Torture and Zero Dark Thirty

I won’t see the film but I’m interested in the debate over its depiction of torture. In the New York Review of Books, Steve Coll writes:

Official torture is not an anathema in much of the United States; it is a credible policy choice. In public opinion polling, a bare majority of Americans opposes torturing prisoners in the struggle against terrorism, but public support for torture has risen significantly during the last several years, a change that the Stanford University intelligence scholar Amy Zegart has attributed in part to the influence of “spy-themed entertainment.”

Even if torture worked, it could never be justified because it is immoral. Yet state-sanctioned, formally organized forms of torture recur even in developed democracies because some public leaders have been willing to attach their prestige to an argument that in circumstances of national emergency, torture may be necessary because it will extract timely intelligence relevant to public safety when more humane methods of interrogation will not.

There is no empirical evidence to support this argument. Among other things, no responsible social scientist would condone peer-reviewed experiments to compare torture’s results to those from less coercive questioning. Defenders of torture in the United States therefore argue by issuing a flawed syllogism: the CIA tortured al-Qaeda suspects; those suspects provided information that helped to protect the public; therefore, torture was justified and even essential.

Andrew Sullivan is relentless in exploring the film’s perspective on torture. Here’s what he says about the filmmakers’ choice not to depict the debate over the morality and efficacy of torture, even within the Bush administration, and between the CIA and FBI:

One has to wonder whether any morally serious director would have chosen a morally-neutral approach to torture if she were portraying torture practiced by, say, the Iranian terror state, or by Nazis or Communists? The techniques are exactly the same. Is not taking a stand as you present such evil itself an endorsement? My sense is that Bigelow and Boal talked to some of those war criminals who did the torture and since torturers have to find some way to justify their acts, and because they are modern Americans fighting terror, the director simply did not have the courage to confront them with the fact that they belong in jail and hell for what they did.

From Jane Mayer:

I had trouble enjoying the movie. I’ve interviewed Khaled El-Masri, the German citizen whose suit the E.C.H.R. adjudicated. He turned out to be a case of mistaken identity, an innocent car salesman whom the C.I.A. kidnapped and held in a black-site prison for four months, and who was “severely beaten, sodomized, shackled, and hooded.” What Masri lived through was so harrowing that, when I had a cup of coffee with him, a few years ago, he couldn’t describe it to me without crying. Maybe I care too much about all of this to enjoy it with popcorn. But maybe the creators of “Zero Dark Thirty” should care a little bit more.

Was Jesus apolitical? Hardly.

Andrew Sullivan’s essay “Christianity in Crisis” has received considerable attention. I regularly read his blog. I find it highly intelligent, thought-provoking, and offering links to fascinating material I would otherwise not encounter. Sullivan is gay, libertarian, Roman Catholic. He writes:

This Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It does not seize the moment; it lets it be. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement. And it is not afraid. In the anxious, crammed lives of our modern twittering souls, in the materialist obsessions we cling to for security in recession, in a world where sectarian extremism threatens to unleash mass destruction, this sheer Christianity, seeking truth without the expectation of resolution, simply living each day doing what we can to fulfill God’s will, is more vital than ever. It may, in fact, be the only spiritual transformation that can in the end transcend the nagging emptiness of our late-capitalist lives, or the cult of distracting contemporaneity, or the threat of apocalyptic war where Jesus once walked. You see attempts to find this everywhere—from experimental spirituality to resurgent fundamentalism. Something inside is telling us we need radical spiritual change.Sullivan wants to extricate Christianity from the “christianists” as he calls them, the right-wing Christians who use their religion politically. He argues that Jesus was profoundly non-political and appeals to Jefferson’s idea of a Jesus who taught practical doctrines.

Others have offered insightful criticism, Kyle Cupp, for one, here and here.

I think the deeper problem with Sullivan’s argument lies in a series of category mistakes. Was there such a thing as “politics” distinct from religion in the Roman Empire? Not when the Emperor in some sense was responsible for assuring the performances of the rituals of Roman public religion. Not when the emperor in the East assumed titles like “Divine” or “Savior.” Not when the cross itself was an instrument of political power.

One of the problems for contemporary people is realizing that our categories of “religion” and “politics,” even the “secular” which Sullivan uses to describe St. Francis before his conversion, are the products of historical and cultural developments, that the boundaries between them, however contested they are in contemporary culture, exist in our minds. It’s not clear that such boundaries existed in the medieval or ancient world, that a term like “secular” would have made sense to St. Francis.

And of course, to assert that Jesus was “apolitical” is itself a political statement, when it is challenging the right of others to use Jesus or Christianity for political ends.

David Sessions points out that Sullivan is interpreting Jesus along the lines of liberal individualism (not surprising then that he begins with Jefferson’s Bible):

Andrew describes Jesus’ ideas as “truly radical,” for example, “love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth.” His project is to convince us that these “radical” ideas are also “apolitical,” that when salvaged from the tangle of theological and political movements that have distorted them, they are something pure, spiritual and otherworldly. Like a good liberal individualist, he reads all of these virtues as a kind of private interior experience, something I’m not sure Jesus ever intended them to mean.

It reminds me of two comments I received after a recent sermon. One person congratulated me for not preaching about political topics. Another person, in response to the very same sermon, congratulated me for taking a political stance. Apparently, I confused everybody.

We Americans have trouble with politics and religion.

Forgiving Bin Laden

All week, we have been thinking about bin Laden’s death and our reactions to the news. Emotions have ranged from joy to outrage; there have been celebrations as well as concerns about the legality of the action. Andrew Sullivan and the readers of his blog have been struggling to understand their responses to the death of Osama bin Laden.

This, from a reader, may be the most moving of all. But following the whole conversation, beginning with Sullivan’s original statements is testimony to the complexity of the question.

Eric Reitan, a Christian universalist, explores our need for cosmic retribution and concludes:

So, is Osama bin Laden in hell? Yes, absolutely. But I will not be at peace, I will not believe that justice has been done, until he is redeemed.

His essay puts me in mind of the piece by Jonathan Jones I read this morning. It’s an appreciation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Can Church be hip?

Andrew Sullivan’s blog, which is one of the best–most diverse, most challenging, wrestling with the important questions–recently asked “Can Church be hip?” Here’s the wrap on the lengthy conversation, which could have mirrored the worship wars, but instead raised interesting questions and had some hilarious moments. The underlying question of “authentic” v. “wannabe” raised by author Brett McCracken has presented itself in slightly different terms throughout the History of Christianity (one example the suspicion that faith healings are faked). Some of the responses in the thread are rather suspicious.

One suspects this video is tongue-in-cheek:

But then, this is pretty priceless, too:

Grace Church won’t be hip anytime soon; all we can hope for is being authentic and reaching people with our authenticity.

By the way, if you don’t know Sullivan’s blog, you should check it out. He’s provocative politically, religiously, and culturally. A gay Catholic in a lengthy relationship (now marriage), libertarian, former editor of the New Republic, supporter of Obama; he would identify himself as a Thatcherite conservative (he’s English). How’s that for some contradictions?