Prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. A recent poll shows the more often you go to church, the more you approve of torture. (Photo: Catholic News Agency)
The more often you go to church, the more you approve of torture. This is a troubling finding of a new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Shouldn't it be the opposite? After all, who would Jesus torture? Since Jesus wouldn't even let Peter use a sword and defend him from arrest, it would seem that those who follow Jesus would strenuously oppose the violence of torture. But, not so in America today.
Instead, more than half of people who attend worship at least once a week, or 54%, said that using torture on suspected terrorists was "often" or "sometimes" justified. White evangelical Protestants were the church-going group most likely to approve of torture. By contrast, those who are unaffiliated with a religious organization and didn't attend worship were most opposed to torture - only 42% of those people approved of using torture.
One possible way to interpret this extraordinary Pew data is cultural. White evangelical Protestants tend to be culturally conservative and they make up a large percentage of the so-called Republican "base". Does the approval of torture by this group demonstrate their continuing support for the previous administration? That may be.
But I think it is possible, even likely, that this finding has a theological root. The UN Convention Against Torture defines torture as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person..." White Evangelical theology bases its view of Christian salvation on the severe pain and suffering undergone by Jesus in his flogging and crucifixion by the Romans. This is called the "penal theory of the atonement" - that is, the way Jesus paid for our sins is by this extreme torture inflicted on him.
For Christian conservatives, severe pain and suffering are central to their theology. This is very clear in the 2002 Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ. Evangelical Christians flocked to this movie, promoted it and still show it in their churches, despite the fact that it is R-rated for the extraordinary amount of violence in the film. It is, in fact, the highest grossing R-rated movie in the history of film. The flogging of Jesus by the Romans goes on for fully 40 minutes. It is truly the most violent film I have ever seen.
The message of the movie, and a message of a lot of conservative Christian theology, is that severe pain and suffering are not foreign to Christian faith, but central.
Of course, this is an interpretation of Jesus life, death and resurrection that I reject. It is also an interpretation that I believe has done a lot of harm through the centuries. I think it is impossible, yes, impossible, if you read the Gospels, to make the case that God wanted Jesus tortured for the sins of humanity. But that is an interpretation that has sometimes been made in the history of Christianity and the social and political fallout has been, and is today, that torture is OK, maybe even more than OK. This Pew finding may just be another in a long line of horrible historical examples of that.
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is the former president of the Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), Thistlethwaite is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.