Friday, May 22, 2009

Christians and Torture

A recent letter to the editor at the Aberdeen Daily World reminded me of a story told about Mahatma Gandhi.  Gandhi, a Hindu, studied the Bible and found an interest in the Christian faith and the teachings of Jesus.  To learn more he decided to attend a Christian church in white South Africa.  When he attempted to enter a church one of the church elders barred Gandhi’s way.  “Where do you think you’re going, kafir?”  “I’d like to attend worship here,” Gandhi replied.  “There’s no room for kaffirs in this church, the elder said, “so get out of here or I’ll have my assistants throw you down the steps.”  Sometime later the missionary E. Stanley Jones asked Ghandi why, although Gandhi often quoted the words of Christ, he adamantly rejected becoming a Christian.  “Oh, I don't reject your Christ” Gandhi said. “I love your Christ. It's just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ."

As a teenager I once contemplated becoming a minister.  That all vanished on the day I was physically removed from the church I had grown up in because I attempted to shout down the minister who had just urged the congregation to support the war in Vietnam.  That I did not enter the clergy probably comes as a relief to some of the listeners to the program.  Nonetheless, like Gandhi, I too discovered that too many Christians were unlike their Christ.  Now, research by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has pointed out more differences between me and the conspicuously pious sky-godders who loudly proclaim themselves so righteous, moral and just.  The study confirmed that the more often you go to church, the more you approve of torture.  Why do you suppose that’s true?  Wouldn’t you expect exactly the opposite - -  that support for torture would be stronger among the non-religious than among the most frequent church-goers?

Not so in the United States today.  Only 42% of people not affiliated with a religious organization approved of torture while 54% of people who attend worship at least once a week agreed that using torture was “often” or “sometimes” justified.  “White evangelical Protestants were the church-going group most likely to approve of torture,” wrote Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite in The Washington Post.  Thistlethwaite went on to write, “I think it possible, even likely, that this finding has a theological root.”  Christians base their theology on salvation through Christ’s suffering - - his flogging and crucifixion.  “For Christian conservatives,” Thistlethwaite concluded, “severe pain and suffering are central to their theology.”  Think Mel Gibson’s S & M violence fest, The Passion of the Christ.  “God wanted Jesus tortured for the sins of humanity” therefore torture of one human by another is OK - - redemptive even for Christians who have adopted this “penal theory of atonement.”

One wonders just how may of the torturers themselves were good Christians.  Torture, religion, proselytizing, God.  “They’re all part of the mixed-up horrific business that George Bush unleashed in the Middle East and Central Asia  “Christians were a favored constituency when Bush was in power,” Cynthia Tucker reminded us recently in The Daily World.  “Their enthusiasm powered his campaigns; their votes helped usher him in; their leaders helped push through his agenda, including his unfortunate war of choice in Iraq.” 

Americans have conflated U. S. military forces with “Onward Christian Soldiers” before in our history - - especially in China during the Boxer Uprising in 1900.  U.S. military forces were sent to China to rescue the haughty Christian missionaries whom the Chinese so detested.  Now the forces of a militarized Christianity have almost seized control of our military.  “The special forces guys - - they hunt men, basically,” said Lt. Col. Gary Hensley, the chief of U. S. military chaplains in Afghanistan, in a videotaped sermon shown on Al Jazeera across the Middle East a few weeks ago.  “We do the same things as Christians,” Col. Hensley went on,” we hunt people for Jesus.  We do, we hunt them down.  Get the hound of heaven after them, so we get them into the kingdom.”  Or at least onto the waterboard.

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