Religious practices have often been tied to violence and torture, but this connection is often hidden within public discourse. That is the situation in the United States with the recent 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 compulsory infant baptism in favour of adult [believer's] 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.
(c) 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.
**With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.**