Thursday, November 29, 2007

Baptism by Torture -- Sightings

The issue of whether waterboarding is torture continues to be with us. Michael Mukasey, the new AG, wasn't quite sure if it is. Nor do some of the current presidential candidates. Rudy seems to think it might have it's place -- but I think he's been watching too much 24. Last night it seems that Mitt and John got into it as well. Mitt doesn't seem to know if it is or not and doesn't think it's the place of a presidential candidate to make that call. Fortunately John McCain, who knows better than most what torture is, challenged that premise.
But William Schweiker, writing today in Sightings, offers a unique perspective, a challenge to we who believe in and follow Jesus. He calls on us to consider the sacramental use of water -- that is baptism -- and the way water has been used in the past to in a sense purge and purify or extract conversion. It was used in the Inquisition and in witch trials for just that reason. Anabaptists, those who believe that infant baptism isn't real baptism were often subjected to what was called a "third baptism" -- by drowning. It is one of the ugly spots in our Christian history. Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, all made use of this tactic to suppress the unwelcome presence of the Radical Reformation.
Schweiker offers us an important point of reference in this debate and calls on us to reject now and forever more on sacred grounds this despicable practice of waterboarding.


Sightings 11/29/07

Baptism by Torture
-- William Schweiker

Religious practices have often been tied to violence and torture, but this connection is often hidden within public discourse. That is the situation now in the United States with the debate about waterboarding, the religious meanings of which have yet to be articulated and explored.
The candidates in the current presidential campaign have taken starkly different stances on the practice of waterboarding. Some condemn the practice as outright torture; others have refused to condemn the practice if in an extreme case it could save millions of American lives. The topic has been divided into two separate but related questions: is waterboarding a form of torture, and, however torture is defined, are there situations in which waterboarding and other practices are justified?
The argument for possible justification turns on several assumptions: that we could infallibly know that someone had vital information that would in fact save millions; that torture would extract this information without distortion; and, finally, that if the information was secured truthfully and infallibly, it could be put to use in good time. None of these assumptions is warranted. Expert opinion and empirical evidence concur that torture is an ineffective means to gain reliable information. The scenario of the lone knower of the facts whose torture would save millions of lives is the stuff of bad spy movies and bad exam questions in ethics courses. In terms of the question of definition, matters are both legal and visceral. International conventions provide ample guidelines, and, as more than one commentator has noted, if waterboarding is not torture it is not clear what else to call it, the Bush Administration's penchant to alter definitions notwithstanding.
Less often observed is that the practice of waterboarding has roots in the Spanish Inquisition and parallels the persecution of Anabaptists during the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation. Why did practices similar to waterboarding develop as a way to torture heretics—whether the heretics were Anabaptists or, in the Inquisition, Protestants of any stripe as well as Jews and witches and others?
Roman Catholics and Protestants alike persecuted the Anabaptists or "re-baptizers" since these people denied infant baptism in favor of adult baptism. The use of torture and physical abuse was meant to stem the movement and also to bring salvation to heretics. It had been held—at least since St. Augustine—that punishment, even lethal in form, could be an act of mercy meant to keep a sinner from continuing in sin, either by repentance of heresy or by death. King Ferdinand declared that drowning—called the third baptism—was a suitable response to Anabaptists. Water as a form of torture was an inversion of the waters of baptism under the (grotesque) belief that it could deliver the heretic from his or her sins.
In the Inquisition, the practice was not drowning as such, but the threat of drowning, and the symbolic threat of baptism. The tortura del agua or toca entailed forcing the victim to ingest water poured into a cloth stuffed into the mouth in order to give the impression of drowning. Because of the wide symbolic meaning of "water" in the Christian and Jewish traditions (creation, the great flood, the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus and drowning of the Egyptians (!), Christ's walking on the water, and, centrally for Christians, baptism as a symbolic death that gives life), the practice takes on profound religious significance. Torture has many forms, but torture by water as it arose in the Roman Catholic and Protestant reformations seemingly drew some of its power and inspiration from theological convictions about repentance and salvation. It was, we must now surely say, a horrific inversion of the best spirit of Christian faith and symbolism. Is it the purpose of the United State nowadays to seek the conversion, repentance, and purity of supposed terrorists and thus to take on the trappings of a religious rite? The question is so buried behind public discourse that its full import is hardly recognized.
In the light of these religious meanings and background to waterboarding, US citizens can decide to reject any claim by the government to have the right to use this or other forms of torture, especially given connections to the most woeful expressions of Christianity; conversely, they can fall prey to fear and questionable reasoning and thus continue to support an unjust and vile practice that demeans the nation's highest political and moral ideals even as it desecrates one of the most important practices and symbols of Christian faith.
I judge that it is time for repentance, the affirmation of new life, and the humane expression of religious convictions.
William Schweiker is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and director of the Martin Marty Center.

This month, the Martin Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Religion and Museums on the National Mall," an essay by Elizabeth McKeown of the Department of Theology and American Studies Program at Georgetown University.

Access this month's forum at: the discussion board at:

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Anonymous said...

CORNWALL the pastor of Lompoc who is well versed, makes slamming statments about the bridgehouse and gets caught up in the rightwing issues of life. you say you enjoy dialogue but jump to conclusions without knowlege. you are trying to build bridges or so you say and you are causing greater divide. Cornwall stonewall.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

I apologize to readers for this anonymous comment posted here. This is a person who is from the community where I pastor. He/she likes to make anonymous slams on my ministry there, more often than not taking what I've said or done out of context. This comment has to do with a recent controversy in our local community. I never slammed Bridgehouse -- I simply asked that answers be provided -- they have.

I allow anonymous comments, but it's people like this who are abusive that are problems.