America’s justification of torture: A Christian response


By Rev. W. Benjamin Boswell

I was an infantry officer in the United States Army on September 11, 2001, and it was a critical turning point in my life. After 9/11 the collective psyche of American society took off in one direction and I, along with what seemed like only a few others, went in the other. As the nation set off on a path of anger, hatred, xenophobia, nationalism, revenge and retaliation, I became increasingly disappointed with the response to 9/11 and the resulting change in American foreign policy. As a former officer, I can testify to you firsthand that American soldiers were not being trained to respect and uphold international law in combat situations. Instead, they were being taught to dehumanize and demonize the enemy as a part of their training for the purpose of making it easier for them to kill. We saw the consequences of this most vividly in the horrors of the Abu Ghraib Prison torture and abuse scandal.

Photo credit: Joe Mabel, 2008

Photo credit: Joe Mabel, 2008

There was once a time when it was not only permissible, but also respectful and ethical, to talk about the limits of American military power, or at least to talk about what was “just” in war.  Concepts from the Just War tradition like discrimination, proportionality, and fair treatment of prisoners were all widely discussed and accepted by most moral philosophers, theologians, religious leaders, lawmakers, and politicians. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.

Since 9/11 we have been engaged in a long and seemingly unending war in the Middle East—Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria. Alongside our military presence in the Middle East, there has been a powerful resurgence of nationalism, a return of the concept of Manifest Destiny, the advent of a new aggressive form of colonialism masked as democracy and national security, as well as the emergence of a new doctrine commonly referred to as “American exceptionalism.” This new doctrine of exceptionalism has combined with American Civil Religion to create a latent, unacknowledged, yet well-understood belief we are in a Holy War with Islam.

The problem with concepts like Manifest Destiny, Nationalism, Colonialism, Exceptionalism, and Holy War is that when you believe these kinds of sacred and idolatrous ideas about America as a “chosen nation” or “Christian nation,” you can justify any practice including torture—even if it violates international law, treaties, conventions, morality, or human decency. So long as it is done out of a sense of preserving the security and/or way of life of the American people, then it magically becomes reasonable, ethical, and even a moral imperative.

I believe this particular political theory/moral philosophy of exceptionalism has its origins in the political theology of a German man named Carl Schmidt, who claimed that in an “emergency” situation or “extreme case,” the State can and should resort to extreme measures to maintain law, order, and security for its people. Schmidt was the crown jurist for the National Socialist party in Germany and his political theory helped to justify their practices of war, violence, torture, and genocide. Unwittingly, we have adopted the political philosophy of Nazi extremists in order to justify our practices of torture.

To find a specifically Christian perspective on the issue of torture, the best resource I’ve discovered is William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist (1998). Cavanaugh is a Catholic theologian; his book explores the use of torture by the regime of General Pinochet in Chile and the church’s response to that torture. In my opinion, this book is a case study for Christian views on the subject and is incredibly helpful in developing a specifically Christian response to the state-sponsored practice of torture.

Cavanaugh claims: “Torture is a kind of perverted liturgy, a ritual act which organizes bodies in the society into a collective performance, not of true community, but of an atomized aggregate of mutually suspicious individuals.” In that way, the practice of torture is the exact opposite or inverse of the most important Christian practice—Communion or Eucharist where individuals are united together as the collective body of Christ by rehearsing the story of one who was tortured and executed by the state: i.e., Jesus. Christians follow a tortured prophet…one who was literally tortured by the State on charges of insurrection. Therefore, torture, biblically speaking, is a practice of those who are by definition anti-Christ, and Communion or Eucharist then is the act of those who are witnesses against torture.

One of the things Cavanaugh says that is particularly important for our conversation about North Carolina’s involvement in torture, where we are complicit as a state in the practice of extraordinary rendition, is this: “Torture works to discipline an entire society into an aggregate of fearful and mutually distrustful individuals…it does so by making bodies disappear and by torturing…the bodies of its victims.” Causing bodies of human beings to disappear is illegal and unjust (especially if it is done for the purpose of torture), and it is something that the church, Christians, people of faith, and Americans should resist.

In his book Discipline and Punish, Foucault shows, “power is most powerful when it functions invisibly.” Therefore, the way to begin to confront and challenge unjust power is to bring it to light—illuminating, revealing, and exposing the injustice that is taking place. In addition, making the bodies of the victims visible again by remembering their names, telling their stories, and reminding society of who they are is another powerful way to combat the disappearances. 

Historically, torture was associated with the search for truth (see Torture and Truth by Page duBois, 1991). However, in studying medieval forms of torture, the French scholar Michel de Certeau remarks, “The goal of torture, in effect, is not to produce the truth but to produce acceptance of a State discourse, through confession.” (31) Torture in the modern era is not about seeking the truth, but a practice used by the State to discipline the enemy.

It is, therefore, critically important for Christians to help dispel the myth that torture is effective. In addition to being immoral, it is also an ineffective and detrimental practice:

…it does not gain accurate intelligence or information.

…it most often gains us inaccurate intelligence which is worse than no intelligence.

…as a practice it has severely damaged our credibility/image in the Middle East.

…it has become one of the most effective recruiting tools for terrorist organizations.

…it has made the world, especially the Middle East, a worse place both morally and practically.

…it endangers our own soldiers and makes them more susceptible to torture.

How Should a Christian Respond to Torture:

1.   Reveal/Shed Light On/Expose/Define Torture

2.  Describe the Practice of Torture as a Sin

3.  Confess our Involvement/Complicity in Torture

4.  Name the Victims of Torture in Public and in Prayer

5.  Participate in Practices of Resistance and Solidarity (SAMAT in Chile)

6.  Advocate for US Policy to Respect International Law & Treaties

7.  Give our financial support to organizations like the NC Commission of Inquiry on Torture.

Jose Aldunate, a Chilean Jesuit, says, “Torture is the most vehement attack against the body of Christ…it is Christ himself who is tortured again each time.”

Let us as Christians commit ourselves to have the courage to talk about the philosophies and theologies that are the underlying causes of torture, the willingness to expose to the world the truth about the immorality and ineffectiveness of this practice, the humbleness to repent of our complicity in these sinful actions our nation has taken, the compassion to name the victims of torture in public and in prayer, and the hope to continue working together to eliminate this practice from our nation. 


Rev. W. Benjamin Boswell is the Senior Minister at Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC – a church affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists and American Baptist Churches USA. He previously served as the pastor at Greenwood Forest Baptist Church in Cary, NC and Commonwealth Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA. Ben earned a bachelor’s from Campbell University, a Master of Divinity from Duke Divinity School, did doctoral work in moral theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He currently serves on the board of the Alliance of Baptists and the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School.