What’s more shocking? Torture or love?

In an interview this weekend regarding the CIA torture report released on December 9, when queried about the report and the treatment of an alleged terrorist, former vice president Dick Cheney facetiously asked, “What are we supposed to do? Kiss him on both cheeks?”

That kind of response doesn’t surprise me, but it does give me cause as a Christian to stop and think deeper about a few issues.

  1. I am not shocked by people who think that torture is a legitimate means of protecting our country. I’m never surprised when those who are not followers of Christ do not have the same values as me, though I am saddened, especially when those who do claim to follow Christ choose violent means to coerce others. Violence is often the first instinct of self-preservation, so acting in a way that promotes peace can look very subversive and countercultural, and it certainly can be interpreted as anti-patriotic.
  2. I have nontraditional values which at times seem to conflict with American values due to my faith tradition. My people were hunted, persecuted and tortured during the Reformation, because they, in part, wouldn’t take up arms against the Turks who were attacking the state and the church. These Anabaptists held adult voluntary confession of faith and love of enemies as key precepts. Their position was a result of their evangelistic fervor: they would rather stand in opposition to so-called “Christians” who used violence than take the lives of those who truly were not Christian. My tradition considers discipleship and the imitation of Jesus’ life very seriously, particularly those teachings found in The Beatitudes (Matthew 5-7). In some things, I fit a little more closely and in harmony with Christ. Loving my enemy is one of his practices and commands that I try to emulate. On other issues, I no doubt fall very short.
  3. The irony of Cheney’s “kiss him on both cheeks” question is that Jesus prescribed almost that exact scenario. In his day, his tribe, the Jews, were oppressed by an occupying Roman force that often treated them harshly and unjustly. It’s in that context that Jesus told his followers to turn the other cheek, offer up their extra coat and walk a second mile. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44). Jesus also said that it’s not much good to simply love those who love you. The real test of character–and the real force for change–comes in loving those who won’t return the love.
  4. The Jesus-story is startling if considered in the current debate on torture. Jesus himself was tortured, brutalized and killed as a terrorist of the state. Through it all he maintained a standard of peace and asked his followers to do the same. In this way, the world would know the light, witness and foretaste of his kingdom, one that isn’t located in a territory or nation-state like Caesar’s.

The baby of Christmas was illegitimate, undocumented and born into a world of poverty and political violence. His life was a display of selflessness and care for others, even those who tormented him. If his life is something more than an abstract ideal (i.e. that’s the way Jesus lived but we don’t have to), then I have to take seriously his way of peace and believe that it can be a way for the 21st century as well. And that’s probably the most shocking practice of all.