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The Cost of Compassion: Why Churches Turn Their Backs on Torture Victims

When compassion becomes politically inconvenient, churches turn their backs.

Demonstrator from an anti-torture vigil, May, 2010. (Photo: Justin Norman)

The beginning of February, US senator Tom Cotton – a professed Christian – said that, despite the majority of Guantánamo detainees being cleared for release, he believes they should “rot in hell.”

It’s a statement both forthrightly ignorant and vicious – and for those reasons more informed Christians will likely be quick to decry it. But in my experience, blunt statements of hatred have been the least of the church’s ongoing flaws when addressing (or more often not addressing) the problem of Guantánamo.

When compassion becomes inconvenient, Christians often desert Christ.

Six years ago, my friend Kirk and I visited over 100 churches, offering to give a free presentation about two unjustly held Guantánamo detainees, and it was only at the tail end of our journey that someone was finally straightforward with us.: “I agree that Guantánamo should be closed, but if I allow you to say that to my congregation, we will lose attendance.”

The sad-eyed man was the pastor of a relatively small congregation in rural Iowa. I remember our conversation being polite, friendly and to the point, but ultimately unhelpful. At the end of our multi-month campaign, fewer than 10 out of more than 100-plus churches agreed to let us give the presentation – a result that ultimately led both Kirk and I to drift away from our own churches in the wake of a harsh realization: When compassion becomes inconvenient, Christians often desert Christ.

Back in 2009, Kirk and I had only recently become aware that the United States not only had a history of torturing and indefinitely detaining people, but that it was currently continuing to do so. With our taxpayer dollars on the hook, we understood we were monetarily connected to those horrors, and being Christians, we turned to the people we thought most likely to help tackle the issue: our fellow Christians.

We knew that without the same knowledge of the issue that we had, the idea of giving a presentation about Guantánamo might initially seem controversial to churches, so we tried to compact that information into as innocuous a format as possible. Although our Christian-rooted beliefs dictated that no one – guilty or innocent – should be tortured, we would focus on the stories of only prisoners who were cleared for release. In particular, we would tell the stories of two men. One, a London gourmet chef named Ahmed Errachidi, had already been sent home after the military dropped allegations that he was an al-Qaeda general, and the other, a man named Dilawar, had been declared innocent after being tortured to death while detained at Bagram – a crime for which the involved guards had already been (lightly) punished.

The tradition of abandoning the cause of loving one’s neighbor as oneself is at least as old as the torture of Jesus himself.

We would give the presentation for free, encouraging attendees to pray for still-held detainees and write them letters. To do this, we asked each church for two things: a time and place in their building to give the presentation, and an announcement of the event in the Sunday service. Pastors would be welcome to review the full text of the presentation beforehand, in case they wanted to talk about any concerns.

As it turned out, few people wanted to discuss much of anything regarding torture or Guantánamo. Most of the time we were given a response of: “We’ll get back to you,” after which our followup calls and voice messages were ignored. Sometimes, we were ordered out of the building by fuming staffers, one of whom denied us the business card of a pastor from a plainly visible display stand.

In retrospect, this should not have been surprising. The tradition of abandoning the cause of loving one’s neighbor as oneself is at least as old as the torture of Jesus himself. After being unjustly arrested and turned over to an occupying military force to be beaten, flogged and crucified, his disciples fled, and even his most passionate ally, Peter, denied knowing him. But the disciples’ cowardice is certainly understandable when compared with the modern church’s abandonment of torture victims: Back then, had the disciples spoken up, they would have faced torture themselves, but today, the cost of compassion is relatively small – a bit of social tension when dealing with the blind hatred of people like Cotton, who refuse to acknowledge the government has cleared the majority of those held in Guantánamo, and, in the case that some of those people are church congregants, a possible drop in attendance – thus puncturing the church’s wallet.

But by the time anyone fessed up to their monetary temptations, we’d already listened to a whole fleet of church staffers who offered an array of excuses, the bulk of which can be distilled into four defenses:

1. “There Are Social Issues Far Less Grim Waiting to Be Addressed”

The first of these arguments posits that church members don’t have the stomach to deal with torture and have no reason to do so when they could be assembling care packages for the homeless, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or offering assistance to newly arrived refugees. After all, there are only so many issues one can dedicate oneself to working on, so why not pick the ones that are least controversial and most likely to gain the approval of onlookers?

As usual, the answer lies in Jesus’ own life – in the stories told so repeatedly in churches that they lose all the shock of their initial controversy. While Christ could have settled for a nonstop run of crowd-pleasing miracles, like turning water to wine and healing the blind, lame, and sick, he was not satisfied to leave the socially scorned to the will of legal authorities. As one example unfolds, you can almost hear the disciples pleading with him to find a less stomach-churning activity than attending a stoning: “You know there are still more cripples to heal, right?”

By physically halting an adulterer’s brutal execution, Jesus tosses the crowd’s goodwill out the window to defend one of the types of people they most loathe. In that case, it was a promiscuous woman.

Today, it might be difficult to find a person the American public hates enough to pelt to death with stones, but murderers, rapists and pedophiles might be appealing targets. Guantánamo detainees, on the other hand, have almost unanimously never been charged with a crime – yet vocally defending them somehow feels less palatable to many Christians than forcibly terminating a convicted criminal’s death sentence.

That churches would place the defense of innocent men from torture so low on their priority list seems absurd, but when it comes to the word “Guantánamo,” the leaders nonetheless seem hell-bent on turning their congregations back to Christianity’s greatest humanitarian hits – the good deeds that, like turning water to wine, aren’t likely to stir up as much trouble: feeding the homeless, supporting missionaries, and helping the needy in local communities.

All of those activities are unquestionably good, but turning away when the subject matter becomes unpleasant ignores an entire group of victims just as much in need of support as the woman Jesus saved from a gory death.

2. “The Issue Is Political and Therefore Outside the Church’s Territory”

Despite the fact that many churches house an American flag in the sanctuary and even vocally support their members when they’re recruited to kill whomever the government has most recently dubbed an enemy, a good number of the leaders we spoke with brought up this point repeatedly: Guantánamo is a political issue. Democrats generally want it closed, and Republicans typically want it open. The church doesn’t tell people how to vote, so it isn’t going put its stamp of approval on an opinion that could be perceived as implicitly favoring either party. This dubious reasoning lacks the imagination to find a third option, which the church readily uses to justify taking an active stance on other political issues like abortion: an active compassion that cuts through party lines.

The problem with Guantánamo is that some of the people partaking in torture and indefinite detention have stated they are Christians.

Jesus himself repeatedly subverted the political authorities of his day. By publicly insulting the Pharisees and Sadducees to their faces and claiming to be a higher power, he destroyed the illusion of their worldly control that caused the average citizen to fear them. With love for one’s neighbor considered the highest commandment, concern for laws and the people who value them were cast aside when necessary, as in the case of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. Even though this and other acts of compassionate rebellion proved so politically unpopular that the two ruling parties finally set aside their differences to torture him to death, Jesus continued to place his priorities higher than their approval.

Of course, modern torture victims and those who advocate for them aren’t asking for a response nearly as extreme and dangerous as Jesus’ political antics. No one’s trying to recruit Christians to chase money changers out of a temple with whips or ride a donkey in a gleeful parody of military parades. It’s OK. Risking execution may not be everyone’s style. But writing to detainees, praying for their families, and combating the blind hatred of innocent men by speaking publicly about the issue doesn’t seem like too much to ask for.

3. “The Victims in Question Are Muslim”

It pains me that I even feel the need to address the idea that victims should be ignored because of their religion, yet time and again church leaders asked us questions like, “Why aren’t you focusing on Christians who are being tortured overseas?”

It’s the sort of question that recalls another one from long ago: “Who is my neighbor?” In response to the man’s query, Jesus told a story in which a beaten traveler is ignored by both a priest and a Levite, only to be saved through the caring act of a man Jesus’ Jewish audience would have despised: a Samaritan. Yet, the Samaritan asks no questions about the dying man’s religion or background, and thereby defines the person Christians should love as themselves: any person in need.

Churches love overseas issues because in those cases, more often than not, Christians aren’t the villains. The problem with Guantánamo is that some of the people partaking in torture and indefinite detention have stated they are Christians. That’s not surprising given that many churches’ avoid-controversy-at-all-costs policy means never telling kids that loving their neighbors and enemies may be impossible to do while also killing them.

Torture victims beyond Guantánamo are undoubtedly important regardless of religion, but one might easily argue that those church campaigns against the torture of Christians would go over better if Christians weren’t actively working up a reputation for torturing people back at home in the United States and its Cuban detention center.

4. “There Is No Hands-On Solution for Guantánamo”

On the surface, this feels like a legitimate critique because it’s impossible to put ourselves between the torturers and their victims. So what’s the point of listening to really depressing stories about some of the worst subject matter imaginable if, in the end, the average churchgoer can do nothing to stop it?

While the act of Eucharist both remembers and re-members the body of Christ by bringing followers together through the breaking of bread, torture dismembers both the bodies of its direct victims, and the larger social bodies they comprise.

The question assumes inevitable defeat from the start and activates the church’s endlessly utilized selective memory. When faced with a seemingly impossible issue, which successful tactics a church remembers depend on what that issue is. Although public protests have a long history of causing tangible change in the United States, many Christians I’ve met hate protests because they’re “impolite,” openly “judgmental,” and supposedly ineffective. These objections could easily have been leveled at Jesus when he called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” and when Stephen the martyr verbally tore a crowd of religious leaders to shreds just before being executed. Churches forget about these fear-obliterating acts of courage, because remembering them would reveal Christ’s call to follow suit when necessary.

Even as popular films like Selma remind us of successful marches and demonstrations, Christians often shun these tactics as a waste of time, even while praising their resulting victories on screen. The only times the church at large seems to remember the efficacy of public demonstrations are antiabortion rallies, antigay rights rallies, and foreign atrocity-focused, awareness-raising campaigns like Kony 2012.

Theologian William Cavanaugh writes in his book Torture and Eucharist that one of the reasons Christians ought to care about torture is that it is an inversion of one of our most central traditions. While the act of Eucharist both remembers and re-members the body of Christ by bringing followers together through the breaking of bread, torture dismembers both the bodies of its direct victims, and the larger social bodies they comprise.

He writes of a public demonstration in Chile against the Pinochet regime in the 1980s: “In an astonishing ritual transformation, clandestine torture centers are revealed to the passersby for what they are, as if a veil covering the building were abruptly taken away. The complicity of other sectors of the government and society is laid bare for all to see. The entire torture system suddenly appears on a city street . . . The spell of fear cast by invisibility is broken, at least temporarily (Pages 274-275).”

Beyond those benefits to the general public, demonstrations also bring comfort to the victims themselves through the knowledge that they are not forgotten. We know this because they’ve told us. Even so, when visiting all those churches, Kirk and I understood that asking for participation in public vigils would garner few participants, so we offered easier options: pray for the victims, write them letters, and think of other creative ways to get involved. The only thing we insisted on was that Christians not remain silent in the face of torture.

Alas, it took many weeks of writing, traveling and dealing with countless iterations of the preceding arguments only to have somebody finally drop all the excuses and just say what so many were undoubtedly thinking: “I agree that Guantánamo should be closed, but if I allow you to speak to my congregation, we will lose attendance.” The honest rationale for not following Jesus all the way to the cross is the same today as it was before: The gods of purported safety, money and popularity are ultimately more appealing.

It’s easy to be compassionate when the cause is personally beneficial. A church and its individuals can reap nothing but praise for calling other countries to act decently. But so long as today’s congregations cowardly turn their backs in the face of controversial issues at home, today’s “least of these” – Jesus in the flesh – will continue to hang on crosses at Guantánamo, while Christ’s disciples remain mostly absent, having fled the scene just as they did in Jerusalem so many years ago.

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