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US Christian Voices in the Torture Debate

I've been speaking with several friends of mine who are relatively far right politically -- and who are also Christians -- over the current Gonzales confirmation. We've gotten into how Christians should have a key voice in debating the torture and human rights issues that face us in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay and various other military prisons around the world.

Clearly these are difficult ugly conversations to have, but it saddens me that Christians from the conservative end of the political spectrum are not more vocal in this debate. To my view, they haven't really shown up at all.

The central question to me is "how do we as Christians, not just Americans speak to the issue of how we as a country treat our enemies?" How do we translate Christ's call to pray and love our enemies into these crazy times. Especially in this crazy times? And why aren't more of our Christian leaders even bringing up these questions?

Are politically conservative Christians so concerned with not dinging Bush in any way that during this key window where we as a nation are defining what "human rights" and who they belong to, the Church is mostly mute?

It seems that this is what is going on in the larger political arena, as described by conservative writer Andrew Sullivan:

"American political polarization also contributed. Most of those who made the most fuss about these incidents - like Mark Danner or Seymour Hersh - were dedicated opponents of the war in the first place.... Advocates of the war, especially those allied with the administration, kept relatively quiet, or attempted to belittle what had gone on, or made facile arguments that such things always occur in wartime."

I've been doing some study on the original Abu Graib scandal, the current discussion on “re-defining” torture, and the American Evangelical Protestant Christian leadership responses to all of this.

As I see it, early reaction to Abu Graib and our treatment of our enemies was mostly silence.

By and large the Christian groups that reacted were mostly politically conservative and did not say much, but even then mostly spent their time shifting attention clearly away from Bush or Rumsfeld. After all, there was an election coming up.

Instead, most of these voices had a pretty united story that the true culprit of Abu Graib was in fact....Pornography.

Well, and MTV.
And maybe those gays.
And Howard Stern.
And "safe sex" education.

Here are excerpts from some of the more prominent Evangelical Christian groups shortly after the notorious digital photos of Abu Ghraib started appearing:

From the Christian organization the Family Research Council:

"The photos coming out of Iraq cannot be ignored. But, it is ridiculous to suggest that the Bush Administration or military boot camps are responsible for teaching our young soldiers this behavior. We must be willing to look deeper... ... what should shock our nation's conscience is that these U.S. soldiers took photos and home-made pornography of the abuse as "trophies" for their actionst... when you mix young people who grew up on a steady diet of MTV and pornography with a prison environment, you get the abuse at Abu Ghriab."

Christian polital action group Concerned Women for America's early response: http://www.cwfa.org/articles/5653/LEGAL/pornography/index.htm

"The photos coming out of Abu Ghraib prison depict conduct very similar to a genre of deviant and violent pornography available on countless professional and amateur porn Web sites. I’ve seen them."

"There is little doubt that regularly viewing pornography desensitizes and makes viewers more likely to imitate “art.” Porn-viewing doesn’t excuse the conduct—it helps to explain it."

So what to do about this prisoner abuse problem?

"President Bush should order the Department of Defense to prohibit our military to visit brothels, sexually oriented businesses, and to use any government facility or equipment to view pornography."

After some time, CFW offered a second, more broad response and their Director of Culture and Family stated that in addition to pornographers, Abu Graib is also the fault of the Media, Women In Combat, Howard Stern, and Homosexuals.

The CFW solution?

"Withdrawing all female personnel from combat areas...Stamping out pornography... Enforcing the military's ban on homosexuality... FCC should crack down on TV and Radio broadcasts ...specifically including Howard Stern, ceasing the creation of civil unions," and "Demanding that schools stop promoting 'safe sex.'"

His essay closes saying that those questioning the President are basically shameless liberals who are porn users trying to undermine the Iraq War:

"Liberals shamelessly accuse the Bush administration of a cover-up...They want to use this scandal to undermine the war effort and to damage the president. Surely the images of bizarre sexual activity cannot really offend them. It's standard fare among some of their more active supporters."

Chuck Colson, prominent Chrsitian witer and President of Prison Fellowship Ministries begins with an admission that when he was in the military he would have supported some minor "harassment" -- but then moves on to diagnose the real cause of the scandal:

"I would have given them a rifle butt in the stomach if they gave me any sass.
And I would have harassed them and made their lives so miserable they would want to tell us what we wanted to know... But not in my wildest imagination can I conceive of ever doing what our Army Reservists did to the prisoners in Iraq.... Why did it even occur to our soldiers today to molest and embarrass these prisoners sexually? I think it is in part because we live in a pornography-soaked culture."

And Christian and former presidential candidate and President of America Values, Gary Bauer, spends one sentence – 16 words -- on the prisoner abuses themselves and then moves on to focus on the liberal politicians, who in investigating the abuse scandal are playing into the hands of the terrorists...


"We should take whatever steps appropriate to correct prison abuses because such abuses violate our own values."

That’s it. Count them. 17 words. But then he goes on for the rest of the article:

"The politicians are the worst of all... They are attacking Rumsfeld, but their real target is Bush. On the far-out left wing of American politics it is even worse.... "

"They are willing to believe anything America's enemies say while believing our own leaders are liars!"

"Finally there is bin Laden and the other murderers plotting right now to kill thousands of us and our allies. While we flagellate ourselves they continue on their mission to bring us to our knees using whatever tactic or weapon they can find."

Gary closes on a strong note of warning that asking questions about the adminstration in the prison abuse is playing into our enemies hands:

"The odds of us being hit before the November election grow by the hour, but don't tell grandstanding senators--they are too busy beating up their own country. "

Everyone later found out Rumsfeld in 2002 personally signed off on much of what showed up in the Abu Graib photos -- hoods, stripping prisoners, dogs, forced stress positions, long periods of isolation.

And we also discovered that at around this time the Bush/Ashcroft/Gonzales Justice department began it's exercises of "redefining" words like "torture," and "protected prisoner of war" in scary, scary ways. And that the VP's legal counsel found simulated drowning and simulated live burials as part of our interrogations as acceptable.

And to top everything off, we also learn that the accused ringleader of the of Abu Graib abuse -- who is currently being court marshaled with 7 counts of "prisoner abuse" -- was in actuality a non-gay, self-proclaimed Christian, Charles Graner.

Graner's was quoted at the time as saying:

"The Christian in me says this is wrong, but the corrections officer in me can't help making a grown man piss himself."

One of many sad, sad things about the churches engagement in this issue is that a year later -- and especially with the evaluation of our likely new Attorney General at hand -- a search on these previous listed Christian leader's websites don't bring up anything new from them on Abu Ghriab or the morality of torture and our military. In any way.

Check it out for yourself.

Not even bringing the issues up for debate.

The silence is especially amazing to me in light of the parable of the Last Judgement in Matthew 25 , where Christ specifically calls out how we treat prisoners is one of the key attributes that distinguish the "sheep from the goats."

In fact, to me Christ's very description of "the least of these" sounds eerily like the Abu Graib photos: "naked," "hungry," "thirsty," "a stranger," and of course, "in prison.” And yet still no church-wide debate. Nothing but radio silence.

Well, except for Concerned Women of America. Their one new story on the topic is that they think that Gonzales shouldn't have been "tortured" during the senate hearings.

Note: In truth, there I could find a few credible US Evangelical/Protestant voices that were (and are) exceptions to these trends, to their immense credit. These include Christianity TodayMagazine, Sojorners, and notable Christian Peacemakers Teams. CPT, a Menonite ministry, already had peacemaking teams on the ground in Iraq, and reported first hand much broader abuse problems than the US knew about at the time.

And the Catholic church was an early and vocal voice of sanity.
But these were very lonely voices.
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