Last week the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life released poll data revealing the relationships between religious commitment and support for the use of torture against terror suspects. Those who rarely attend religious services are the least likely to support torture. The more one attends religious service, the greater the level of support. And white evangelical Protestants offered the greatest amount of support for torture with a majority (62%) of respondents believing that torture can at least sometimes be justified.
I am sickened but not terribly shocked.
This glib view of the brutality and inhumanity of torture is bound up in a particular strand of American Christian theology that’s been a growing force for over a century.
Muscular Christianity in America has minimized the vice of torture and extolled the virtue of the Heroic One who endures for a greater cause. The crucified body of Jesus is held up as a paragon of strength, virtue and virility.
This is true not because Jesus offered an alternative conception of society where the first shall be last or the last shall be first. Not because Jesus found virtue rather than vice in the “least of these” among us. And not because Jesus inverted assumptions about authority by his willingness to humbly wash the feet of those who would otherwise worship him.
Rather, Jesus is a moral exemplar because “he was wounded for our transgressions, by his wounds we are healed, and by his blood we are made whole.” Jesus is worshiped as the ultimate “strong man” who could overcome the pain and sting of death for the sake of righteousness. The horror of inflicted suffering is theologically interpreted as an efficient cause toward bringing forth the greater good and thus torture becomes divinely utilitarian.
Is it a wonder why, then, on Sunday morning it is often hard to tell the difference between Jesus and Jack Bauer on Fox’s megahit “24?” Like a long list of American messianic masculine archetypes (John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Mel Gibson), Jesus is situated in this tradition of bulletproof heroes who mock the machinations of torture.
What is more, like Jack Bauer, anyone who is willing to endure torture for others is that much more justified in dishing it out. And, unfortunately, since muscular evangelicals so identify with the mutilated body of Jesus who “suffered for the sins of the world,” it is only right that they, too, would condone the suffering of others in order to purge our world of “evil.”