12/12/2014 06:30 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2015

Torture and the Killing of Jesus

In the 1950s and early 1960s, trend-setting comedian Lenny Bruce often said, "If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses."

Bruce was right that any device used to kill Jesus Christ in any age would have become a symbol of both divine judgment and divine deliverance to the faithful. What Bruce did not get right was his assumption that the cross of the first century was equal to the electric chair of the twentieth century, that both were meant only to execute. The truth is that the cross was a Roman tool of torture before it was a tool of death. It was meant to inflict such horrible suffering on a single man that an entire nation was made to cower.

This is a truth that ought to condition attitudes toward torture today, particularly among those who regard Jesus as God. It means that there is a direct connection between the events of that first Good Friday and the torture depicted in the recent film Zero Dark Thirty, that there is a line to be drawn between Guantanamo Bay and Golgotha, between the evils of Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria, and the evils of Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea.

In the Roman mind, crucifixion was an act of state terror. By the time of Jesus, the ancient world had already tried dealing with its undesirables by boiling them in oil, stoning them, strangling them, drowning them and setting them on fire. All of these brought on death too quickly. Officials wanted a method of killing that was slow and terrifying enough that no onlooker missed the implied threat. Crucifixion met this need.

The name reveals the purpose: cruciare-torture. In practice, it was simply death by impalement. In meaning, it was a statement of what rulers could do to anyone who resisted their will.

The Romans learned the art of crucifixion from the Greeks, improved upon it, and made it a tool of Empire. In answer to the slave revolt under Spartacus in 71 B.C., the Empire crucified six thousand rebels, famously lining the road from Rome to Capua with crosses. During the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the Romans crucified as many as 500 rebels a day.

Crucifixion was the perfect blend of death, vengeance, spectacle and terror. Victims took days to expire, sometimes as much as a week. Soldiers taunted and further tortured the dying, often driving stakes through body parts associated with the victim's crimes. Genitalia received special attention. Wildlife sometimes ate away at bodies before the mercy of death arrived.

Nearly alone against such horrors in the ancient world was the teaching of the Jews. Their law taught that men were made in the image of God and thus the human body was holy. This truth was the basis for prohibitions against murder, against cutting oneself in grief, even against tattoos. So great a matter was punishment by death that even after lawful executions, the dead were removed by sundown so that the land itself would not be desecrated.

The Romans had no such scruples and it is why sometime around 30 A.D. Jesus of Nazareth spent six hours gasping wide-eyed for breath while soldiers gambled for his clothes and crowds of onlookers urged him to get on with the business of dying. He was killed in a place so public that many who watched him die came upon him accidentally. This was all as Rome intended: a cruel death meant not merely to kill a man but to kill the spirit of a nation, to end not just a single Jew but the threat that any Jew might pose to the Empire.

We should see the ancient Roman zeal for crucifixion as one with its later zeal for the cruelties of the gladiators' games and, ultimately, as one with the hardening and barbarity of an entire people. Torture as martial technique led to torture as entertainment and eventually to torture as commonplace and nearly unremarkable. Nobility died in this progression, as did compassion, and, finally, the Empire itself.

It could very well be the same in our own time. While there is certainly a place for aggressive interrogation -- even deception and the intimidation of captives -- in the conduct of a just war, dehumanizing torture produces a dehumanized people, bitterness that endures for generations, and an undermining of the noble principles that may have at first given legitimacy to the conduct of war.

Those who worship Jesus -- the most famously tortured man in history -- ought to be the greatest opponents of the kind of tortures he endured. If their faith grows from the soil of the Jewish law and if they remember what their ancestors endured at the hand of Rome and a hundred other persecutors, they will stand against the similar violation of the image of God in man today.

Torture is not merely an issue of political left or right. It is not just an issue of military opinion versus civilian. It is an issue that grows from the nature of man, from the principled vision of a nation and from the highest of religious truth. There is no better time to assert this than during the Christmas season, a time in which we celebrate the life of Jesus. There is also no better time to assert this than the present moment in our nation's history, a time in which we hope to learn from the excesses of our recent wars and to live out, in Lincoln's hopeful phrase, "the better angels of our nature."