinement in domestic prisons as a prelude to a complete overhaul of our domestic penal system.
3.)   We would immediately close Guantanamo Bay Navel Base and give the land back to Cuba as an act of penance.
4.)   We would radically reduce our military budgets over the next decade by 50%, and commit to reducing our global network of military bases by the same. We would renounce Empire.
5.)   We would dismantle and ban private domestic militias.
6.)   We would sever the link between local policing and the military.

But none of this will happen of course.  Dark-side Empires don't repent.  Traumatized citizens tend to want the perceived securities and certainties of Empire while pretending that the System isn't as bad as it actually has become.  In this context religious voices against torture are both predictable and acceptable because they are irrelevant to the political structures.  What is actually needed from religious communities is a spirituality that goes deeper, insisting that this nation is on a path of moral, spiritual and institutional death.  A real religious voice teaches the nation how to repent, how to resist and how to rebel against the growing dark-side whose end is the destruction of a country that once proclaimed:

Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these the homeless, tempest lost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

The American story has changed.  We no longer lift up a lamp of invitation.  Rather, today we are raising an iron fist of threat. We no longer live the dream of opportunity, today we embrace the nightmare of those traumatized by fear.  Until we renounce and repent of the dark-side, there will be no bright tomorrow.  


Washington State Religious Campaign Against Torture - WSRCAT

Torture is a crime against humanity.


Torture is Always Wrong