What did you learn about torture growing up in the church? Thinking back, I recall that going to church involved a lot of sitting still and being quiet. I did not like to sit still nor did I like being quiet. I cannot remember if I described the sitting still and being quiet as torture, but I might have.
When it was time to sing a hymn, you got to stand up, but you still could not move around. All you could do was sing the hymn. I am pretty sure that whoever was standing next to me while I was singing would have described that as torture.
Early in the history of the church, Saul, soon to be Paul, watches one the first deacons of the church, Stephen, be stoned to death. Until his conversion, Saul continues to torment followers of Jesus, dragging them out of their homes and imprisoning them. Then, on the road to Damascus, he encounters Jesus. Jesus asks Saul a question, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul answers the question with a question, “Who are you, Lord?” Jesus says, “I am the one whom you are persecuting.”
Saul could have answered Jesus’ question in a different way. He could have given some explanation for why he was devoting himself to the persecution of Christians. Surely, he felt that his attitudes and actions toward those he was persecuting were right and justified. He did not attempt such an explanation. He was converted. He had encountered Jesus and he was changed.
As Paul, he would be whipped, stoned and imprisoned because of his conversion and faithfulness in following Christ. In choosing Jesus, he stopped being the persecutor and became the persecuted. That is generally the picture in the New Testament. Torture happens, but its something that the bad guys do to the good guys. It is not something the good guys do to the bad guys.
Torture has become one of those issues about which people hold differing opinions. In April, the Pew Research Center released the findings of a survey that indicated that 49 percent of Americans think that torture can either often or sometimes be justified. At the same time the survey indicated that 47 percent of Americans think that torture can rarely or never be justified. That is a pretty even division of the country on the question of torture.
The numbers change significantly when asked against the backdrop of religious preference. Among white evangelical Protestants, which would be the broad category into which we Baptists would fall, 62 percent think that torture can sometimes or often be justified. Among people who attend church at least weekly, 54 percent feel the same way.
We know that Jesus taught his followers to love their enemies and pray for those that persecute them. We know that he redefined the notion of neighbor in radically inclusive terms and identified loving neighbor as an action essential to following him. We know that he urged his followers to treat other people the way they want other people to treat them. The question arises as to what difference it makes that we know what Jesus taught?
How is it that those who gather to worship him and energetically profess to believe in him and his teachings are more likely to approve of torture than someone who does not believe in him or profess to follow him? Evidently, the church has forgotten Jesus’ admonition to be in the world, but not of the world. Rather than being transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we might discern what the will of God is, we are increasingly conformed to this world.
There are a host of questions that go with this debate. Is torture effective? How often does it achieve the desired results? How often has it saved the lives of innocent people? These questions are answered in a variety of ways by people who should be qualified to answer such questions. Yet, for every answer there always seems to be someone who will argue in the other direction.
An important question for those of us who desire to be faithful followers of Christ is what happens to those who administer the torture and to those who approve of it? How are we changed by accepting and endorsing an activity that seems so contrary to the Christ who himself was tortured so that we might be set free from the power of sin and death? Are we being more faithful to our fears than we are to Christ?
Paul, writing to the church at Galatia says, “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” Torture seems to be a seed best left unplanted. Yet, having already sprouted and taken root, it cannot bear but a bitter harvest. May God’s grace be sufficient for the coming harvest.
Ed Sunday-Winters is senior pastor of Ball Camp Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn. He blogs at Just Words.
Ed Sunday-Winters is pastor of Greensboro United Church of Christ in Greensboro, Vermont.