Last December, I had the opportunity to attend the Parliament of the World's Religions in Melbourne, Australia. The Parliament seeks to promote harmony, reconciliation, and understanding in the world through both intra-religious and interreligious dialogue. In short, it sustains a collective hope that religion will truly be a purveyor of peace and not a conduit for violence and fundamental extremism in its various forms. Yet hope, at times, seems lost in the fog of recent wars, namely the “war on terrorism” that was unabashedly likened to a “crusade” by former President George Bush on the South Lawn of the White House in 2001.
Having been raised in a religious military family, I’m naturally drawn to academic discussions about violence, militarization, and religious ethics. So I attended a Parliament session entitled “Religion and the Future of Torture” facilitated by George Hunsinger, professor at Princeton and founder of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT). During the allotted two hours, Hunsinger shared sobering facts about the United States' government's complicity in torture during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He especially highlighted the revisions the US Army Field Manual for Interrogations in 2006 as a response to political discourse about the definition of torture after the Abu Ghraib scandal. In case you’re wondering, one positive revision in the field manual was the named prohibition of waterboarding as an interrogation technique. However, several concerns remain, such as the addition of Appendix "M" and the semantic separation of the term “torture” from what constitutes “cruel, unusual, and inhuman treatment.” Another concern is that even though sensory deprivation is banned, it is also cleverly redefined as deprivation of all the senses simultaneously, which still leaves room for interrogators to obstruct one or two of a detainee's senses at a time.
Evidence that the US government has been complicit in torture, even in the last decade, was not surprising to me. As recently as last month, George W. Bush’s nonchalantly admitted in his memoir that he authorized the use of waterboarding against prisoners during his presidency. I did not anticipate, however, the religious statistics that Hunsinger shared. In April of 2009, the Pew Research Center Forum on Religion and Public Life compiled a survey that elucidated some of the religious dimensions of torture: whether religious affiliation is connected to positive or negative perceptions of torture. Essentially, this data suggests that 62% of white evangelical Protestants, 51% of white non-Hispanic Catholics, 46% of white mainline Protestants, and 40% of those who were unaffiliated (denominationally or otherwise) believe that "the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information" can often or sometimes be justified.
What is happening in an American religious context when it appears that many who attend church – or are religious in some way – deem torture to be acceptable? Have we succumbed to a morality of “American exceptionalism” that justifies severe and inhumane interrogation techniques against other human beings because we have defined them as our “enemy”? Do national affiliations inevitably trump integrity, common morality, ethical responsibilities, or religious ideals? How does – or should – a person’s faith affect how they perceive (and enact) ethics and morality?
I wonder if there’s something off about American religion – Christianity specifically – that makes it natural for us to compartmentalize ethics and morality in situations where there is a perceived conflict of interest. Meaning, we have an immense capacity to let ethics get lost in our institutional responsibilities or national loyalties. When war or "homeland security" is the priority, it’s altogether too easy to rationalize the massive injustices in which we are complicit. And – in light of the data gathered by Pew researchers – it doesn’t seem as if the majority of us are eager to turn our swords into ploughshares.
As people who identify as religious (or at least think that religion is important), how do we respond to the Pew Center data? I don’t know about anyone else’s experience, but I’ve had my share of conversations over the last seven years about the morality of war, military mobilization, and occupation. Debates about the ethics of violence versus nonviolence are sullied and historically complex. Christians having been debating the “just war” theory for centuries, for instance. But here is where I take another cue from George Hunsinger, who affirms that “there is no such thing in our history as a just torture tradition.” In other words, though people of faith in this country constantly bicker about whether the “War on Terror” is justifiable or not, the universal condemnation of torture by secular nation-states in the Geneva Accords makes the support of torture a less than reputable position. A possible step toward nonviolence (or at least talking about the ethics of the current war), then, could be organizing churches and other religious communities around issues and practices that are clearly wrong.
I must admit here that I have an agenda: I’m a former military kid who falls under the umbrella of ecumenical Christianity. From an early age, I’ve had to adjudicate issues of war, violence, patriotic ideals, and the Jesus of the Gospels (who, in my opinion, condemns violence). I am not advocating for a moral compass in which all ethical decisions seem clear-cut and/or absolute. But I do think that moral aspirations can and should be constantly in dialogue with both contemporary and historical cultural contexts for religious and ethical accountability. These days, I’m a firm believer in the possibilities of community organizing. And I truly think that interfaith organizing – such as what NRCAT tries to do – is crucial to the religious dimensions of the torture debate. Either way, the data compiled by the Pew Research Center cannot be ignored.