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Who Would Jesus Torture?
The Traditional Values Coalition Thinks Its Traditions Trump the Teachings of Jesus

In a statement that is surely causing consternation in heaven, The Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, who heads up the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC), has issued a press release and is asking members of Congress to "clarify vagaries of 1950 Geneva Convention."

Of course, Sheldon is not all that familiar with the provisions of that Convention, its history or importance. In fact, it was approved in 1949, but we'll let that pass. Of greater concern is the substance of Rev. Sheldon's statement that the Geneva Convention needs "clarification" because "our rules for interrogation need to catch-up with this awful new form of war that is being fought against us." First of all let's be clear what this "clarification" and "catch up" actually amount to: torture. His premise seems to be that since new forms of violence are being used against us, we are justified in returning like for like, without the constraints that the community of civilized nations put into effect following World War II.

How quickly we forget. Speaking of "awful forms of war," just think for a moment about the violence of World War II. Surely Rev. Sheldon's memory is not so poor that he has forgotten the fire bombing of entire cities, Kamikaze suicide attacks, the mass extermination of entire populations of innocent human beings, men women and children; the invention, manufacture and use of the most destructive weapon ever, namely the atomic bomb, a weapon that could be used in only one way, that is, the direct targeting of civilian populations. The violence and loss of innocent civilian life that took place during World War II make today's terrorist attacks look paltry and pathetic by comparison.

By no stretch of the imagination does the kind of warfare and violence being employed by anyone in the world today exceed that of prior wars in prior centuries. Though the Bush administration is now arguing that the US is facing a totally new threat, there is no threat that remotely approaches what we faced during the Cold War when thousands of missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction were aimed at every major city in the continental United States.

Yet it was in the aftermath of World War II that the Geneva Convention was agreed upon, and it was in the context of the Cold War, with nuclear annihilation threatening the very survival of the planet, that those same Conventions were tried, tested, and found to offer a measure of security and comfort.

More to the point, Rev. Sheldon is arguing, not as a politician, but as a moral and religious leader who claims to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. The same Jesus who willingly faced death rather than take up arms against those who used a most cruel and inhuman form of torture against him. But did we hear Jesus suggesting that the new and arguably unprecedented violence of Roman conquerors justified the use of violence against them, even when the Romans were systematically employing torture, including crucifixion to keep their captive civilian populations under control? The Romans practiced state terrorism. We are told that the terrorism we are facing today is unprecedented because it is employed by non-state actors. Not so.

There were non-state terrorists at work in the time of Jesus too. In fact, one of the first reliably documented instances of terrorism occurred in the first century. A group of radicals know at The Sicarri were dedicated to inciting a revolt against Roman rule in Judea; they roamed the streets of the city and murdered their victims with daggers in broad daylight in the heart of Jerusalem, hoping to provoke the Roman authorities to escalate their violence, which in turn, would lead the people to support a violent insurrection.

There were those who urged Jesus to join the terrorist resistance against Roman occupation. But Jesus rejected that appeal, insisting: "Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword."

Jesus saw that the evils of violent occupation could not be defeated by returning like for like. "Return not evil for evil," he insisted. He, in fact, preferred to die at the hands of evil men than to take up arms against them. His prophecies concerning the futility of violent resistance proved correct when the Romans were eventually provoked into destroying the entire nation of Israel, driving its people from the land into a diaspora that lasted until modern times.

The words of Jesus on the futility of violence and his equally powerful teachings concerning the love of one's enemies inspired the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King in the last century. Were his words and deeds more vividly remembered today.

Instead, some contemporary, born again disciples of Jesus think that the traditional value of returning evil for evil trumps their Master's clear instructions and teaching. To be sure, there are arguments based upon strategic analysis of the world situation that suggest that the use of force is necessary to insure the security and survival of the nation. One can mount a convincing political argument in favor of employing violent forms of resistance against contemporary terrorists. But it is difficult to see how such arguments can be put forward in the name of Jesus Christ whose words and deeds are the world's most eloquent argument to the contrary.

Moreover, the torture that is prohibited by Article 3 of the Geneva Convention applies not to soldiers in combat, when one's own survival is threatened, but rather to the behavior that follows capture. Once a combatant has surrendered and no longer represents a threat to anyone, at precisely that point, arguments based upon practical considerations of safety and security take second place to a primary respect for the dignity of all persons, a principle recognized by all the civilized nations of the world and inscribed into such carefully wrought documents at the Geneva Convention.

In addition, one of the most powerful, practical arguments against the use of torture is that not all of those who are taken captive in combat situations are actually terrorist. The very practice of participating in an insurgency without uniforms and using civilian populations as cover make it all the more likely that our military will make mistakes. Thus, the contemporary tactics employed by terrorists make the provisions of the Geneva Convention all the more relevant. It is precisely owing to the nature of the present conflict that such rules are required, not to coddle the guilty, but to protect the innocent. The protection of innocent human life, I would have thought, would have been one value that the Traditional Values Coalition would not soon forget.

For the full text of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War

The full text of the TVC statement follows:

America´s New War Is With Faceless Enemy Who Attacks Unarmed and Innocent
President Seeks To Clarify Vagaries of 1950 Language

September 18, 2006 - Washington, DC -- The Traditional Values Coalition asked members of Congress to support President Bush's reform of prisoner treatment policies because "this is a war unlike any other we have fought -- the enemy is faceless and deliberately attacks the innocent."

TVC Chairman Rev. Louis P. Sheldon said American military and intelligence experts are hampered by a vague "outrages upon personal dignity" statement in Article Three of the Geneva Convention of 1950.

"We need to clarify this policy for treating detainees," said Rev. Sheldon. "As it stands right now, the military and intelligence experts interrogating these terrorists are in much greater danger than the terrorists. Civil suits against our military personnel are tying their hands as they try to get vital information which will save the lives of our young military people and the innocent."

"Our rules for interrogation need to catch-up with this awful new form of war that is being fought against all of us and the free world. The post -World War II standards do not apply to this new war.

"We must redefine how our lawful society treats those who have nothing but contempt for the law and rely on terrorizing the innocent to accomplish their objectives. The lines must be redrawn and then we must pursue these criminals as quickly and as aggressively as the law permits.

"And since this debate is, at its very core, about preserving the traditional value of prosecuting injustice and protecting the innocent, TVC will score this vote in both the House and the Senate. We encourage all of our supporters and affiliated churches to contact their elected representatives and let them know we support President Bush's efforts to update our methods of interrogating terrorist detainees in order to provide greater protection for our troops and the innocent."


Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2015).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2017).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.
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