Vague answers to questions about the legality of water boarding, an interrogation technique that has at least sometimes been viewed as illegal torture in the U.S. and had been prosecuted as a war crime after World War II, did not finally block senate approval of Michael B. Mukasey to the post of attorney general of the United States last week. After expressions of widespread concern over his noncommittal answers, he declared that he thought the practice "repugnant" but did not have the information to determine if the practice is illegal. (If a lawyer with his qualifications would not know, who would?) Water boarding has been called "simulated drowning," but I am inclined to agree with someone who recently declared that there is nothing simulated about it. Unlike drowning to death, this drowning is prolonged for as long as necessary to get the information or for as long as considered tolerable by the torturers, though it often leads to a confession--true or made-up--in a short amount of time. The lungs take in water and the victim has the terrifying experience of being unable to breathe anything but water, becoming unconscious and sometimes regaining consciousness. The appeal of waterboarding in a democratic society, apparently, is not that it is not torture, but that it does not leave traceable evidence like scars and broken bones as other forms of torture do. (See an article on the history of waterboarding at NPR.org: Waterboarding: A Tortured History.)
I've been struggling with the meaning of the crucifixion lately. I recently read a chapter of the compelling book, Proverb of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker. In the first chapter "Away from the Fire," Reverend Parker, a United Methodist pastor, describes how her experience counseling and pastoring with women and children who are victims of domestic violence has brought her to a place at which no redemptive meaning can be ascribed to the brutal violence of the crucifixion. (I'm betting she did not like Mel Gibson's telling of the story. Neither do I. Not because I don't believe Jesus' suffering was extreme, but because I believe Gibson's version of the crucifixion revels in blood and gore but is inexplicably removed from the ongoing experience of crucifixion among God's abused and tortured children. It also leans dangerously close to projecting blame onto a group of people who have suffered at the hands of Christians who have viewed them as "Christ-killers" time and again over nearly two millennia.)
Reverend Parker's conclusion about crucifixion is that the saving grace in the story of the gospel is not in an act of sacrificial violence. She does not even buy into the argument that I have found most comforting, that in that violent and painful death, God experienced the worst of the human experience and so is intimately present with us in our own worst suffering. For Parker, even this sanctifies violence rather than liberating from it. Rather than a sacrifice of son by father to meet a legal debt made necessary by original sin and rather than an image of how pain and suffering bond us with God, another way of understanding the heart of the gospel is in the way Jesus lived. His death was also a result of that way of living. Jesus may not have chosen to be an enemy of the Roman state for the sake of being an enemy, but by choosing to be radically obedient to the Reign of God. By living the way of peace in the shadow of a regime for which violence was an idol, Jesus at once offered hope to those who had lost hope and caused suspicion among those who would rather rule over the hopeless. By violating all kinds of societal restrictions that separated the sexes, the religious groups, the rich and the poor, the sick and the well, the "righteous" and the suspect, by at once honoring the religious law and at the same time recognizing that it was only valid so far as it affirmed human beings, by humanizing people whom the empire would rather keep dehumanized, Jesus put himself in harm's way. The occupying empire could not tolerate his subversive behavior and his popularity among those who responded with the whole of their beings to the affirming and liberating and saving message he taught and lived.
Waterboarding is a crucifixion and there is nothing redeeming about it. Torturers might get truth from someone by using it, but they are also likely to get lies, even self-incriminating lies, otherwise known as coerced confessions. The electric chair is a crucifixion, too. And so is detention of suspects without trials and without access to judicial review of their cases for months and years at a time. At various times, each of these has been found to be against what a strong secular, democratic society stands for. For me, they must always be unequivocally un-Christian. Reprehensible to a God who we claim is ultimately concerned with human good. And when we stand against crucifixions used in the name of our nation or our security or our freedom, we are not simply protecting the crucified. We are protecting ourselves from the distortion and violence the practice works on the perpetrators. Am I justifying terrorists, you ask? No. I'm arguing that if we become terrorists ourselves, claiming that the victims are too evil to be given the normal rights we give to the more "ordinary" criminals on the home front(even though many suspected "enemy combatants" who are detained and tortured for information have no damning evidence of their guilt), then we de-humanize ourselves. We profane the high vision of our highest national ideals. And we are "lost," unable to envision the Reign of the God of Jesus.