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.