I’ve learned to hate Russians
All through my whole life
If another war starts
It’s them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side.

But now we got weapons
Of the chemical dust
If fire them we’re forced to
Then fire them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God’s on your side.

In a many dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.

So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war.

In 1964, Bob Dylan released the epoch defining album “The Times They Are A Changin'”. Track 3 is the now, justifiably legendary “With God On Our Side”. But the poetry that Dylan set to music does not do justice to today’s geo-political landscape. The United States of America is engaged in two wars that God has not yet stopped but the topic of this discussion is the War they have no declared, the War on Terror and the tools with which they fight: namely Guantanamo Bay.

Guantanamo Bay is a territory of south-eastern Cuba that passed into the hands of the USA in 1902 on a perpetual lease. It has become infamous due to the siting there of Camp X-Ray, which was developed into Camp Delta and Camp Echo to detain “enemy combatants” captured during War on Terror offensives.

It seems to be a good time to consider the theological implications of Guantanamo Bay as the world responds with excitement to the election of Barack Obama as President of the USA. Perhaps this might be a starting point by which we might lay out some beginnings of a framework of political theology for Western Christians in this day and age.

Why Just War Theory Doesn’t Apply

Since Augustine, Christian ethical reflection has tended to approach questions of war and conflict through the framework of Just War theory. But Just War theory doesn’t apply in the case of the War on Terror and Guantanamo because war has never been declared, America’s actions there have been predicted and justified on the premise that this is “a different type of conflict”.

Rhetoric of Democracy

In case this sounds like an Anti-American rant, let me point out that theological critique is the natural by-product of our respect for the goals and intentions that drive the United States. To honour them, means at times to hold them to account.

In his astounding acceptance speech two weeks ago, President-elect Obama said:

“This is our moment. This is our time – to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth – that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes We Can.”

While many of us hope that this new moment of ours will bring change, this statement of intent is of a part with those made in the past by George W. Bush. In 2000 he said:

“This is a remarkable moment in the life of our nation. Never has the promise of prosperity been so vivid. But times of plenty like times of crises are tests of American character. Prosperity can be a tool in our hands used to build and better our country, or it can be a drug in our system dulling our sense of urgency, of empathy, of duty. Our opportunities are too great, our lives too short to waste this moment. So tonight, we vow to our nation we will seize this moment of American promise. We will use these good times for great goals.”

Such lofty rhetoric is understandable for a nation that so often has been willing to change and to adapt and to painfully deal with the problems that it has met or created. But the high minded speech and pristine philosophies of liberty that drive America forward also present themselves today with a very nasty under-side. The justification for the War on Terror and the brutal torture involved in Gitmo or Abu Ghraib is the protection of freedom. Democracy is considered an all-defeating good.

This has been a common refrain in the rhetoric of Bush; that democracy is God-given. Obama echoed this view by beginning his acceptance with a challenge to anyone who “still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy”. They are answered in his election.

At times, one can’t help but think that democracy takes on the shape of an eschatological hope in the American mind. The idolatry betrayed by this election is not that Barack is Messiah, but that America is. America becomes the turning-point of history through the power of its collective will. Thus we heard John McCain say:

“… believe, always, in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.”

Obama challenged people in his acceptance speech:

“to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”

The dual theological error that besets the United States is the belief that democracy is a God-given right and that they have been charged with the task of bringing the euangelion of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to bear in the world.

But Obama could listen well to the French sociologist Jacques Ellul before taking office:

“The right of national self-determination does not exist in the Bible. Before God nations have neither a right to exist nor a right to liberty. They have no assurance of perpetuity. On the contrary, the lesson of the Bible seems to be that nations are swept away like dead leaves and that occasionally, almost by accident, one might endure rather longer.”

If democracy is the missio America, then this heterodoxy leads as it inevitably will to the heteropraxy of Guantanamo. For, the very protection of democracy and liberty results in the inalienable rights of individuals (in this case detainees/enemy combatants) being withdrawn, discarded and ignored.

In America’s effort to protect its Good News of liberty and democracy for all corners of the Earth, it must act in the must il-liberal way possible. The dual mission of America (under God) to spread democracy to the entire world and protect democracy in all its forms gives them a license to act like tyrants and feel like saints.

The Empire Dimension

In their earnest efforts to fight the “axis of evil”, the USA has taken to stripping citizens of other nations of their rights. Even EU citizens are subject to such assaults. Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, who was kidnapped off the streets of Milan in February 2003 is one such case.

The New Testament enshrines the role of government as God-ordained. In Romans 13 we read “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities… The authorities that exist have been established by God”. But ultimately “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to” Jesus. At the end, when Christ will hand the kingdom to the Father, he will have “destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.” (1 Corinthians 15.24) Until then, legitimate governments have authority. They are not called to “heal this nation” and “repair this world”. Instead they exist to create justice, to be “agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer”.

When the United States begins to take citizens that are not their own and hold them to account by their own standards of justice (or sadly in the case of Gitmo, no standard of justice at all), they are straying into the territory of Empire. They are making a claim not just over the citizens they are directly accountable to, but to whosoever they may wish. This democracy begins to look like an Empire.

Strictly defined in historical terms, the United States is not an Empire. But in Biblical terms, this imperialistic intention to assert their culture and political system across the whole known world is reminiscent of historical Empires that came across the Israelites; the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians and Romans.

Subverting The Empire

Where Rome had paterfamilias patronage we now have multinational corporations. Like Rome, America is secured by both socio-economic forces and overwhelming military power, is legitimated by religious myths (Pax Americana replacing Pax Romana) and sustained by proliferation of empire images and axioms (through the global media). It is the locus point of the principalities and the powers.

The Empire philosophy is what permits America to strip the prisoners of Abu Ghraib and cover them in excrement, or have them humiliate themselves in homoerotic poses before a camera, or stand them on top of boxes, warning them that if they fall, they will be electrocuted. The State is the supreme power. One nation above God, as the giver, securer and taker of human rights. This stripping of rights goes far beyond liberties that the State afforded in the first place and even stretches to people in lands outside the control of the State. The philosophy of Guantanamo Bay is a philosophy of Empire. And the New Testament, for example in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, calls on Christians to bear the image of Christ in shaping an alternative to the Empire and its Emperor.

Obama’s forebear Martin Luther King preached from the prophets and recalled Exodus when bringing America to account over its civil rights abuses. It was under the oppression of the Phaoroah’s Empire that God heard the cries of the slaves in Egypt. It was against the military of that Empire that he went to battle with on Passover. “Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea”. And the prophets spoke of the day when God would overthrow all Empires and all the pseudo-gods and idols of the world so that, in words that come to our minds in the accent of Martin Luther King, justice would roll like a mighty river.

If Gitmo is the product of a philosophy of Empire, then the theological conviction upon Christians must be to tear it down.

The Shape of Subversion: Theology of the Body

The early church depicted Caesar and Christ as rival monarchs. As NT Wright puts it, Christians “regarded it as fundamental that their allegiance to Christ cut across any allegiance to Caesar”. When any of our governments falls into the territory that America has landed with Gitmo, with the Empire connotations that elicits, with the spiting of God that it involves, then our resolve should be just as firm as Polycarp’s.

The dehumanization, scientifically ritualized in the torture of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo should be abhorrent, instinctively to the Christian. Miroslav Volf describes what we might call a pneumatic intolerance of dehumanization,

“The distance from my own culture that results from being born by the Spirit creates a fissure in me through which others can come in. The Spirit unlatches the doors of my heart saying: “You are not only you; others belong to you too.”

Psychology will have much work to do in the aftermath of these camps to untangle how soldiers, often from Christian backgrounds, were compelled to treat other human beings in such a fashion. An allegiance to the nation and a despising of the “Other” seems to be at the heart of it. Christianity has no space for such despising.

Humiliation and dehumanization is the start of the torturing process, but not the end. The torture process turns the whole world of the victim into a weapon. God’s Creation, which he deems “Good”, is narrowed and then warped so that everything around the victim becomes a painful tool deployed against them. Elaine Scarry writes, “The room . . . is converted into a weapon . . . made to demonstrate that everything is a weapon, the objects themselves, and with them the fact of civilization, are annihilated: there is no wall, no window, no door, no bathtub, no refrigerator, no chair, no bed.” The torture process makes every action a punishment. Standing, sitting, swallowing. Your own body becomes a traitor. The torture process turns language into a weapon. America doesn’t speak of torture but enhanced interrogation methods. Truth and beauty are sacrificed so that truth (the reason we are interrogating in the first place) can be discovered and beauty (the liberty of democracy) protected.

Human beings are sacred. The words roll off our tongues so easily. But for Christians, human bodies are sacred too. Humans bear the Imago Dei, which is a non-corporeal thing. But it is contained in the body. Vicious treatment of the body is vicious treatment, destruction, of the work of God. For a nation that applauds itself for its justice and promulgates its good news of liberty for all to implement such treatment of people in any circumstances is dreadful. To do so without trial or declaration of war is dreadful beyond description.

In “Where God Happens”, Rowan Williams captures the importance of the body for Christians.

“Only the body saves the soul. It sounds rather shocking put like that, but the point is that the soul left to itself, the inner life or whatever you want to call it, is not capable of transforming itself.”

Dehumanization is a crime we are able to wrap our heads around easily. To strip a man of his Self, to pretend he has no soul is an insult to God. But torture as an attack on the body is no less permissible. John Paul the Great did more than anyone else to restore the body to its proper place of importance in the mind and practice of the church. Of torture he said,

“That techniques of torture are being perfected to weaken the resistance of prisoners, and that people sometimes do not hesitate to inflict on them irreversible injuries, humiliating for the body and for the spirit. How can one fail to be troubled when one knows that many tormented families send supplications in vain in favour of their dear ones, and that even requests for information pile up without receiving an answer?”

His words in 1978 seem prophetic for our situation in 2008. If the philosophy driving Guantanamo Bay is one of of imperialism and of Empire, the heretical theology of Manifest Destiny and the exceptionalism of the United States of America then our theological response must be one of outrage, protest and subversion.


The world is a more complex place than it was for Dylan in 1964. We no longer know who our enemy is, where they are or what they stand for. How much more important it is that we remember who we are and what we stand for. Ultimately, torture strikes at the heart of the Church’s conscience because we are the people who are gathered together and around, the tortured God. Christ is the one who stood before false courts, was stripped of his clothes, ritually humiliated, cruelly mocked, brutally beaten and ultimately hung on a cross. In the victims of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib we see a portrait of our Lord as he was in his final hours, cornered by an Empire who through their soldiers sought to dehumanize and destroy him. We as the church are gathered by the Spirit to bear testimony to the fact that he was not dehumanized and he was not defeated. No one has ever been more human and no greater victory can ever be won than was won on that Cross.

But in the light of the Crucifixion and certain in the sovereignty and right judgment of God, we can confidently oppose all inhumane treatment, especially done in our name, by our governments and our allies. It is by our sure and certain knowledge that God is setting the world to rights and will come in judgment for the innocent and the dispossessed that we do not need to bear the weight ourselves of bringing justice to the land, of healing the world or of spreading democracy. Our response to the War on Terror, our theology of Guantanamo must be a return to a political theology grounded in the worship of our Lord, tortured and crucified for us. As Stanley Hauerwas put its:

“Christians’ first political responsibility is to be the church, and by being the church they should understand that their first political loyalty is to God, and the God we worship as Christians, in a manner that understands that we are not first and foremost about making democracy work, but about the truthful worship of the true God.”

Your Correspondent, Entered this paper in the college Aquinas Awards last night