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Elizabeth A. JohnsonFebruary 26, 2007

There once was a prisoner, seen as a threat to the state, who was tortured while being held in prison. The story of his torment, which comes to us in four versions, starts with his arrest and interrogation before officials and ends with his being put to death. But between these events open to the public we glimpse, in snippets of phrases, how he was hurt and humiliated as a prisoner. To appreciate the significance of this story, let us place it in a larger context.

In our day the practice of torture is illegal by international law. According to the Geneva Conventions, prisoners must be treated in a way that respects the integrity of their body, as befits human persons. Torture is also immoral, transgressing ethical standards of right behavior on the part of those who inflict the pain. These moral norms took centuries to develop. For a long time the church itself used torture as a punishment or a means of extracting information until, as with slavery, both church and society came to see the practice as gravely wrong. The atrocity of torture is inhumane to an intense degree, violating the basic human rights of the victim while at the same time tearing the moral fabric of the society that condones it.

Our nation now practices torture. In recent years the U.S. government has drawn up a blueprint, approved it and authorized it for use. The venues differ. From the clandestine network of so-called “black sites,” admittedly run by the Central Intelligence Agency, to established detention facilities and military prisons, to places in other countries to which we ingeniously outsource torture after we secretly transport detainees there, the practice is state-sponsored. Official sanction allows the practice to trickle down to the lowest ranks of the military. We have seen the photographs. Yet there is little sustained criticism from the public, people being intent on the daily pressures of their own lives. We look the other way.

For Christians, called to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and our neighbor as ourselves, there is another dimension to the practice of torture. Besides its illegal, immoral and inhumane character, torture is profoundly irreligious. Slow, prayerful meditation on the treatment of the one prisoner mentioned above brings this to light.

Between his public hearing before officials and his very public death, this is what happened while he was in custody:

Then they spat in his face
and they struck him.
• Some slapped him, saying,
“Prophesy for us, Messiah: who is
it that struck you?”
• [The governor] had him scourged.


Then the soldiers of the governor took him inside the praetorium and gathered the whole cohort around him:

They stripped off his clothes.
• Weaving a crown out of thorns,
they placed it on his head.
• Kneeling before him they mocked him.
• They spat upon him.
• They took the reed and kept on striking him on the head.
• And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the cloak, dressed him in his own clothes, and led him off to crucify him.


That is Matthew’s account. To this scene of soldiers having cruel sport, Mark adds another scene of earlier abuse at a hearing before the elders:

Some began to spit on him.
They blindfolded him and struck him and said to him,
And the guards greeted him with blows.


Luke’s version includes an extra scene where the prisoner is sent off by the Roman governor to the Jewish king:

Herod and his soldiers treated him contemptuously.
They mocked him.


Following this, Pilate decides to have him flogged, beaten to a pulp. Then,

He handed Jesus over to them to deal with as they wished.

The story as told by Matthew and Mark gives some idea of what this entailed. In John’s recounting, the prisoner is hit while under interrogation:

When he had said this, one of the temple guards standing there struck Jesus.

The scene then unfolds as we have come to dread:

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him scourged. And the soldiers wove a crown out of thorns and placed it on his head, and clothed him in a purple cloak, and they came to him and said, ‘Hail, King of the Jews,’ and they struck him repeatedly.

After some more ineffectual maneuvering, Pilate yields:

Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.

Christ’s Solidarity With Each Person in Need

The deep Christological connection between the abuse of this prisoner and the torture sanctioned by the U.S. government today was underscored by Pope John Paul II’s teaching in his first encyclical, Redeemer of the Human Race (Redemptor Hominis). There the pope interpreted the meaning of Christ in a traditional but clarifying way: “By his Incarnation, he, the Son of God, in a certain way united himself with each human being.” Consequently, though we are disfigured by sin, “human nature has been raised in us to a dignity beyond compare.” When we grasp this redeeming truth, we are filled with “deep wonder at ourselves” and “deep amazement at the worth and dignity of every human person.”

The pope declares that this dignity is the basis for vigorous care for human rights. When these rights are violated, Christ again is personally involved. The encyclical underscores this teaching in a series of rhetorical questions: In the course of so many centuries, of so many generations, is it not Jesus Christ himself who has made an appearance at the side of people judged for the sake of the truth? And has he not gone to death with people condemned for the sake of the truth? Does he ever cease to be the continuous spokesman and advocate for such persons?

The answer comes to light in a well-known parable told by Jesus while he was still alive and well. As recounted in Matthew 25, the scene is Judgment Day, when the sheep and the goats will be separated, the former to inherit the kingdom, the latter to depart into eternal fire. The criterion of judgment is treatment of one’s neighbor, who by turns may be hungry, thirsty, without shelter, naked, sick or in prison. Note the inclusion of those in prison. Meeting the needs of the neighbor in prison receives a startling word of praise and appreciation: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me” (verse 40). Not caring for the prisoner is tantamount to scorning Christ: “What you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me” (verse 45).

There is no mention in this parable of abuse, only beneficial activity or neglect. But the point of the parable, Christ’s solidarity with the person in need, extends beyond the two scenarios to situations of actual mistreatment of the neighbor in distress.

As the church meditates on the passion of Jesus during Lent, the torture of prisoners by U.S.-approved methods (“coercive interrogation”) should not be far from our minds. It is still being done in our name, to enhance national security. Apart from the debate over whether torture is “effective” or not, Christ’s words, amplified by his own graphic suffering, mandate an end to this reprehensible brutality: “You did it to me.”

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17 years 1 month ago
The article by Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J. struck a note that caused me to reflect on our Church. I consider abuse of children as torture; innocent souls being destroyed by marauding clerics. If the term Church Hiearchy was substituted for "American Government", most of the concerns listed in the article by Sister Johnson could apply. She notes that "torture is also immoral, tranggressing ethical standards of right behavior on the part of those who inflict the pain". Below she notes that "church and society came to see the practice (of torture) as gravely wrong". She further notes that "Official sanction allowed the practice to trickle down", much as it has in our church. She notes that the practice is socially wrong and, "morally irreligious". Further she notes, Pope Paul II's teaching that human nature has been raised to a dignity beyond compare and this fact fills us with deep amazement at the worth and dignity of every human person which is the basis for vigorous care for human rights. Has our church adherred to these principles? Have we protected our human children and cared for their human rights? I'm pleased that the writers of articles in America address the social justice issues for our nation and our world. I just wish some would address concerns for the same values that should be beacons of example within our church but unfortunately, are dimmed by the failings of our church.

Ed Wade Gloucester, MA

17 years 1 month ago
Sister Elizabeth Johnson is arguably our greatest theologian so it is noteworthy when she turns her attention to torture while American priests and bishops have mostly been silent. When the Pinochet regime's torture was going on in Chile, the bishops spoke out and put a stop to it. Why not here?

17 years 1 month ago
I'm very grateful to Prof. Elizabeth A.Johnson,C.S.J. for connecting the Scriptural account of Jesus' passion with the known facts of the torture practices of our own Nation. Jesus knew about the torture practices of his day [Matt 18:34]. But he didn't condemn them explicitly. Do we condemn them because of our Church's teachings, or because of Jesus' teaching: "Whatever you do to the least..." as Prof.Johnson graphically explains.

I am passionately ashamed of my country allowing such activity by our armed service personnel. It's worse than pornography, which is so vigorously prosecuted in civil law. And we can't escape condemnation by sneaking prisoners into other countries to be tortured.

Perhaps the 11 Catholic members of Congress who may run for president could take some appropriate action to rescind U.S.-approved methods of "coercive interrogation." Get rid of this unChristian,unAmerican, inhuman behavior.

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