Why We Trust in Torture and the Advent of the Ironic Tortured Emperor

A Conversation I Very Much Want to Avoid

If last week I said a conversation on racism wasn’t nearly enough. This week I face the fact that a conversation about torture is something I want to avoid.

Last week I had to face the hard fact that if God is to save us from the sin between us, Jesus must save me from the sin within me. The dark truth about myself is that I’m selective about the sin I want to be delivered from. Some sins I like. Some sins I believe I need. I not only trust in myself more than I trust in Jesus, I also trust in some things, some ugly thing more than I trust in Him.

The Senate Torture Report

The New York Times Editorial board had this to say about the report.

We have not always agreed with Senator Dianne Feinstein on national security issues like wiretapping, but the California Democrat who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee has displayed commitment and courage in the investigation of the illegal detention, abuse and torture of prisoners by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Realizing she had one last chance to get this report to the public before Republicans take over the Senate, Ms. Feinstein released a summary of the findings despite heavy pressure from Republicans and the White House to withhold it. She and her aides deserve enormous credit for their five-and-a-half-year struggle.

Sadly, that is pretty much it on the disclosure front. In post-9/11 America, when it comes to momentous matters of national security, democratic tradition and the rule of law, there is precious little disclosure and no justice and accountability. It’s a bipartisan affliction.

Of course there was a partisan political firestorm around the report. Blame Bush. Blame Cheney. Blame Obama. By virtue of the change of administration in 2008 this seems to be plenty of bipartisan blame to go around, but unlike the sin of the week last week, racism, the self-righteous accusations have definitely been more muted. Why?

Is Torture Always Wrong? Are We Sure? We Look To Each Other

One dissenter to Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish wrote this

I’m a Republican subscriber to the Dish and a frequent yeller at my computer screen as a result – and I’ll stay an enthusiastic subscriber because you’ve got passion and smarts and personality, and that’ll more than do. But honestly, not one reference, throughout your ongoing commentary about the Senate torture report, to the 2,996 victims of the 9/11 attacks? They went to work that morning and died in horror and never knew why – surely there’s some mitigating context that deserves at least a mention alongside the allegations (and yes, ugly truths) about America’s security efforts in the wake of that attack.

Part of how we in a secular democracy try to publicly divine right from wrong is the opinion poll and polls find Americans with mixed feelings about it. I understand this. I feel it in myself. I hear myself work the logic.

“These are probably (a few innocents might get mixed in, but if they’re really THAT  innocent why were they there (guilt by association, where their is smoke there is fire…)) bad people who are conspiring with other bad people to do evil things. Innocent people will die unless these people are stopped. Isn’t this the primary job we pay our government for, to keep us safe from bad people like this?”

This of course makes the question of torture’s effectiveness a really hot topic. If it saves lives it’s justified right?

The Senate report acknowledges that the detainees regularly provided valuable intelligence after torture. But it notes that there is no reason to believe that torture was necessary to pry out whatever bit of information CIA headquarters required.

Let me bold this: None of the detainees seemed to be hiding pertinent facts about imminent terrorist attacks. None of them needed any coercion to give up what they knew. None. The CIA does not dispute this.

Over and over, the interrogators reported that a detainee was compliant. Over and over, headquarters responded along the lines of, “That can’t be true. They must know something. Or, at the very least, we need to put them in enough duress to ensure that they know nothing. If they’re not telling us about plots, plots we think we know about from other fragmentary sources, then the interrogations need to be harsher.”

This itself is old news, and it is news that has been supported by both sides of our political divide. Since 9/11 few politicians have been more hawkish than John McCain, but few have also been as clear on this point. We understand this from John McCain because of course he was a victim of torture as a POW during the Vietnam War.

Why Then Do We Resist The Emotional Moral Clarity on Torture that we seem to easily find on Race?

I think it is because torture, like race is a question of the darkness of our hearts.

Part of me WANTS the terrorists of 9/11, or the takers of Nigerian school girls or others who prey on the weak to suffer at our hands. Better yet, ship them to the Israelis or the Egyptians or the Pakistanis so that American hands need not be troubled with pesky Senate probes. I want me and my tribe to be safe and clean and innocent but I want pain and retribution for my enemies. I not only want them stopped, I want them punished and a part of my heart rejoices in the thought that they will not only have their time taken away from them, but their comfort as well.

Not only do I trust in myself more than Jesus, I trust in pain too.

The Bible Can Be A Very Inconvenient Book

All of this makes this week’s lectionary text, Isaiah 61 all too ironic.

With Ferguson and Eric Garner in the news last week lots of second week of Advent blog posts (including my own) were written but I doubt many will engage torture and Isaiah 61.  When I think about Isaiah 61 I think about Jesus leading good people out of bondage. I think about God releasing people I identify with, people I see as innocent, people I see as good.

The text itself certainly is located in the context of Israel’s exile. It imagines a Messiah, a hero who will come and rescue Israel from the misery she has suffered at the hands of empire.

Part of what is difficult about the conjunction of this text and the news this week is how the Senate Report exposes the US to be just another empire. During the 50s we imagined ourselves as God’s instrument against godless communism, after 9/11 that narrative changed. Some Christians may still see us as good guys in a sectarian holy war against Islam, but many others have flipped the narrative and now see us as good guys standing against religious fundamentalism.

It is so easy for us to see the hypocrisy of a group like Al Qaeda or ISIS using torture and terrorism in their religious war. How could the people of Allah do such terrible things. They of course will respond and say that it is our violence that justifies their extreme behavior. That is, again inconveniently, exactly the excuse I feel in my heart for justifying torture whether it is effective or not.

Isn’t the God of the Bible Pro-Torture Anyway?

For many of my friends who are atheists, agnostics or skeptics will probably point out that this isn’t just a problem with empire, it seems a problem with God too? In the parable of the Unforgiving Servant doesn’t the king turn over the unforgiving servant to the torturers until he repays a sum he couldn’t possibly come up with? How can we object to torture if we embrace the kind of vengeful God that we find in the Bible? Isn’t hell all about torture?

In The Skeletons in God’s Closet  Joshua Butler pretty aptly lays out the picture.

Second, its purpose [hell] must be torture . God looks like a sadistic monster, capable of a capricious cruelty equivalent to the kid next door who enjoys spending his spare time tormenting cats. This torture serves no positive purpose, makes no constructive contribution to the flourishing of the world. God is not like Jack Bauer, going after information to prevent an imminent terrorist attack. God is the terrorist in this picture, looking for a few sadistic kicks, out for pure and simple vengeance.

Butler, Joshua Ryan (2014-10-14). The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War (p. 4). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

We might imagine the guards at Abu Ghraib wishing their captives a hearty “the God within me greets the God within you”.

The Jesus Who Claims Isaiah 61

Isaiah 61 is a favorite Advent passage because Jesus appropriates it for himself in sermon in Nazareth in Luke 4. Jesus also kindly skips the “vengeance” line in his on the fly editing of Isaiah launching a thousand nice sermons.

We saw two weeks ago that Jesus’ decision to bear judgment rather than bring it caused doubt on the part of John the Baptist and many others.

One of the things that is missed in our Advent hurry through Isaiah 61 is the Old Testament missiology of the passage.

The rescuing Messiah of 61:1-2 is on a mission not for his own sake or motivated by his own ego but rather for the flourishing of a people which will result in glory given to God.

Isaiah 61:3 (NIV)

3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.

Isaiah 61:8–11 (NIV)

8 “For I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing. In my faithfulness I will reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them. 9 Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the Lord has blessed.” 10 I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.

This engages a dominant theme of the Bible in terms of the reputation of God. The validation of Jesus’ work is not just in the resurrection but also in the creation of a new people of God.

One of the things that the Senate Torture Report has done is give reason for the rivals of the United States to jeer.  Avoiding such jeering is often a justification for covering up torture practices. If we can’t be good we should at least look good, right? Skye Jethani, an editor at Christianity Today recently returned from visiting family in India and one of the things he noted on this trip was how much reputation the United States has lost in people he met in India. A part of this loss of luster is undoubtedly the American reputation as empire, willing to continue to secure itself at the cost of others.

God’s Vision of Thriving

While the first part of Isaiah 61 gets a lot of attention at Advent because of the Nazareth sermon I think the last part is vital as well. The vision of the end of chapter is a world where justice is done, where peace is assured and where thriving is simply how the world works.

Isaiah throughout the book loves the kinds of metaphors we see in verse 11. He sees a natural process and he describes how as automatic this natural process is so automatic will be flourishing in God’s renewed world. The unjust and unfair world we are accustomed to, where the strong prey on the weak will be no more and it will be replaced by a natural order where wrongs are corrected and past grievances resolved.

The whole chapter is an undoing of our sad story. The whole chapter asserts that a hero will come and this hero will remake the universe himself. Isaiah is filled with images of this remaking

  • Swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks
  • The lion will lay down with the lamb
  • as the rain come down from the heavens so my word will accomplish…

Israel in Reputation Repair

Last week we saw how trust is foundational in God’s mission. It was our mistrust of God that drove us away. It is out mistrust of each other that fuels racism. It is our inability, often justified, of each other that fuels torture. We cannot trust one another so we use power to violate the other in order to secure what we want.

The point of Isaiah 61 is that this hero will release the victims of not only our cruelty to each other, but our bondage to brokenness and decay and this release will motivate its witnesses to participate in yielding to the Creator what the creation was originally designed to yield. When this hero sets thing right the created order will finally achieve what it was designed to do, but given our inability to trust how could such a hero do this?

The Way of Empire

As people around the world receive news of the Senate Torture Report they will undoubted think “of course, I knew it all along. This is how empire works. The United States lives it’s well-being at the expense of others.”

For many around the world the Senate Torture Report follows the revelations of Eric Snowden who exposed NSA spying. Americans were not happy to learn that the government keeps records on us in violation of our own laws, yet many in other countries were more upset because they realized that American law prohibits spying on its own citizens it doesn’t prohibit the NSA from spying on them. Angela Merkel, Prime Minister of Germany, an important ally of the US, was not amused to learn that we had tapped into her phone. Again, all of this simply reinforced the narrative that the US is an empire and acts as any empire does.

If all of the empires we have experience with on earth act this way, does word about “the kingdom of God” sound like welcome news? Won’t God’s empire simply be like any other empire?

Most empires imagining themselves bringing good things to the world or at least trying to do good things. Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Germans, French, British, all imagined that they had for themselves realized a better way of life, a greater truth and that it was their burden to popularize their truth. Along the way people would get in the way or oppose them, so ugly but necessary things would need to be done. You have to break a few eggs…

The Revelation of the Kingdom of God through its Hero

This was of course what was expected of the Messiah. He would enforce God’s kingdom at his enemy’s expense. There are many passages in the Bible that talk about God’s reign and the sorry of the losers.

What is new and shocking about Jesus, to everyone who observed him, was how he would BOTH assert that he was God’s emissary of his kingdom on earth AND the lengths he would go to suffer for his enemies. This was a thing simply unheard of. Empire might throw a bone or two, like making a concession now and then but emperors don’t really sacrifice much for their people and they certainly don’t die. Bush and Obama don’t freely turn themselves over to Al Qaeda or ISIS to be tortured and killed.  The leaders of Al Qaeda and ISIS don’t turn themselves over to the Americans. This is not how the game is played.

What does it say about the kingdom of heaven that God gives his son to us for us to torture and kill? What does it say about us that we DO torture and kill him?


As with racism, it is instructive that we are quick to play the self-righteous critic. The movie of the book I love Unbroken is coming out this Christmas. Even while we’re aghast at the torture that Louis Zamperini endures I feel self-righteous pride that it was the Japanese and the Germans who tortured people, not Americans. But when I hear that we tortured terrorists I want to either point fingers at one political party or posture myself as the righteous patriot who isn’t afraid to criticize my own government. The darker truth is that part of me WANTS these people tortured. I trust in power and pain and when I’m scared I reach for it because if in the end it’s me OR my enemy I want my enemy to suffer and die. This is who I am deep inside and so much of my public righteousness is actually a show to advantage myself as posturing to claim moral high ground. The suspicions of my enemies are true. I’m finally in it for myself.


While I’m in it for myself I discover that God, my ultimate enemy, is so devoted to MY well being he gave his son to be tortured and killed by my side FOR me. No victim of Japanese or American or ISIS torture can look at Jesus and say “you don’t understand!”

We rise up in righteous indignation at ISIS who publishes videos of their beheadings. Jesus was tortured publicly by Rome at the request of God’s own people as a public expression of our demand to rule the earth.

Jesus came not to bring judgment upon us but to bear judgment for us.


When I see that God would allow himself to be a victim of torture for the sake of his enemy I am moved to want to embrace the banner of THAT kingdom. I am moved to believe that only THAT kingdom will actually bring the kind of flourishing that Isaiah 61 talks about. THAT kingdom where just as our recent rain turns California from golden to green again, so also the blood of Jesus shed for us turns us from the self-righteous, self-satisfied, insecure, “my well-being at your expense” type of people we are by nature into people like Jesus who genuinely long to see others flourish even if it costs us.

What Story Will You Live?

I know we’re bad at it. I know we fail. I also know that it is not our capacity to fulfill it that I must trust in but his capacity to do so. Repeating and reliving the story over and over again feeds my heart and feeds my faith that this is finally the world’s greatest and most true story.

Torture, unlike our self-righteous posturing is not the exception, it is the rule. It is the way of life in the age of decay. The only way we can live above and beyond that story is to embrace the story of the resurrection where the torture and death of Jesus in fact seed the new creation begun in his resurrected body. It is in his new creation that the words of Isaiah are fulfilled. It is the advent of THAT creation that we long for and look to today even as the old creation winds down around us.

What we are left with is the question of which creation we will bear witness to? Which creation do we believe will ultimately endure and prevail and which creation do we want to have permeate our thoughts, desires and actions?

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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