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2008-07-08 issue:

About waterboarding, Mr. President

Speaking Out

by Gene Stoltzfus

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Dear Mr. President: Waterboarding is on my mind. I know you have expressed firm convictions that it is necessary. I also understand that as a politician you need to show progress in your efforts to prevail against terrorism. Since we both claim to be Christians I thought I would tell you a story from my own faith history that may be helpful for your deliberations regarding the use of waterboarding and other methods of torture to eliminate the enemy all the way to the gates of hell.

My strand of Christians traces our history back to Jesus through hard times, suffering and moments of great integrity of life and faith. Historians tell me that the practice of waterboarding can be traced to the Spanish Inquisition in the same time frame as the persecution of my faith ancestors the Anabaptists, by the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation. Practices like waterboarding were used to put down the Protestant Reformers, Jews, witches and other heretics.

My ancestors were tortured because they refused to accept infant baptism although they accepted and promoted baptism for adults who could make intelligent free choices about becoming followers of Jesus. As the movement away from infant baptism spread, the basic issue was their lack of allegiance to the political authorities as symbolized by infant baptism. Despite pockets of pacifism within the movement for almost a century, Anabaptists were considered lawless, insurrectionists and enemies of the state.

Authorities were convinced that torture would stem the tide of rebaptizing that was then spreading throughout Europe and was considered a threat to state power. King Ferdinand, the ruler of the time based in Spain, believed that drowning, another use of water for persecution of Anabaptists, was an acceptable state response to the heresy. His people called it the third baptism.

William Schweiker, Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School and director of the Martin Marty Center, writes, “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.”

For my people and many others the story of torture by water does not end with the Inquisition, although many people were killed and wounded. We are still here. We still believe that adults can be trusted to decide about their faith. Anabaptists were among the forerunners of democracy where the people decide for themselves. The fact that we still exist demonstrates that the instruments of torture failed to eradicate us. In my people’s reexamination of the gospel through those 500 years, we have come to the conviction that Jesus’ teachings about enemy loving is not a teaching that can be temporarily suspended for purposes of emergency public policy. Our refusal to take up arms has gotten some of my people killed too, even in this country over the last 300 years, but not as many as the dangerous idea of baptizing adults 500 years ago.

So now I appeal to you in the name of God and in the name of our country that seeks to be a light to the nations to cast off the vestiges of the Spanish Inquisition. I appeal to you to bring policy out of the shadows of torture into a place where humans can make adult decisions. Could we agree to just try not being a nation that practices torture for the next 100 years, and see if such a consistent public policy brings us closer to a culture of hope on our planet?

Gene Stoltzfus was the director of Christian Peacemaker Teams for its initial 16 years. He now lives in Fort Frances, Ontario.

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