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Torture Defenders

Christ Mocked, Hieronymus Bosch, ca. 1490-1500 (National Gallery, London)

It’s probably just as well that I wasn’t blogging for the last two weeks. If I were, I would have written an incoherently angry post regarding the Liz Cheney-Bill Kristol attack (through Keep America Safe) on Attorney General Holder and the Justice Department for hiring lawyers who provided representation to Guantanamo detainees. I would hardly know where to begin my rant. But at this point, perhaps there is no need for it. Just wondering, though — how do we keep America safe by ignoring all of its values? And how does former Bush speechwriter Mark Thiessen get rewarded for writing a book (Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack) defending torture by becoming a Washington Post columnist, whereupon he produces a nonsensical defense of the McCarthy-esque attacks? I needn’t tear apart Thiessen’s column; Scott Horton, among others, did it pretty well last week at Harper’s.

Let me turn instead to Garry Wills’ post this morning at The New York Review of Books blog in which he reflects on the crowning of Jesus and the thoughts this must provoke in the minds of torturers who are themselves Christian. As Easter approaches, it gives all of us — Christian or not — much to think about.

The third mystery is the crowning of Jesus. This was not a prescribed part of the process. The Roman soldiers improvised a special humiliation for their prisoner, wrapping him with a mock-regal purple robe, giving him a fake scepter, and putting an “imperial” wreath of acanthus leaves on this head, to scoff at the idea of a “King of the Jews.” It was like the medieval installation of a buffoon as “Lord of Misrule.” Again, the aim was to take away any last scrap of dignity that might be left to Jesus.

Sound familiar? Our recent torture techniques seem directly linked to the treatment Jesus received. Our prisoners were stripped, subjected to head bangings and face slappings. This was not torture, according to torturologist John Yoo. It may have been painful but it did not inflict permanent damage—except to human dignity. And making prisoners wear women’s underwear on their faces, or smearing them with what they were told was menstrual blood, was breaking down their deepest ideas of worth in their own culture and their own pride. It was a derisive “crowning.”

I do not know what went through the minds of secular or non-Christian torturers. But Christian torturers might have reason to have tortured consciences themselves when or if they remember what Jesus said in the gospel of Matthew (25.31ff). Asked who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he says those who comforted him in prison. Asked who will be excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven, he says those who would not comfort him in prison. His listeners ask, “When were you in prison, that we came to you or did not?” He answers: “Whatever you did to any of my brothers, even the lowliest (elackistoi), you did to me.” Christians should face this sobering fact: in their treatment of the lowliest of men, they were torturing Jesus, renewing what the Roman soldiers did to him.

Categories: Politics, Religion, Torture
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