In 2004, many Christians poured into movie theaters to watch a film that focused almost entirely on a interpretive retelling of the torture of Jesus at the hands of the Roman government. Flash forward to 2009 and surveys seem to suggest that a majority of American Christians think the use of torture by their own government is acceptable practice. How are we called as followers of Jesus to respond to the issue of state-sponsored torture, particularly when done at the hands of our own government? How do we engage our youth in discussion around this important moral issue?
OPENING UP: Set the tone for this discussion by gathering some images (via the internet or news magazines) related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 9-11 attacks, and the Abu Ghraib prison. Display the images around the room, on the floor, or pass them out among the youth. Invite youth to share what words come to mind as they look at the various images.
Many youth will be familiar with the popular TV show “24.” In the last several years, “24” has become part of the torture debate. Its lead character, Jack Bauer, employs the use of torture in almost every episode in order to coerce a confession or needed information from terrorists. Show a clip like the one above from “24” and invite responses: How would you describe Jack Bauer’s character? What do you think of his actions in this scene? Would you view his actions differently if you had more of the context for his motivations? Why do you think that torture is often included as part of the plot in current TV shows and films (e.g. the “Hostel” and “Saw” movie franchises)?
REFLECTING: Share with the group the recent findings of a Pew Research survey which asked people of faith: “Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?” Results show that the more often Americans attend worship, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists. According to the survey, over half (54%) of those who attend worship services weekly reported that the torture of suspected terrorists was “often” or “sometimes” justified. Interestingly, the findings were different for those who seldom or never go to worship with only 42% of those individuals feeling torture was often or sometimes justified. Which group in the survey was most likely to believe torture is justified? White evangelical protestants. See here for a graphical depiction of the survey results to share with your group.
Invite youth to respond to the findings of this survey. Ask them to stand and position themselves on an imaginary line across the room, designating different points along the line as “often” “sometimes” “rarely” or “never.” Pose the question from the survey and invite each person to place themselves somewhere on the continuum. Follow up by seeing if they might change their position on the continuum by asking: “Would your answer differ depending on the identity of the person being tortured? Where would you be standing if the person to be tortured was a terrorist/ woman/ child/ a personal friend/ family member?” Other possible questions for reflection: What, if anything, surprises you about the findings of the survey? What might be the reason for the results the researchers gathered? Do you think there is a correct response on this issue for Christians? What might it be, in your opinion?
DIGGING IN: Explore some biblical texts related to this topic:
Genesis1:27 depicts all peoples as made in the image of God. What does this mean to you? If we abuse, torture, or denigrate another person, what effect, if any, do you think this has on God? Do you believe all people are made in the image of God? If not, who are the exceptions? If so, what does that say about how we are to treat others?
Luke 6:27-36 and Matthew 5: 44-45 speak of loving one’s enemies and doing good even to those who hurt us. Some argue that this only applies to personal relationships, not to countries. What do you think? What might these passages have to say to us about how we treat enemies during times of war? How do you see these passages providing any guidance to Christians on the possible use of torture?
John 11: 49-50 depicts the Jewish high priest Caiaphas declaring that it is better for one man to die than to destroy a whole nation. One argument for the justification of torture is that it may stop a "ticking time bomb" in which one piece of information might be able to stop the imminent death of thousands. What do you think? Can you justify the torture of one if it saves the lives of many? What conditions would you place on such a justification? Would it be okay to be 50% certain the person was guilty or would you want 100% certainty before allowing torture or would none of this matter to you?
Mark 15:15-37 describes the abuse, torture, and execution of Jesus at the hands of the Romans. Jesus was seen as an insurgent by the Roman empire, a political enemy of the state. He was legally tortured and executed by a recognized government. For Christians who follow a man who was tortured by a lawful government for presumed crimes against the state, what should be our response when our own government uses what they term "enhanced interrogation techniques" against suspected enemies? How do you imagine Jesus himself responding to the torturing of another person? How do you understand the idea of peace that Jesus speaks of in the gospels? How do you react to the argument that sometimes that peace is only possible through violence? As a Christian, what is your response to the issue of torture?
For more useful resources, see here.
Additional information: How do we define torture: This is the definition from the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1984:
--BrianFor the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions. The U.N. Convention said that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”