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Rev. Richard Cizik

Rev. Richard Cizik

Posted: July 6, 2010 05:06 PM

Can Christians Live with Torture?

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The findings are shocking: evidence of the involvement of U.S. military and intelligence health professionals in performing experiments, without consent, on detainees in the custody of the U.S. following September 2001.

A report released this month by Physicians for Human Rights details cruel and degrading treatment of detainees that every person of faith should find deeply disturbing. Religious leaders of many faiths, representing the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, have come together to urge the government to create a Commission of Inquiry to investigate these charges and all U.S. torture practices for the last decade and to recommend safeguards to assure that torture will never happen again.

To the Christian, torture is always wrong. The alarming acts of human experimentation alleged in the report clearly and egregiously violate the Christian tenet that every human life is sacred. The sanctity and value of human life is a core theological conviction, one that appears throughout the Scripture.

As Evangelical Christians, our recognition of this moral dignity is fundamental and non-negotiable, even in times of conflict and war. We simply cannot say we are for the sanctity of human life while simultaneously denying those God-given rights as we experiment on human beings through the use of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and other "enhanced" interrogation techniques.

But torture is not an abstract issue. To truly understand the gravity of these heinous offenses against the sanctity of human life and what response they require from people of faith, we sometimes need to hear the real-life stories.

Consider that of a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay who was deprived of sleep for more than 55 days, often doused with water or blasted with cold air to keep him awake. After weeks spent in delirious, shivering wakefulness, gravely ill from hypothermia, medical officers who had pledged to obey an ethical code that explicitly instructs them to "do no harm" strapped him to a chair, pumped him full of saline, brought him back from death -- and then sent him back to his interrogators.

Stories like this one are just the tip of the iceberg, gleaned from hundreds of cases in which individual lives have been damaged in cruel efforts to get information. If true, they evidence government participation in illegal, immoral experimentation that not only violates our Christian values but also clearly breaches federal law, including the War Crimes Act and regulations governing human subject research known as the "Common Rule." Such interrogation tactics also violate the legal and ethical protections afforded by international laws such as the Nuremburg Code and the Geneva Conventions, which govern research ethics principles for human experimentation and humanitarian treatment of prisoners. The act of turning detainees into research subjects in order to refine our torture techniques is so odious that it compels us to cry out for an investigation to determine whether war crimes or crimes against humanity have indeed been committed.

Yet another chilling story about the impact of torture hits even closer to home. Twenty-seven-year-old Alyssa Peterson, a devout Mormon, was one of the first female U.S. casualties in Iraq. Alyssa didn't die from enemy fire -- she committed suicide just days after refusing to continue to participate in the brutal interrogation techniques being used on naked detainees. The official probe of her death stated, "She did not know how to be two people; she ... could not be one person in the cage and another outside the wire."

Just as Alyssa Peterson couldn't be two people, we can't be two nations. We can't be a nation of laws that respects human dignity and a nation that sanctions torture.

Our religious principles, as Evangelical Christians, oblige us to oppose policies and practices that violate our religious values and our national ideals. It is our sad but necessary duty to call upon President Obama and Congress to establish a Commission of Inquiry to undertake a comprehensive investigation into the government's use of torture, including its use in medical experiments on detainees. Like all civilized countries, the U.S. is obligated to hold itself accountable under the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

All people of faith -- but especially Evangelical Christians -- understand there is such a thing as the spiritual health of a nation. If America is, as Alexis de Tocqueville once said, "a nation with the soul of a church," then it is absolutely essential that we exorcise torture and other experimental abuse from our souls and make amends by pursuing the steps required to ensure that U.S.-sponsored torture will never, ever, again be sanctioned or practiced.