This Piece was published on October 2, 2006 on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum webpage under the title “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” It also headlined the religion section on UPI’s homepage that day.
For those politicians in Washington who seek to be guided by their faith as they make policy decisions that affect the nation and the world, and especially for any politician claiming that “Jesus Christ” is his favorite political philosopher, I have a message: our nation’s treatment of detainees is a religious issue.
Last week the House and Senate passed legislation that, when signed by the President, essentially will legalize many forms of torture. Although the measure was hailed as a compromise between the President and members of the Republican party opposed to torture, and despite claiming to outlaw “cruel and unusual punishment,” only certain kinds of torture are expressly forbidden in the bill, which states:
Punishment by flogging, or by branding, marking, or tattooing on the body, or any other cruel or unusual punishment, may not be adjudged by a military commission under this chapter or inflicted under this chapter upon any person subject to this chapter. The use of irons, single or double, except for the purpose of safe custody, is prohibited under this chapter. (sec. 949s).
According to legal experts at human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Friends’ Committee on National Legislation, the open-ended nature of the legislation’s language will allow the CIA and other non-military personnel to use brutal and abusive interrogation techniques on those the President deems “unlawful enemy combatants,” so long as flogging, branding, tattooing, and the unnecessary use of irons are not employed.
In an embarrassing display of legislative hypocrisy, the House and Senate list those actions that make one eligible for the status of “unlawful enemy combatant” as, among other infractions, torture and cruel and inhumane punishment. In the context of potential atrocities committed against Americans, the definitions of these crimes are broad enough to include most any unpleasantness or discomfort.
The law defines torture as an act specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control for the purpose of obtaining information or a confession, punishment, intimidation, coercion, or any reason based on discrimination of any kind…[sec. 950v(b)(11)(a)].
And cruel and inhumane punishment as acts “intended to inflict severe or serious physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions), including serious physical abuse, upon another within his custody or control.” [sec. 950v(b)(11)(b)]
That the House and Senate have passed a law potentially making legal for Americans that which they are outlawing for “unlawful enemy combatants” is an irony for which Americans of good moral character should be deeply ashamed.
Equally troubling is the fact that those detained as “unlawful enemy combatants” will have no recourse to appeal their status, and, when found guilty they will be denied access to an appellate process.
I have to ask myself, “what in the name of Everything Sacred is going on here?” Where in these woods of national hysteria and fear did we lose our moral compass?
For those Christians who take seriously the words of Jesus and the values of the Kingdom of God, the legislation on the treatment of “unlawful enemy combatant” detainees must be condemned as an abomination. In the 25th chapter of the Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus tells a parable about the End of Days, and in it he makes it very clear that God takes very seriously our treatment of the less fortunate.
In the parable, Jesus addresses those who are about to inherit eternal life saying, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was naked and you clothed me. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was sick and you cared for me. I was in prison and you visited me…for whatever you did to the least of these my brothers and sisters you did unto me.”
The Biblical narrative cannot be clearer. The righteous are not commended for torturing prisoners. They’re not called blessed for subjecting “unlawful enemy combatants” to a double standard. Jesus gives no support for the notion that some people should be denied access to courts. Instead Jesus directs his followers to pay a visit, to extend a hand of friendship to those who are detained.
According to the Associated Press, House Speaker, Hastert chided Democrats who opposed the bill declaring that they had voted in favor of “more rights for terrorists.” He went on to suggest that “the same terrorists who plan to harm innocent Americans and their freedom worldwide would be coddled, if we followed the Democrat plan.”
The speaker would do well to remember that we are a nation with sufficient power to defend ourselves even while being prodigious in granting rights and privileges to all comers. The real issue before us is this: are we willing to sacrifice our national soul for the guilty catharsis of cruelty?
With all my heart I hope the answer is “no.” The God I have encountered in the pages of Holy Writ and whom I have met in the faces of my fellow human beings cares deeply about the wellbeing of all God’s children, including those who are detained. We who are people of faith must do the same.