May 28, 2009
On torture-10: Christians and torture
(For previous posts on torture, see here.)
Before I get to the last of the excuses for torture on the list put out by apologists, I want to make a slight digression and comment on the curious reaction of Christians to torture.
As this series of posts has, I hope made clear, torture is a barbaric practice irrespective of who does it for whatever reason. So what does one make of recent poll results that says that the more you go to church, the more likely you are to approve of torture, while the less religious you are, the more you disapprove?
White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified -- more than six in 10 supported it. People unaffiliated with any religious organization were least likely to back it. Only four in 10 of them did.
The religious group most likely to say torture is never justified was Protestant denominations -- such as Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians -- categorized as "mainline" Protestants, in contrast to evangelicals. Just over three in 10 of them said torture is never justified. A quarter of the religiously unaffiliated said the same, compared with two in 10 white non-Hispanic Catholics and one in eight evangelicals.
In a way, I can understand this result, based on the story of Jesus's crucifixion, an intrinsically barbaric form of death penalty. In my experience, those who are the most fervent in their Christian beliefs are the ones who seem to take the most delight in wallowing in the most gruesome imaginings of this story, adding on layers and layers of blood and gore and violence as Jesus makes his way to the cross. The so-called passion of Christ is spelled out and dragged out in the most sickening way, as can be seen in the re-enactments of the event every Easter. Mainline Protestants, on the other hand, tend to not dwell so much on the gory aspects of the death, skipping pretty quickly to the happy ending of the resurrection.
I refused to go and see Mel Gibson's hit film The Passion of the Christ because of its reportedly relentless gruesomeness but a colleague of mine, a professor of religious studies, went to see it out of a sense of professional obligation and he told me that the reports I had heard were true, that the film consisted mostly of Jesus being repeatedly tortured in novel ways in sickening and graphic detail. And evangelical Christians loved the film, making it box office smash. In the film Religuous (see POST SCRIPT below), Bill Maher goes to a holy land theme park in (where else?) Orlando, Florida and we see a reenactment of the passion and the audience actually applauds as the Jesus actor, covered in fake blood and staggering under the weight of the cross, is assaulted by the guards.
Even the whole idea of the communion representing the eating of Jesus's flesh and the drinking of his blood must be contributing to the coarsening of one's natural revulsion against mutilation.
Surely there must be some relationship between evangelical Christians glorifying the torturing of Christ and seeing it as a good thing, and their thinking that torturing people in general cannot be that bad if Jesus chose to experience it?
The conservative website Red State, using some truly weird logic, argues that torture is completely consistent with Christian values. It first tries to argue that the actions that the US indulged in, such as waterboarding, was not torture, saying "Torture involves extreme physical pain or even death, such as the cutting off of appendages, gouging of eyes, use of shredders to the body, electrical shock—you name it. Blood is usually involved." As we have seen, this claim is impossible to sustain and is counter to all treaty and consensus judgments of what constitutes torture. It then goes on, "It’s likely even Jesus would have OK’d water boarding if it would have saved his Mom. He would’ve done the same to save his Dad, or any one of His disciples. For that matter, He even died to save all humans."
This does not even make sense since why would Jesus, being god and omniscient and all, need to torture anyone to get information? He would simply know everything, no? After all, he can hear millions of simultaneous silent prayers, which must mean that he can read minds. And why would he need to save his "Dad", since his "Dad" was also god and could probably take care of himself perfectly well, thank you very much?
Perhaps the explanation for this casual acceptance of such barbaric practices by those who undoubtedly consider themselves to be good Christians lies in the words of Clarence Darrow, the defense lawyer in the Scope evolution trial of 1925. Darrow had contempt for religion and once told a group of convicts, "It is not the bad people I fear so much as the good people. When a person is sure that he is good, he is nearly hopeless; he gets cruel – he believes in punishment."
POST SCRIPT: Religulous
I recently saw the Bill Maher film Religulous and it was a riot. He looks at the religious practices of the major western religions, talks to religious people, and shows how idiotic their beliefs are. Religious sophisticates will complain, as they usually do, that he has not engaged with religion on a sophisticated plane and talked with theologians about Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine or discussed the anthropic principle and the like. Instead he spoke with preachers and believers. They made the same kind of criticism of Richard Dawkins and his book The God Delusion. (In interviews, Maher and the film's director say they tried to interview the heads of major religions but were turned down.)
But that is the point. He, like Dawkins, is dealing with the kinds of beliefs that religion gives most people, and showing that they are preposterous. What a few academic theologians believe has almost no resemblance to what almost all religious people believe, serving only as intellectual cover for gross superstitions. Maher asks people concrete questions, the kind that should be asked. Basically he asks people what they believe and why which results in hilarious, if sometimes mind-boggling, results.
The film is available on DVD. Here's the trailer:
The DVD has the usual bonus features that include scenes that were cut out and one of them was an interview with Rael himself, one of the latest in the line of prophets who say they were told in secret by a higher power that they are to be special messengers to humanity. And, of course, people believe them. (I have written about the Raelians and their founder before here, here, and here.)