Would Jesus Be a Waterboarder?

How do murder and torture square with a religious point of view?

Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, practicing Methodists both, expressed no hesitation recently in curtly dismissing the Senate investigation into the CIA’s torture tactics against suspected terrorists. Cheney called the entire report “a crock,” and Bush praised agents who approved and administered waterboarding and other torture methods as “patriots.”


One cannot read the actual descriptions of what takes place during euphemistically labeled “waterboarding” and “enhanced interrogation techniques” without cringing. To imagine yourself (or perhaps worse, your loved ones) on that table, suffocating, passing in and out of consciousness, or deprived of sleep for a week, hallucinating, is to enter a sort of hell, created and sustained by the darkest impulses and imaginings of human beings.

The God of the Old Testament and the Allah of the Koran exude violence and torture just about anywhere you care to open a page in those hallowed books. Holy warriors bombing abortion clinics and jihadists beheading infidels gather all the supporting scripture they need to sanction their heinous activities.

This is a man and a perspective that would appear to be thoroughly without conscience, a kind of moral cyborg programmed toward a task and pursuing it without the messy influences of human feeling.

But as much of the Christian population tirelessly points out, the New Testament turns the page on most all talk of vengeance and wrath, introducing through its central figure of Jesus an entirely new vision of grace, forgiveness, pacifism and humility.

Save for one scene of an extremely pissed off Jesus upending the tables of moneychangers in the temple and shouting at them to get the hell out of his house (slight paraphrasing there), Jesus’s central and persistent message was embodied in now iconic  pronouncements such as:

 “Do not repay evil with evil.”

 If your enemy strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.”


Not a lot of room for an interpretive dance in those passages that would sanction leaving a prisoner shackled and naked on a concrete floor where he dies of hypothermia, is there?

As the Steven Stills lyric had it decades ago, “Jesus Christ was the first non-violent revolutionary.”

So let that be the end of any absurd notions that the spirit of Jesus hovered above the CIA torturers, gently guiding their hands in righteousness as they poured yet more water into the gaping, bubbling mouths of their victims.

From a religious standpoint, Cheney, Bush, and the entire apparatus of government that sanctioned torture activity went utterly rogue in this matter. Torture is profoundly unchristian.



But let us here ask some difficult questions of ourselves. Former Vice President Cheney, he of the unflinching moral certainty in all his views (“If you’re a man of principle, compromise is a bit of a dirty word”), is no doubt fueled to some degree by true concern for the safety of his fellow countrymen and women. Let us grant him that much.

And let me also note this: If my daughter were being held in a Mideast dungeon and I had incontrovertible proof that the captive in front of me had information that could free her, would I torture him to extract that information?


(Of that, too, am I capable; I contain multitudes…)

But the further down that incontrovertible certainty scale one goes, the trickier things get.

Would I proceed with torturing a person if I knew with 90% certainty he had the information I was seeking?


With 50%? 25? 10?

In other words: Where is my line? Where is the point at which I can essentially refute all the core principles of kindness, compassion and non-violence I build my life on, turning from there to a stark raving animal bent on one thing alone: the safety and freedom of those whom I hold most dear?

And if we extend to Cheney the presumption that as an elected representative, he was charged with protecting the American people with all the ferocity with which I would protect my daughter, then can we somehow, if not excuse, at least understand and contextualize the absolute certainty he harbors that waterboarding and other barbarisms perpetrated in our name are somehow excusable and justified in the dark times of a broken world?

Perhaps. But there is a problem with this line of thought.

We must note that the law—and we are still a nation of laws, yes?—requires dispassion and distance from the ferocity of an aggrieved party. There is a reason why the families of murder victims are not allowed to conduct interviews of suspects or serve on the juries trying them. However much Cheney and Bush took on parental roles in defending the American people under their charge, they were also pledged as publicly elected leaders to uphold the law.

Then there is the private matter, though publicly on display, of their duty as Christians to follow the precepts of their faith. From a specifically religious and Jesucentric context, it is impossible to mount an intellectually and morally viable defense of torture.

True, there are gradations of such activity on which reasonable people can disagree. Even verbally berating a suspect or witness as commonly seen on television crime shows would appear to some tender souls as unconscionable. (“Daddy, stop being so mean to that man!”)

But waterboarding? No one could watch or even imagine that activity and convince themselves it is anything but torture and about as far from “loving your enemies” as it is possible to go.


There is one other point on which we can be even more certain that the Cheney-Bush doctrine of unapologetic torture departs severely from widespread religious sensibilities and are in the starkest possible contrast to the teachings of their own faith’s salvific figure. That would be in its absolute certainty, its utter lack of doubt, questioning, ambiguity or humility.

Cheney again, on being asked whether he had any concerns with documented cases of detainees being erroneously locked up and tortured, though not in possession of any information that would help prevent future terror attacks:

“I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.”
“I would do it again in a minute.”

No hesitation, no reservation, no regret. Does the fact that even innocent people were among those detained and tortured, caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare of indefinite detention without charges, bother Cheney even one little bit? Some slight tug on his conscience, a sense of, ”Yes, regrettably, some innocents suffered, mistakes were made, war is hell, I am sorry.”?


Instead, “…no problem as long as we achieve our objective.”

For Cheney, there are no human beings in that equation; zero concern for wrongly accused innocents caught up in the maelstrom of fear and desperation that fueled our country’s anti-terror efforts in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. No trace of self-examination, of his hands regrettably soiled by the business of a dirty world.

This is a man and a perspective that would appear to be thoroughly without conscience, a kind of moral cyborg programmed toward a task and pursuing it without the messy influences of human feeling.

You can search a long time and still come up empty for any trace of “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” when reviewing the Cheney archive on this matter. Nor any echoes of Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

Humility…meekness…patience. These and other qualities of the religious life become easily waylaid when we perceive a threat and cloak ourselves unwittingly in fear. But those are the very times when our core values are required and tested. Is religion to be confined only to mouthed platitudes and songs on Sunday morning, then swept away in a perspective of “I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective” the very minute that the world presents us with the challenges that it inevitably will?

As a nation founded upon the rule of law and its underlying moral context, we do well to embrace the humility and to practice the mercy expounded so clearly in the founding text of this country’s dominant religion, to which the likes of Dick Cheney and George Bush have purportedly pledged their fidelity.

In that religion, it is a travesty to view torture any other way than wrong, indefensible, and clearly a sin.
A Tibetan singer-songwriter who sang it true and suffered for his efforts—be sure to read the commentary just below the screen:

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5 comments to Would Jesus Be a Waterboarder?

  • Dennis Ahern  says:

    It’s easy to make a case that Cheney, especially, lacks a moral compass, the lack of which allows him any means to justify his end. The larger question is whether in a world where unspeakable acts occur daily, do we need such figures? Is there a collective comfort in knowing we have such people to do our dirty work? To do that which we lack the ‘courage’ because we are troubled by the nuance of ethics and morals? Is Cheney shouting at us, like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!” And are we not comforted in knowing there are figures such as he who will do what must be done to protect us? And have they not done so to a great degree? There has been no event close occur on American soil to match the tragic events of 9/11. That fact will be their main argument. In the long run….and we are a long way from this…..I hope the philosophies of figures such as Gandhi and MLK and non violent activism will win the day. But until that social evolution has taken place, we may have to accept, even as we look away in horror, that we need the Dick Cheneys to do what we can’t. He seems more than willing to bear our sins.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      You raise a fine and challenging point, Dennis, thank you. Indeed, it is impossible to deny we live in a fallen world in which we are regularly faced with agonizing choices framed in shades of gray rather than right/wrong, black/white. But for one thing, I’d appreciate hearing a little of that agony from the likes of Cheney, rather than the certainty of the all-knowing God and “decider” he anointed himself to be in these matters. Some basic Christian humility, in other words—a quality that is all over the scriptures he says he aligns himself with.

      Second is the matter of the actual effectiveness of torture in gaining viable information, a matter that is in dispute, to be sure. But with at least a plausible case made by Sen. Feinstein & Co. that torture simply doesn’t work, on which side should we err in cases where innocent or at least ignorant people may suffer grievously at our hands?

      Third is the reality, of course, that we will never “win” out over the atrocities committed by fanatics, that all our own atrocities do in return is sink us to their level and ensure an endless cycle of grief and horror. (The Israeli-Palestine conflict may well be Exhibit #1.) Perhaps some lives will be saved in a given situation or short-term, but played out through history, civilized nations answering terrorist atrocities with atrocities of their own wouldn’t appear to have a very good track record in allaying further and even enhanced violence from their terror-monger counterparts. It’s different with nation-states, I think, which maintain a kind of logic and rational desire for survival (even in the midst of war’s chaos), that is lacking in terrorist organizations with an apocalyptic religious bent.

  • RevChrisBell  says:

    Amen, brother. Preach it!

  • Matthew T Rader  says:

    You mentioned Jesus being a pacifist, although I agree with your other descriptions, that He taught humility, grace and forgiveness, I don’t agree that He was a pacifist.

    Jesus words in Matthew 10:34-39:
    “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

    It’s not that Jesus did not want to make peace. He’s saying that many of those who choose to stand with Him will end up having their families turn against them, especially for people in Muslim and Hindu communities for example. And those who decide not to stand with Him out of fear of rejection from their families and communities aren’t worthy of Him. That doesn’t sound pacifist to me at all.

    I agree with the premise of your article though, I don’t see anywhere in the Bible where God condones torture in anyway (except in hell), even in the old testament. He may have told people to annihilate entire civilizations, but I can’t recall a single instance of God or any godly person in the Bible calling for the torture of anyone.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks for this, Matthew. Debates about what the words attributed to Jesus actually meant have been going on since they were first laid down on parchment, and I doubt they will ever end. Such rich ore to be mined there! I actually have quite a different take not only on Jesus’s pacifism, which I will get to in a moment, but also on the “not peace but a sword” passage that you cite.

      I think this is about as pure a metaphor as you’re ever going to find, and in my interpretation, Jesus is applying it psychologically and spiritually. It says to me that he was here to slice through all the old ways of thinking. His was a radical new vision that may, indeed, pit a person against his or her own mother, father, sibling, or more expansively still, against all of his or her own inner resistance to change and “conversion” to this new way of thinking, this radical embrace of love and community.

      “Wake up!” he’s saying. “Dump all those old, constricted, fearful ways of thinking, feeling and living!” That’s what he wants to take a sword to—his words are that very sword, and though there may be fall-out from you taking up his cause, and your family or friends may come to despise you (or at least wonder why you’ve gone off your rocker), I don’t see in those words any suggestion of violence as such. It’s not that we’re supposed to slice up those who oppose us—Jesus is just suggesting that embracing his way of life may very well slice us away from them, and we need to be fearless in letting that be.

      But quite apart from any war-like suggestion embedded in a sword metaphor, I think Jesus makes a powerful, very specific case for pacifism in very different biblical passages than the one you cite, several of them in the same book of your own namesake!

      Matt. 5: 9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

      5: 38-39: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

      5: 43-48: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

      26: 52: “Put your sword back in its place…for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”

      I think these are among the most radical ideas ever propounded, laying waste to all our primitive desires for defensiveness and vengeance. And it brings up serious, debatable questions on how realistic and effective Jesus’s approach can be in a fallen world, and what we should do with a Hitler, for example, or someone who invades our home with evil intentions.

      But for me at least, it’s not possible to read these passages without thinking they represent rather extreme pacifist views, ones that have been taken up quite specifically by various Christian denominations over the centuries (Quakers, Mennonites). When looked at through this prism, just making war is problematic enough, but torture is another thing altogether. What I’d really be curious about is what Cheney, Bush et al do with these passages, and with your own citation that nowhere in the Bible is there even remote justification for torturing enemies.

      Thanks again for broaching this topic. It took me back to the Sermon on the Mount, and there’s always profit in reading that again in the early morning hours!

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