Why this tolerance for torture?


Between 1933 and 1945, as a series of restrictive laws, brutal pogroms and mass deportations culminated in the slaughter of six million Jews, the Christian church, with isolated exceptions, watched in silence.

Between 1955 and 1968, as the forces of oppression used terrorist bombings, police violence and kangaroo courts to deny African Americans their freedom, the Christian church, with isolated exceptions, watched in silence.

Beginning in 1980, as a mysterious and deadly new disease called AIDS began to rage through the homosexual community like an unchecked fire, the Christian church, with isolated exceptions, watched in silence.

So who can be surprised by the new Pew report?

Specifically, it's from the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, and it surveys Americans' attitudes on the torture of suspected terrorists. Pew found that 49 percent of the nation believes torture is at least sometimes justifiable. Slice that number by religious affiliation, though, and things get interesting. It turns out the religiously unaffiliated are the least likely (40 percent) to support torture, but that the more you attend church, the more likely you are to condone it. Among racial/religious groups, white evangelical Protestants were far and away the most likely (62 percent) to support inflicting pain as a tool of interrogation.

You'd think people who claim connection to a higher morality would be the ones most likely to take the lonely, principled stand. But you need only look at history to see how seldom that has been the case, how frequently my people -- Christians -- acquiesce to expediency and fail to look beyond the immediate. Never mind that looking beyond the immediate pretty much constitutes a Christian's entire job description.

In the Bible it says, ''Perfect love casts out fear.'' What we see so often in people of faith, though, is an imperfect love that embraces fear, that lets us live contentedly in our moral comfort zones, doing spiritual busywork and clucking pieties, things that let you feel good, but never require you to put anything at risk, take a leap, make that lonely stand.

Again, there are exceptions, but they prove the rule, which is that in our smug belief that God is on our side, we often fail to ask if we are on His.

So it is often left to a few iconoclasts -- Oskar Schindler, the war profiteer who rescued 1,200 Jews in Poland; James Reeb, the Unitarian Universalist minister murdered for supporting African-American voting rights in Alabama; Princess Diana, the British royal who courted international opprobrium for simply touching a person with AIDS in Britain -- to do the dangerous and moral thing while the great body of Christendom watches in silence.
Now there is this ongoing debate over the morality of torture in which putative people of faith say they can live with a little blood (someone else's) and a little pain (also someone else's) if it helps maintain the illusion of security (theirs), and never mind such niceties as guilt or innocence.

Thus it was left to Jon Stewart, the cheerfully irreligious host of The Daily Show, to speak last week of the need to be willingly bound by rules of decency and civilization or else be indistinguishable from the terrorists. ''I understand the impulse,'' he said. ``I wanted them to clone bin Laden so that we could kill one a year at half-time at the Super Bowl. . . . I understand bloodlust, I understand revenge, I understand all those feelings. I also understand that this country is better than me.''

So there you have it: a statement of principle and higher morality from a late nightcomic. That Christians are not lining up to say the same is glaringly ironic in light of what happened to a Middle Eastern man who was arrested by the government, imprisoned and tortured. Eventually he was even executed, though he was innocent of any crime.

His name was Jesus.


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