May 11, 2009
— Martin E. Marty
Handicapped by distance from my sources, as I mentioned in last week's Sightings, and somehow not quick-witted or schooled effectively enough to google all the possibilities, I failed and "fell through," as pointed out by an astute reader, in last Monday's column on torture; now I want to follow through. David Neff of Christianity Today responded to last Monday's piece, and I would like to reprint his letter here, for the important points it raises, followed by my response to his response:
Normally I'm a big fan of your Sightings columns, but I need to write concerning this paragraph in your most recent offering:
"Where have the churches been on this subject? Most of them, through their leaders, are clearly on record against our using torture as an offense against human dignity, a contradiction of our nation's most cherished traditions, et cetera. A statement issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2006 and signed by leaders of many Orthodox and Protestant denominations was condemnatory. We hope that one day evangelical leadership will step forward. We may no longer justify the use of torture as a policy, but the soul-damaging effect of approving it remains."
In 2006 and 2007, Evangelical leadership engaged in a parallel exercise to that of the Catholic bishops and issued their own statement on torture. Peter Steinfels took note of it here (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/21/us/21beliefs.html). You can read the summary and the full statement at www.evangelicalsforhumanrights.org. Several of us who are involved at the board and executive committee level of the National Association of Evangelicals were among the drafters, and the NAE board's endorsement of the statement passed with no debate to speak of. The leaders of both our denominations and our parachurch organizations did not need to be persuaded.
It is unfortunately true that evangelicals in the pews (however the Pew folks identify them) are among the most likely to approve of the use of torture with suspected terrorists. But the evangelical leadership has been every bit as clear on this topic as the Catholic bishops.
Now, my response:
As you know, I have been in the camp of those who cheer whenever any "polled" part of the church is quickened on a subject of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God, and I've tried to give due notice to the evangelical company on such fronts. What bothered me even as I typed last Monday's piece was to have to say that it was "the leaders" who had spoken out on the issue, because obviously they have not roused the laity, nor has it been the wider membership of the churches that has prodded the leaders on the issue of torture. We expect some gap between pulpit and pew - which does not mean that "the pulpit" or the council of bishops or what have you is always right - but the silence on this issue remains disturbing.
One thing with which I disagreed in the announcement of the poll results I quoted last week was the notion that Christians had not learned the power and value of forgiveness in such issues. Many of the people who were subjected to torture are quite "unrepentant" and despicable people. What becomes clear, however, is that the zest for using such "extraordinary" means arises from the fact that the to-be-tortured are not "our kind of people," being Muslim or some other sort that is characterized as menacingly or demonically evil. But I've asked defenders of torture to picture their own son having been captured and now being tortured, and then to read, as in the official reports (mentioned in the New York Review of Books article), that it is happening to him. The rules of the game quickly change.
By the time people read this, I'll be back from Paris to "the real world" and my stacks of clippings, which will give me a wider angle of vision. In the meantime, the links you provide will give readers worthwhile information. Thanks so much for writing.
You can read David Neff's Christianity Today blog post on the issue of evangelicals and torture at: http://blog.christianitytoday.com/ctliveblog/archives/2009/05/evangelicals_an.html.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.