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Why Do Christians Approve of Torture?

By Dr. Valerie Tarico | Debunking Christianity

The circles I run in include a fair number of recovering fundies—people
who were raised on the notion that morality comes from Jesus. In fact,
the former Calvinists among us were taught that anyone who is not "washed in the blood"
is utterly depraved. For real. A Seattle Calvinist mega-minister, Mark
Driscoll, had this to say to his flock: "If the resurrection didn’t
literally happen, there’s no reason for us to be here. If the
resurrection didn’t literally happen, there are parties to be had,
there are women to be had, there are guns to shoot, there are people to
shoot." (Have you heard that Calvinism is all the rage?)

are hard-wired to be credulous, to accept what they are told—which
means that this s**t gets inside people at a gut level—which means it
takes a lot of work to get it back out. Recovering fundies spend a fair
bit of time reminding each other that just because something got wired
into your brain before your critical faculties developed doesn’t mean
it’s true. So of course last week’s Pew report about churchgoing and
torture approval made the rounds.In case you missed it, Pew released survey data
showing that the more frequently someone went to church, the more
likely they were to approve of torture. (So much for total depravity on
the outside.)

Church attendance in this case may be a proxy for
conservative religious belief. Of the groups surveyed, Evangelical
Christians were most likely to think that torture is often or sometimes
ok (62%), followed by Catholics (51%), followed by mainline Protestants (46%). Nonbelievers were least likely to agree (40%).What’s the deal? Over at the Washington Postreligion blog, On Faith,
modernist theologian Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, suggested that maybe
the problem is rooted in theology, what is called the "penal theory of
atonement." Jesus gets torture and death because the rest of us deserve
it. So through the twists and turns of theo-logic, Jesus getting
tortured to death turns out to be the best thing that ever happened to
the human race. It’s the way believers escape the fate that awaits the
rest of us—and is a part of God’s perfect, loving plan.

Christian conservatives," Thistlewaite says, "severe pain and suffering
are central to their theology." In evidence, she points to Evangelical
enthusiasm for Mel Gibson’s movie, a theologically justified orgy of
Hollywood torture. She has a point. Convinced of the film’s salvific
merit, my mother’s church bussed in teens and made special arrangement
for wheelchair-bound elderly. Wouldn’t want them to miss that half-hour
beating scene.Does penal atonement theology lead to torture approval?
Could be. A host of other hypotheses were suggested in response to
Thistlewaite’s article, most of them none too flattering in their
assessment of those Evangelical churchgoers:

--It’s political. They’ve allowed the GOP instead of the gospel to shape their thinking.
--They don’t think. Being a Christian requires you to torture logic every day.
--Christians have a higher duty to protect innocents than prisoners.
--Since God approves of torturing most of the human race for eternity it must be ok.
--Witch drowning, heretic burning, even medieval waterboarding – the Church has a lot of practice at torture.
--Evangelicalism is authoritarian—so is torture.
--Anyone who believes in torture isn’t a true Christian.
--They approve because it’s Muslims who are being tortured.
--The ends justify the means in saving souls; the ends justify the means elsewhere.
--Since Christian leaders are saved, they can do no wrong.
--Evangelical Christianity is a tribal religion, focused on distinguishing in-group from out-group, and out-group actors don’t have rights.
--Christians walk around with an instrument of torture dangling from their necks.
--Many Christians misunderstand the message of Christ.

After spending 10 years watching my tired father twitch in church, I’ll confess to my personal favorite: "Sometimes
sermons are such that congregants who cannot fall asleep feel that
torture is part of God's plan; this does not imply that they like it."

one comment actually made me think. It was from a nonbeliever who
expressed her dismay, not that so many Christians were willing to
condone torture, but that so many nonbelievers did too. Christian fundamentalism may increase tolerance of torture, but if so, it is part of a broader problem.

Scholar Riane Eisler (The Chalice and the Blade,The Real Wealth of Nations)
offers a framework that may lend some relevant insights. Eisler
proposes that all institutions, ideologies, and relationships can be
thought of on a continuum from domination orientation to partnership
orientation. In a domination orientation, people are caught up in the
business of competing for control. You either eat or are eaten, and
given the option, most people would rather be at the top of the food
chain. Underlings use what power they do have: manipulation, deceit,
passive resistance, even suicide. Those in power do harm, often because
they perceive that the alternative is "being done to." Being the
torturer is better than having your hands tied behind your back and a
hood over your head.

Evangelical Christianity has a strong
dominance orientation. The metaphor of "spiritual warfare" is
ubiquitous. Onward Christian Soldiers. Dominionists seek to take
control of the reins of power to rule the rest of us according to
Biblical principles. In the church I grew up in, women were taught to
submit, even to abuse. My pastor gave a full sermon on breaking the
will of his two year old. Spare the rod . . .

But the rest of us
are not immune from this mentality of domination either, which
ultimately is a mentality of fear, the fear of exploitation or
insufficiency. It’s so—primate. Unless the weaker monkey can sneak, the
dominant monkey will eat all the grapes. Unless the weaker chimp can
sneak, the dominant chimp will get to mate with all the best females.
But even our primate cousins would have impossibly wretched lives
without the rudiments of compassion and cooperation. Chimpanzees both
seek help from one another and give it. Rhesus monkeys have been willing to starve for a week rather than shocking another monkey to get fed (Hauser,
pp. 354-355). Their behavior reflects a complex blend of domination and
partnership strategies dictated largely by instinct. But, our
intelligence allows us more behavioral flexibility than any other
species. We who call ourselves homo sapiens sapienswise, wise—have
the power to understand fear and domination deeply and to orient our
personal relationships and social institutions toward the other end of
the continuum.

Even as old an institution as Christianity has
the power to learn. That may be one of the most important take-aways
from the Pew study. Yes, as many people pointed out, the Church has a
history of embracing torture, sanctifying it theologically and using it
to defend purity of belief. And yes, those Christians who are still
stuck defending the "fundamental" belief agreements made in the Fourth
Century may be stuck defending torture as well. But Christians like
Thistlewaite who have been willing to re-evaluate the old regula fidei
or rules of faith have moved both theologically and morally. Many
mainliners center their theology not in "penal atonement" but in
radical hospitality. Call it love. Like partnership oriented Humanists,
Buddhists and others they teach their children how to think rather than
what to think and don’t feel a need to "break" them to control their
spiritual quest. If that doesn’t help us to outgrow torture, I don’t
know what will.


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