Torture is Sin: My Speech in Front of Jeppesen

On Friday, November 16, I spoke at a rally in front of a building in downtown San Jose, California in front of the offices of Jeppesen International, a flight planning company that reportedly is in charge of organizing the flights used by the CIA to move terror suspects to countries where they are tortured. The text of my speech is below. This speech was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on Nov. 19, 2007.

Before I get started I have to say to you that my remarks contain a lot of old fashioned religious language. You see, for me it is painful to be standing here, in the city that has become my home, talking about how my government has chosen to use torture against real and perceived enemies, and about how so few of our elected leaders—both locally and nationally—have had the courage to join us in speaking out against the use of torture. My path to understanding what I feel about torture has taken me back to a religious place I seldom visit.

Ever since the New Yorker broke the story of Jeppesen International’s alleged involvement in the rendition of American-held detainees to countries where they might be tortured, I have been convinced that people of faith cannot talk about the American use of torture in the so-called “War on Terror” until we reclaim the language of morality and sin.

For too long the language of morality and sin has been commandeered by those among us who think the primary goal of religion is to regulate human intimacy. People like you and me—that is to say, thoughtful people of faith whose souls are inclined to the work of making the world a better place—we don’t want our religious faithfulness to be confused with prudishness, so we shy away from anything that might look like a pounded pulpit or that might smell like brimstone.

Brothers and sisters, dear friends, when it comes to torture, we need to lose that inhibition, because how can torture be anything but immoral? And if we cannot condemn as sin that which truly is immoral, then what might our God-given voices be for?

There are lots of reasons to speak out against the use of torture. Torture is ineffective because even innocent people will confess to acts of heinous criminality to stop pain. The use of torture is unpatriotic because it is unconstitutional. Torture violates international law and it degrades American national security because it inspires hatred among those who would do us harm. These are good reasons to oppose torture, but I know them to be true only second hand.

I am not a criminologist, or a constitutional lawyer, or an expert on international law. I am not schooled in national security or in international politics. I am a pastor, and I wouldn’t be a very good one if the promotion of social righteousness were not part of my ministry. What I know about torture is this: it’s not just ineffective, and unpatriotic and illegal, and dangerous. To torture someone is immoral because it is cruel and it is unfair. Torture uses punishment to determine guilt rather than using guilt to determine punishment. Torture desecrates the image of God that is common to all humanity. Torture is a sin.

And woe unto you if you are torturing your fellow human being. Woe unto you if you are getting rich by providing material support, service, or assistance to the purveyors of torture, for how does it profit a person to gain the whole world but lose his or her soul? Woe unto the politicians who have abused our nation’s fear to find support for torture and who change the definition of torture in order to say with a straight face, “Americans don’t torture”. Woe unto the politicians who have not spoken out loudly enough to condemn torture. Woe to the religious communities and leaders who have been silent. Woe unto you, for you will have to go to bed each night knowing that you have sinned against humanity and against God.

That’s the bad news, but the bad news does not have the final word.

The final word belongs to grace. Grace enables and empowers us to change. The good news is that no matter what the propagators of hatred and fear may tell us, we can reject the sin of torture and so can they. We can just say no. There remains time for the amendment of our national character. By grace we can affirm the sanctity of each human life. By grace we can refuse to live under the illusionary comfort of security that is conceived in cruelty and born of brutality. By grace we may live moral and upright lives.

So listen up all who would hear! Ours is a God of Amazing Grace, and our God is marching on. We are a people of Grace who refuse to stand by while our country dispenses cruelty. We march on in the Grace of God, and everyone is welcome to join us.

That means you who are employed by Jeppesen or by the CIA. It means you, Mayor Reed, and the members of the San Jose City Council; you who sit on the Santa Clara board of Supervisors, you, Governor Swartzenegger and the state legislators, you, senators and members of Congress in Washington, you, justices and you, Mr. President. It’s time to put off the immorality that has so infected the nation. It’s time to be done with the sin of torture. It’s time to come home, into the fold of God’s Grace, and into the joyful peace and security of a new day.


4 thoughts on “Torture is Sin: My Speech in Front of Jeppesen

  1. Thank you, Ben, for preaching the bad and good news. We all know that torture is not the Christian way. The primary symbol of our faith is a symbol of torture. One was tortured on a cross who was innocent. In His Kingdom, torture has no place.

    Thanks for standing up against the powers of darkness that appear to be reigning over us at this time.

    I take my stand with you; torture is sin. And if we remain silent in light of our government’s turn to torture, we take our place with those who tortured an innocent One so long ago at Golgotha.

    It is clear now that our government has been using torture as a military technique, while our public statements have denied it. We have been lied to.

    America has lost its moral compass. Those of us who love America and want it to be the shining city on the hill, must call it back to pre-torture days. The good guys who wear the white hats, don’t torture their enemies. They try to make their enemies, friends. I think America has lost this vision.

    No more American torture; let’s be pro-life till death do us part.

  2. For some reason my web software disallowed Bill, a frequent commenter on this sight, to leave a post. He sent it to me via email, and I’m posting it on his behalf:

    An interesting speech, Ben, albeit an emotional one. I can’t know, hence won’t comment, about the guilt or innocence of Jeppesen International, given that everything presented in your blog is “reported” and “alleged.”

    As to the larger issue of torture, it seems to me the question is not about the intrinsic lack of morality (or sinfulness) of torture. It is a matter of whether the good that flows from the act outweighs the unmistakeable evil of the act.

    Because in fact, there are times when aggressive questioning — OK, torture — is effective. Ask the Israelis, who uncovered, hence thwarted, a plot to detonate a bomb in a crowded synagogue on Yom Kippur. We are talking here of “ticking bomb” situations, in which real-time, actionable intelligence can be had, not some effort to extract a confession for some past crime.

    Those who consider torture sinful and immoral (which it probably is), must nevertheless be willing to answer honestly these two questions:

    1. Would you authorize the use of non-lethal forms of torture if you believed that it was the only possible way of saving the lives of hundreds of Americans in a ticking bomb situation?

    2. If not, would you be prepared to accept responsibility for the preventable deaths of hundreds of Americans?

  3. …and here is a response to Bill.

    I agree that people like me must be willing to grapple with the two questions you present, and here is how I come down on them.

    1. the problem with looking to the “ticking bomb” as a reason to allow isolated use of torture is that no one can possibly know if the torture will work or if the right person is being tortured, or if the confessions of the victim are accurate and useful until after the torture has occurred. It seems like a crap shoot to me–way to iffy to use reliably or morally.

    You mentioned an instance of when the Israelis used torture to prevent a terrorist attack, and I’m glad the attack was prevented. But I wonder how many people were tortured pointlessly and uselessly before a single usable bit of intelligence was gathered.

    2. Well. I believe that a person should be considered innocent until proven guilty, and I believe that even the most heinous criminal should have access to quality legal representation. These guarantees are constitutional and have served American justice for a long time. They also mean that sometimes guilty parties walk and commit crimes after slipping through the cracks of the criminal justice system, greased by the US constitution.

    So it is with torture. I don’t feel guilty for believing in the Constitution–I believe it is better than the alternatives because it safeguards against greater abuses. It also disallows torture, and, isolated tragedies notwithstanding, we are better for it.



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