Friday, May 01, 2009

Tempted to Torture

Lutheran pastor and blogger Mark Daniels expresses his outrage at a recent Pew Forum Survey that showed that a majority of churchgoers tend to support torture. In trying to understand why so many Christians would be willing to accept such a barborous act, he look to the Pharisees:

While there are more than a few preachers whose "theology" contains jingoistic nationalism and spiritual arrogance, many churchgoers, I'll bet, adopt such ideas, including the acceptance of torture, in spite of what they're being told at their local church...

...The inescapable conclusion is that many churchgoers aren't especially engaged in their faith. They're like the Pharisees of Jesus' day, people with whom Jesus often tangled. The Pharisees were, in many ways, laudable people. They were regular in worship, scrupulous about keeping religious law.

But Jesus called them whitewashed tombs. In spite of the insistence of the Old Testament that God loved his people as a matter of divine choice (grace) that should evoke faith, they turned faith into a legal transaction. God was whittled down to the size of the local peddler. "If I perform these religious duties, God must accept me," was the implicit notion of the Pharisees. When a person starts to think that they can deal on an equal footing with God, humility goes. So does a sense of humanity.

We have modern day Pharisees in our churches. They sing, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me/I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see." But for too many, those have become mere words and what they really believe is, "How good I am and how clever of me to be moral, upstanding churchperson and how right I am to condemn others and make them tow the line." The actual teaching and preaching they hear is just background noise.

The existence of boastful Phaisaism in the modern US church must be one of the poisonous springs from which "Christian" acceptance of torture emanates.

I have to say that while I was just as shocked as Daniels about the casual acceptance of torture in our nation's churches, I found his answer wanting if not a tad bit condescending.

I think there are many people in our pews that do think torture is okay. But I also think that this tends to sadly reflect our culture. I would bet that a lot of Americans would think back to 9/11 and think that that it's okay since they hurt us first.

I remember having an email conversation a few years ago with a person who also happened to be Lutheran. When we got to the issue of torture, he basically said that it was okay since they hurt us in 2001.

It would be easy for me or others to simply say that they people are "whitewashed tombs" to condemn them for having such thoughts and to tell them to get right. But there is something within me that doesn't think that's the right approach.

Part of the problem here is that most Americans, even most who go to church tend to believe in a theology that says if you are good, you go to heaven, and if you are bad, you get punished. It's a natural theology that I think is part of the culture. So if you look at this in regards to torture, then people are thinking that these people are getting their just desserts. For many, September 11 is still a very real issue one that they can feel at a visceral level.

The other thing is that more often than not, the issues like war or torture tend to be "shouting" issues, things that are preached but not necessairly reasoned with. Read any blog these days and you get more people yelling at each other and clothing themselves with righteousness than in trying to handle some hard questions.

Part of the task of Christianity is to foster the countercultural values of Jesus. I think part of that task is to reason why torture is wrong. But it even has to be more than that. It has to be done in the context of 9/11 not as some hypothetical issue. Many of us who oppose the use of torture tend to act as if September 11 never happened. It becomes an abstract exercise. The average joe in the pews IS thinking about 9/11 and hence, his support for torture. We have to explain, with the memories of that dreadful day in September in the back of our minds, that it is still wrong. As religious leaders, we have to be able to feel the anger and still say with every moral fiber that it is still wrong and here is why. We have to be willing to feel the temptation to hurt our enemy and yet rebuke Satan the same way Christ did in the desert.

Maybe it seems silly to have to teach people that torture is wrong, but that's the world we live in. It's the way of the world. In the Beatitudes, Jesus begins every sentence with "You have heard it said." That's the way things have been and will always be. All of us are swayed by that reasoning. To get to "but I say to you" means having to be taught. Daily. Again and again.

It is dissapointing to see that many American Christians support torture, but that only means that I need to try harder. It is not a time for condemning, but a time to gird our loins and keep teaching.

1 comment:

Mark Daniels said...

I don't disagree with your conclusion at all.