Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Torture is acceptable and even commendable. That seems to be one of the takeaways from last night’s Republican caucus in New Hampshire. And Donald Trump’s decisive win on the heels of Ted Cruz’ victory last week in Iowa has me seeking to understand what just happened and why. Not only did New Hampshire Republicans get solidly behind a candidate who has made (some would say) racist, xenophobic, chauvinistic, impulsive and ill-informed statements throughout his campaign; they also voted in a candidate who has no compunction about using torture as an interrogation method — this after the debacle of the Bush-Cheney years is still fresh on many minds. And New Hampshire Republicans were not alone. Iowans tacked a similar course in electing first Ted Cruz, then Trump. (Cruz, like Trump, defends the use of torture in a campaign that’s heavily directed to the prayers of evangelical Christians.)

In other words, New Hampshire and Iowa Republicans seem to be in agreement about at least one thing: that the U.S. can and should use torture in its repertoire of intelligence antics, and, more significantly, that the U.S. shouldn’t feel in the least bit bashful about that. On “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos, Trump was quoted as saying he’d “absolutely use something beyond waterboarding,” with the explanation that our enemies were cutting off the heads of “Christians and plenty of others.” The implication? That a “Christian” nation like ours is justified in using torture — the very means by which the One we Christians worship suffered — in order to protect itself.

Meanwhile Cruz has insisted that waterboarding does not meet the legal definition of torture. The semantic acrobatics are eerily familiar, yet something very new has happened here. Republican voters, many evangelical Christians, have now issued not once but twice a mandate for a president who will explicitly thwart long-established international human rights laws against torture, a president who will be doing so with little thought, zero self-consciousness and near bravado for the whole world to see. In the case of the Bush administration’s torture protocol, the American public knew very little — George W. Bush was not running on a campaign platform that included an open endorsement of torture as an interrogation method.

As of today, it’s possible that our next president will authorize waterboarding and potentially other forms of torture as part of his campaign platform. In turn, he will be redefining what it means to be America; and the bulk of his followers, a large percentage of them evangelical Christians, will be announcing to the world what it means to be a “Christian nation.”

Why is this happening? (And here is where I can disarm my mother’s great alarm that I’m actually “a liberal” in an independent’s clothing.) Contrary to what those on the left might say, the Trump Phenomenon is not happening because Republicans have a monopoly on extremism and are alone the folly of our nation. No, the civic responsibility for the disturbing rise of Donald Trump extends beyond any one political party. There’s plenty of angry outrage and extremism on the left as well. A case in point? The current tenor of student protests against racial inequality now sweeping college campuses nationwide. Consider, for example, the following incident from my own alma mater that went viral after being caught on tape: a female protester unleashed an angry tirade on a college administrator who, in attempting to hear her demands, suggested other people have rights, too. At that, the woman went apoplectic, cussing him out and saying a host of angry, hate-filled things.

That student is probably one of a number of protesters who if asked would be quick to say they stand well within a tradition of civil disobedience inherited directly from the great civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King. Yet King’s dream was of a day when his “four little children … would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” That dream found enduring livelihood among both whites and blacks precisely because it called forth the very best of our shared, God-breathed humanity. And that dream discovered the beginnings of its realization only because of the great courage it called forth in blacks and even whites who, through peaceful and prayerful civic protest joined their voices in unison to protest racial injustice. Sadly, that picture is not the one I largely see in America today in opposition to the ills and injustices that beset us. In its place are the often angry, hostile tones of a country now besieged by a rising tide of angry identity politics on both the left and the right that plays to the lowest common denominator.

No, if Trump wins this election and torture becomes a feather in our cap, one we’re not in the least bit embarrassed to show off to the world, it will be the fault of all of us — and maybe most especially those of us who call ourselves Christians. We all bear responsibility, a responsibility that begins with the recognition that the One we worship and who was tortured on our behalf was God’s Incarnate Word. God’s Word came to us at no small cost. In Jesus, God says we, all of us, right or left, black or white, are free beyond our wildest imagination to use our words for good. Our own words and our freedom to use them as we choose are something to be cherished, both because of their power and because they also came at a cost. They, too, can enlist the very best in one another and in our shared humanity — or they can tear others down, to the extent that torture itself can become as banal and everyday as a trip to the drug store.

How I’ve often failed to cherish my words and their power to build up rather than tear down. With yesterday’s news from New Hampshire fresh on my mind, I’m going to try again. It’s Lent after all, and I could use a new Lenten discipline. Besides, November’s presidential election isn’t that far off.







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