The Only Time Torture was Ever “Good” – water baptisms and state-sanctioned brutality

Sarah Palin’s recent comments comparing waterboarding to the baptism of terrorists is creating quite a bit of online chatter. I, for one, would be offended – that is if I actually cared about her opinion. Most people (I hope!) don’t take her seriously as a spokesperson for Jesus or Christianity. So, she continues to dig her own political grave.

As I was reflecting on her comments, however, I couldn’t help but remember that a similar method was used against my ancestors – the Anabaptists. This group of radical Christians was persecuted during the reformation, both by Catholic and Protestant theologians. One way to punish them for being “re-baptized” was to essentially be drowned in water as a third baptism. It was the threat of such a “baptism,” that was the ultimate test for whether or not they would repent their convictions and claim the convictions of another.

Although waterboarding functions differently in our context, the parallel to it is certain. If we think your worldview disrupts our way of life, then we will torment you until you recant or die (in the case of waterboarding – feel like you are going to die). In the case of terrorists, waterboarding produces information (although often misleading). In the case of the Anabaptists, the fear of being drowned to death was their ultimate punishment, all for choosing to no longer connect their infant baptism with their allegiance/citizenship to a violent state.

To summarize, “baptizing” to coerce people through fear is always wrong. Torture is always BAD…. Well, except that one time when it was GOOD………

At the epicenter of the Christian faith is a cross and empty tomb. The cross is about self-giving love. The resurrection is about victory over earthly and spiritual evil.

Jesus willingly was tortured. Was this “good?” To answer this as a Christian is complicated.

First, the typical answer would be that this was in fact a good thing. Jesus being brutalized and executed by Rome led to our redemption. We find our salvation out of this act of torture. Without this sort of state-sanctioned violence, perhaps I would not know what love actually looks like. In this sense we can (albeit in twisted way) affirm that this act of torture was in some odd way “good.”

But, secondly, it seems that the very reason that such a torturous event was “good,” has less to do with the merits of torture (as a younger person, I remember saying things like “without the death penalty Jesus wouldn’t have died for our sins” – almost to justify my conservative ideals on using violence against “bad people”) and more to do with the fact that it was such an EVIL act. Jesus endures the dehumanizing evils of torture (and state-sanctioned murder) to make something that is always wrong into something that is good. Not good in and of itself, but “good” because it exposes “bad” for what it is: evil.

State-sanctioned violence crucified the incarnation of God. And according to the Scriptures, God raised Jesus from the dead and exposed the governmental powers of their evil. Colossians 2.15 says:

And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Jesus’ resurrection disarmed the powers (both visible and invisible) of their ultimate weapon – death via torture/capital punishment (don’t forget about how TN recently reinstated the electric chair!). The greatest violence of the state couldn’t hold down the true Son of God! In resurrection Jesus names dehumanizing and torturous state-sanctioned violence as counter to the way of God’s kingdom. When Jesus walks out of the tomb he demonstrates to the powers that be (visible and invisible – the ancient world blurred such categories) that even the cruel methods of Caesar are weak compared to the power manifested in self-sacrificial love. The cross, then, is many things – salvation, liberation, etc. – but it is not less than confrontational to those who would use the sword or a cross to torment and even kill.

When we who seek to follow Jesus and are baptized, we are “baptized into his death” (Rom. 6) – the “good” and yet “bad” death of Jesus that exposes state-sanctioned cruelty as counter to the way of God – we are baptized into a story that confronts torture. When we rise out of the waters of baptism we rise with Christ – vindicated a fully human, even when the power-brokers of this world attempt to subvert our sacramental symbols to justify dehumanizing evil. This happened with my people, the early Anabaptists. This happens in the attitudes that inform the Palin’s of the world.

So, lets show our culture that the loud voices claiming the name of Christ but look and sound nothing like, that a better way is possible. A way of enemy love. A way of humanization. A way of self-sacrifice. A way of peace.

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  • http://www.ExecutiveIncomeCoach.com/ David Smith

    Thank you for posting your thoughts on this. I value and am shaped by many of your posts. This one is especially important because you link it to executions as well as torture and Oklahoma just had a botched execution. If you feel led to wade into an area, don’t hesitate because someone like me may be lurking out here looking for the point of view you bring to the table.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      That means a lot. I went through a season where I had to pick and choose what to weigh in on as time was limited. I’m entering a fresh time in which I have more margin to write, do ministry, and love my family. So, hopefully that will mean I get more blog posts out there. Thanks so much for the affirmations.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Really, Kurt, great sermon; loved it.

  • http://www.fordswords.net/ Ford1968

    You continue to blow me away. I have nothing substantial to add, I just wanted to say thank you so much for writing this.


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