Accounting for Torture: 'What are our moral obligations as disciples of a tortured God?'

What does it mean to worship a tortured God? Many do not think of the crucifixion in the context of torture, but Christ was in fact tortured—in what would today be considered violations of the Geneva Conventions and Conventions on Torture. God became not just any human, but a person who was methodically tortured, stripped of his clothing, beaten by guards and forced into stress positions by the wood of the cross. Many of the methods used to torture Jesus were also used by U.S. forces at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and military bases in Guantánamo and Afghanistan.

The fact that Catholics worship a tortured God is not merely an academic point. Many other Christian communities do not use images of the crucifix, as they feel this memorializes Christ’s suffering and death rather than his resurrection. Over the years my students at The Catholic University of America and I have been questioned about this by Baptists while on service trips. Displaying a crucifix “is like wearing an electric chair around your neck,” one preacher told me.


Being disciples of a tortured God means that we must never be torturers, but must see in the image of Christ our solidarity with the powerless and marginalized, the victims of torture. We must see the fundamental dignity of human life, the face of God, even in suspected enemies, and treat them accordingly.

But what we remember at Sunday Mass and in Lenten Stations of the Cross we seem to forget in the public sphere. General Antonio Taguba, a lifelong Catholic and two-star army general, found in his Abu Ghraib investigation that U.S. forces, C.I.A. operatives and military contractors tortured prisoners by waterboarding, sodomy using sticks, stripping and beating them, sometimes to death. These were not the actions of “a few bad apples,” according to documents recently made public, but the result of policies written by President George W. Bush’s lawyers and approved by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Bush in an irregular process that avoided the military JAG lawyers (who were against such methods).

President Barack Obama issued executive orders to stop these practices, close Guantánamo and return to the previous U.S. practice of abiding by the Geneva and Torture Conventions. (Before the Bush administration, U.S. soldiers found waterboarding were court-martialed). Is this enough? With an agenda already crowded by economic meltdown and two wars, there is little appetite for “looking backward” into these issues.

But we may have to. U.S. and international laws commit us to investigate and prosecute such violations. Senior U.S. officials have admitted the practice of torture. If we do not pursue an investigation, other countries or the International Criminal Court will do so. There are practical reasons for an investigation: to restore U.S. legitimacy, credibility and reputation internationally; to rebuild the military’s institutional reputation and functioning; and to understand how the law was perverted and ignored, in order to prevent this from happening again.

U.S. torture practices have hit home. My sister, Theresa Cusimano, Sr. Diane Pinchot, the Rev. Luis Barrios, and others are currently in federal prison for participating in the peaceful annual protest of U.S. torture training at the School of the Americas that resulted in the suffering and murder of many in Latin America, including Jesuit priests. The call to Theresa’s conscience came from the photos of Abu Ghraib and the witness of a torture victim and a Jesuit colleague at Regis University in Denver, Colo. They advocate signing the online petition to President Obama to close the facility at Fort Benning, Ga., because of its history and urge passage of legislation to conduct an investigation.

General Taguba, now retired, also argues for accountability in remarks prepared for a conference at C.U.A. on March 19. General Taguba notes: “The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account. [Those tortured] deserve justice.... And so do the American people.”

What are our moral obligations as disciples of a tortured God? We must stand in solidarity with torture victims and ensure that our country will never go down this path again.

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10 years 5 months ago
In her theological and moral reflection, Maryann Cusimano Love (“Accounting for Torture,” 3/30) has “hit the mark.” We are disciples of a tortured God, and this means that we have strong moral obligations to never torture, to investigate and prosecute such violations, and to stand in solidarity with torture victims. However, she assumes too easily that President Obama has returned us to full compliance with the Geneva Conventions. Several realities challenge this assumption. President Obama decided not to extend habeas rights to detainees at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, so over 600 men continue to be held there illegally without charges or trial. At Guantánamo, instead of allowing independent human rights organizations to review conditions and the treatment of prisoners, President Obama curiously assigned this task to the Department of Defense—the department responsible for operating the facility. Should we trust the architects and perpetrators of torture to investigate themselves? And finally, the illegal and immoral practice of force-feeding continues under the Obama administration. Currently, there are at least 30 hunger striking prisoners at Guantánamo, 25 of which are being force-fed—a practice that “definitely amounted to torture” when reviewed by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 2006. One of these torture victims is Ahmed Zaid Salim Zuhair, a Saudi Arabian national who enters his eighth year at Guantánamo despite being cleared for release by the U.S. government in December 2008. In 2005, Zuhair began a hunger strike (that continues today) to protest his indefinite detention without charges or trial. As a result of being force-fed, Zuhair has experienced intense stomach pain, repeated vomiting, and the related side effect of chronic malnutrition. Lasting wounds have been inflicted on Ahmed Zuhair’s humanity. As disciples of a tortured God, how are we called to respond to this? Will our debates about accountability continue to exclusively focus on past abuses, national reputation and policy, or will we also address these present realities—with a special attentiveness to the victims’ stories and their demand for justice?
10 years 5 months ago
What is the URL for the online petition to President Obama to close the facility at Fort Benning, Ga?
Elaine Tannesen
10 years 5 months ago
Thank you for the timely and eloquent article. It was distressing to see that several comments on your previous article on torture focused on "what is torture?" (measured in how loud the screams of pain?! permanent disability?!)rather than a repudiation of its evil. In 2006 the International Red Cross accused the US of using torture on its prisoners. What was happening was not a clandestine irregular situation or even the excesses of those in power dealing with the powerless. It was the result of a public policy in an administration that many voted into power. We bear a level of accountability for the decisions of our elected officials. And we should bear a level of international shame for their actions. Those official responsible must be held to account so that we never again torture. From the black banners on the balconies of Washington DC condos to the church sign boards of Woodinville Washington are displayed the words "Torture Is Wrong".
Adilene Encinas
10 years 5 months ago
As a T.A. last year in Catholic Social Teaching class, I read an article entitled “Healing Torture’s Wounds” from America magazine. I had nothing else to do and the seniors and juniors in the class were reading it. I would enjoy listening to the discussion more if I read the article myself. What I read touched the depths of my heart. Hearing the stories of survivors of torture made me realize just how awful and inhumane any type of torture is. From that moment, I paid attention to others views on torture, whether on talk shows or from my classmates. Looking through the most recent issue of America, I found the article “Accounting for Torture.” After reading about the different methods of “deriving information” (I read in a chat room some responses that lead to my conclusion that torture will make a person going through it confess to any crime aka: The Inquisition) I thought to myself, “Where will this end?” Will we begin secretly torturing Americans to gain information we need for a murder. Or is it inhumane to torture our own people. We can sleep soundly at night knowing it is only people of another country, race, or religion. We as Christians must honor our call to stand up against this injustice. We must not stand idly around waiting for somebody else to fix the problem. It is our call to “Love our enemies (not just our friends) as ourselves.”


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