Now the men who were holding Jesus began to mock him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and kept asking him, ‘Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?’ (Luke 22:63-64)
All four of the Christian gospels agree that Jesus was tortured before his death. They all speak of him being beaten, whipped and humiliated. It is a subject that has been depicted on numerous occasions in Christian art and, in some parts of the world, is still recreated or imitated as part of the rites to mark Holy Week. This degrading treatment of Jesus – whom Christians believe to be God made flesh – preceded a death that was itself a form of torture: crucifixion. It was a death that was designed to be as painful and protracted as possible, not only to punish the victim but to serve as an example to others.
As someone who aspires to follow Jesus Christ, I utterly reject all forms of torture. Whatever our theological understanding of why Jesus had to suffer and die on the cross, the story of Christ’s passion serves as the ultimate example of the sinfulness of humanity and as an example to us all. It is a story of men and women who falsely believed that they had ultimate power over life and death, and had the right to treat another human being with contempt and brutality. If we truly believe that human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), then when we torture or mistreat them, we are torturing a body that contains something of the divine within it. How can we say that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind, if we treat his most precious creation with contempt? We certainly cannot claim we are doing so because we love our neighbour (Matt. 22:37-39).
These comments are, of course, a response to those made by Donald Trump about torture today. He has asserted – much to the embarrassment of many of those around him – that torture “works” and that, in the fight against radical terrorists, “we have to fight fire with fire”. While the Christian Bible makes clear that crime should always be punished and the innocent protected, it can never justify torture. In the face of the horrific and evil acts of the so-called Islamic State, we must not stoop to their level of sin but re-assert more loudly than ever our commitment to the God-given preciousness of all human life and the sanctity of a body made in the image of our creator.
It is even more distressing that these comments were reported on Holocaust Memorial Day. This is a day when the world recalls the horrific evils committed not only in Europe during the Shoah, but in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. What links all of these terrible exterminations is the belief by those who committed them that a certain group of people were somehow less than human and that their lives were theirs to dispose of as they saw fit. The groups varied – Jews, Roma, homosexuals, Muslims, Tutsis, and so on – but the essential sin was the same: the rejection of the sanctity of all human life.
Sadly, there will be those who agree with President Trump. There are always those who are willing to support such actions because they feel that those who are being targeted have somehow deserved their fate. Too many European Christians acquiesced either actively or passively to the evils of the Nazi regime. Be it criminals, IS members, foreigners or whomever, deep-seated prejudices or decades of misinformation too often provide the justification to treat them as less than human. As the Nazis described the Jews, and their other undesirables, they somehow become untermensch – sub-human. The hideous lesson of the past is that the moment we fall into that trap, then the door is ultimately open to every kind of evil imaginable. If we are allowed to use torture against IS terrorists, why not criminals, why not asylum seekers, why not anyone? If the wretch being waterboarded by the CIA in a secret bunker somewhere is not made in the image of God, then how can I claim that anyone is? Either we are all human, or none of us are.
As ever, someone else has expressed all this far better than I ever could. In this case the Protestant pastor, Martin Niemöller, who suffered seven long years of imprisonment by the Nazis for daring to speak out in the name of Christ:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Poem and image of Niemoller © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC.