You Cannot Be Christian and Support Torture


You Cannot Be Christian and Support Torture
Brian Zahnd

You cannot be Christian and support torture. I want to be utterly explicit on this point. There is no possibility of compromise. The support of torture is off the table for a Christian. I suppose you can be some version of a “patriot” and support the use of torture, but you cannot be any version of Christian and support torture. So choose one: A torture-endorsing patriot or a Jesus-following Christian. But don’t lie to yourself that you can be both. You cannot.

(Clearly you do not have to be a Christian to reject the barbarism of torture, you simply need to be a humane person. But to be a Christian absolutely requires you to reject the use of torture.)

I remember when Pew Research released their findings in 2009 revealing that six out of ten white evangelicals supported the use of torture on suspected terrorists. (Patton Dodd talks about that here.) The survey stunned me. I spoke about it from the pulpit in 2009 and have continued to do so. I said it then and I’m saying it again today: You cannot support the use of torture and claim to be a follower of Jesus.

Any thoughtful person, no matter their religion or non-religion, knows that you cannot support torturing people and still claim to be a follower of the one who commanded his disciples to love their enemies. The only way around this is to invent a false Jesus who supports the use of torture. (The Biblical term for this invented false Jesus is “antichrist.”)

Those who argue for the use of torture do so because they are convinced it is pragmatic for national security. But Christians are not called to be pragmatists or even safe. Christians are called by Jesus to imitate a God who is kind and merciful to the wicked.

“Love your enemies! Do good to them.…and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked. Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.” –Jesus (Luke 6:35, 36)

I don’t know of a greater indictment against American evangelicalism than the fact that a majority of its adherents actually admit they support the use of illegal torture on suspected terrorists! The release of that survey in 2009 was the point where I stopped self-identifying as an evangelical. Today I’m not quite sure what brand of Christian you should categorize me as, but it’s not that!

Evangelical support of torture is what we might call an “eruption of the real.” It’s a horrifying moment of unintended truth-telling where we discover that allegiance to national self-interest trumps allegiance to Jesus Christ. Now with the release of the Senate’s report of the C.I.A.’s use of torture I’m calling on American evangelicals to stop playing games and decide if they are going to be Christian or not — to decide if they are going to follow Jesus Christ or Dick Cheney.*

(* I say this as one who shared the platform with Dick Cheney at a political rally in 2004. I tell this story and my subsequent renunciation of a politicized faith in Beauty Will Save the World.)

Those who call themselves Christian are followers of one who was tortured and killed by a superpower supremely committed to its own security. The Roman governor Pilate condemned Jesus to torture and execution by acting in the interests of the Pax Romana. The Roman Empire could not tolerate a Galilean preacher claiming to be the King of the Jews. Rome called it insurrection and the penalty was crucifixion. So Jesus was tortured to death. But when God raised him on the third day, Jesus and his message of enemy-love and radical forgiveness were vindicated. The cross of Christ forever shames torture as a means for achieving “freedom” and “security.” Torture does not lead to freedom and security. Torture is demonic and it leads to hell.

Jesus was a victim of torture. He was tortured to death. But Jesus not only died on a cross, he called his disciples to take up their cross and follow him! Why? Why does Jesus call his followers to carry an instrument of torture? To torture enemies? Of course not! We take up our cross because in following Jesus we are prepared to choose suffering over security. Does this sound strange to you? This is Christianity!

The constant rival to the kingdom of Christ is empire, and the supreme obsession of empire is security. Empires always justify their violence in the name of security. Christians on the other hand make no claim to security. We are not safe. We have willingly embarked upon the risk of following Jesus, knowing full well that such a venture may lead to suffering and death.

For three hundred years everyone knew that it was dangerous to be a Christian, and therefore knew what it was to be a Christian. Then things changed and Christendom was born. Christendom was the subordination of Christianity to the sovereignty of empire. More to the point, Christendom was an attempt to invent a risk-free Christianity. And it was a “success.” But it came at a price. The price was that no one quite knew anymore what it meant to be a Christian. How can you be a Christian when there is no risk? How can you take up your cross and follow Jesus if there’s no danger of suffering? Removing all risk makes Christianity incomprehensible.

And apparently Christianity has become so incomprehensible in the security state of America that millions of evangelicals think they can be Christian and support torture. But they cannot.

These evangelicals have reached a crisis of decision. They can choose security. They can choose to endorse torture in the name of security. But to do so is to renounce the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Torture-endorsing Christians either need to change their mind or they need to change their name.


P.S. I have slightly edited the title and a couple of sentences. I took out a single letter. “You Cannot Be A Christian and Support Torture” is now “You Cannot Be Christian and Support Torture.” I took out the “a”. Evangelicalism has placed nearly all the emphasis on becoming a Christian, which ends up as “ticket to heaven” Christianity. But the emphasis needs to be on becoming Christian (Christlike). Can you support torture and go to heaven? Maybe. Can you support torture and be Christlike? No.

(The artwork is Christ Mocked by Soldiers by George Rouault.)