More than a week after the news broke on the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, Christianity Today’s Weblog set out to gauge the Christian reaction. Their findings? Pretty disappointing. Few high-visibility American Christians were speaking out against the abuses, and even these diverged along different paths. While Sojourners magazine demanded the resignation of Rumsfeld for allowing such war crimes to continue under his command, World magazine was quick to defend Rumsfeld, labeling these actions the “perverse acts of a few.” Other leaders, such as Chuck Colson and Gary Bauer called for the vindication of America’s military through the swift punishment of the “bad apples” involved.

When the man responded that he believed in Allah, the guard replied, “I believe in torture, and I will torture you.”

Now it’s become clear that at least one of these infamous “bad apples” was apparently a Christian. Spec. John Darby, the soldier who reportedly confronted Spec. Charles A. Graner, the ringleader of Abu Ghraib, claims that Graner told him, “The Christian in me says it’s wrong, but the correction officer in me says, ‘I love to make a grown man piss himself.’ “Other accounts suggest that guards abused prisoners out of hostility toward Islam—one soldier reportedly asked a prisoner if he believed in anything, and when the man responded that he believed in Allah, the guard replied, “I believe in torture, and I will torture you.”

For anyone sensitive to Muslim-Christian relations, this is a catastrophe. Dr. Akbar Ahmed of the American University noted Osama bin Laden couldn’t have dreamed up a better recruiting advertisement than the photo of Lynndie England, Spec. Graner’s lover, dragging a prisoner around by a chain. Any Islamic militant wishing to connect Christianity with the decadence of America—many Muslims overseas continue to call America a “Christian” country—would appear to have a smoking gun. And the Qu’ran has some harsh words for those who “fight against God and His Messenger”—”they shall be slaughtered, or crucified, or their hands and feet shall alternately be struck off, or they shall be banished from the land … (Sura 5:37).”

All the more reason for a cogent Christian response to what transpired at Abu Ghraib. But what exactly should that look like? Let’s look at the writings of Christians past for some answers.

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What Would Augustine Say?

The New Testament and the ante-Nicene fathers give Christians no direct guidance on treating prisoners of war. Before Constantine, Christians weren’t really in a position to make such decisions.

Augustine of Hippo was perhaps the first to articulate how Christians should treat their enemies on the battleground.

It’s not until after Constantine that theologians and church leaders begin to offer some answers. Famous for his just war theory, Augustine of Hippo was perhaps the first to articulate how Christians should treat their enemies on the battleground:

“Those whom we have to punish with a kindly severity, it is necessary to handle in many ways against their will. For when we are stripping a man of the lawlessness of sin, it is good for him to be vanquished, since nothing is more hopeless than the happiness of sinners, whence arises a guilty impunity, and an evil will, like an internal enemy.” (Ep. Ad Marcellin. cxxxviii)

This doesn’t directly address prisoners of war. But when we read Augustine’s discussion of the Christian’s purpose in war, we get some hints:

“We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace. Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace.” (Ep. ad Bonif. clxxxix)

Roman Catholics inherited Augustine’s views on just war, and the guidelines he laid down served the Church and Christian princes through numerous wars. The Reformers, in part, accepted Augustine’s rationale, as the Lutheran Augsburg Confession states:

“It is taught among us that all government in the world and all established rule and laws were instituted and ordained by God for the sake of good order, and that Christians may …. punish evildoers with the sword, engage in just wars, serve as soldiers, etc.”

Yet note how the article ends: “But when commands of the civil authority cannot be obeyed without sin, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).”

So it would seem that American soldiers, Graner included, at Abu Ghraib failed on at least two accounts—working counter to the purpose of peace, and if some reports are true, failing to disobey orders that no Christian could in good conscience follow.

Protesting the Abuse of Power

How, then, should Christians, respond to abuses of power? A near contemporary of Augustine, Patrick of Ireland wrote a letter around 460 rebuking the Christian king Coroticus for slaughtering and enslaving new converts to the faith. “I know not what I should the rather mourn: whether those who are slain, or those who are captured, or those whom the devil grievously ensnared [meaning the captors themselves].” He has harsh words for Coroticus and his court, who by selling his captives to barbarian Picts, “hand over the members of Christ as it were to a brothel. What manner of hope in God have you? …. God will judge; for it is written, ‘Not only those who commit evil, but those that consent with them shall be damned.’”

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The parallel with Abu Ghraib is not exact here. But we can take note of Patrick’s outrage and grief. Coroticus’ captives were enslaved, and the women—many of whom had consecrated themselves as virgins—used for the pleasure of barbarian chieftains. Pictures of rape and dehumanizing experiments of a sexual nature reportedly done by professing “Christians” should likewise provoke deep anger and sadness among us—not only for the injustice of the crimes but for the damage done to Christ’s name.

Another example of protest comes from a Christian tradition opposed to war altogether. The Schleitheim Confession (1527), Anabaptists’ first and formative statement on war, precludes the possibility that Christians can engage in war with a good conscience. Jesus “forbids the violence of the sword when He says: ‘the princes of this world lord it over them, etc., but among you it shall not be so.’ “ How then, should Christians resist evil? “The worldly are armed with steel and iron, but Christians are armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and with the Word of God.”

In this Christian tradition, then, Christians will not take prisoners of war, for Christians will not fight. But that does not mean Christians cannot actively work to right evils that have been done either in Christ’s name or outside it. This, then, is the motivation for the Christian Peacemaker Teams’ presence in Iraq, calling commanders of military bases to account for injustice done to prisoners, attempting to help Iraqis gain access to family and friends imprisoned in Abu Ghraib, and urging police to cajole Army officers into acting on the abuses. It is also the bedrock for the kind of compassion shown by men like Henry Dunant who founded the International Red Cross and inspired the first Geneva Conventions to protect the rights of prisoners of war.

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Bringing Abu Ghraib Close to Home

It is not enough to write off the abuses at Abu Ghraib as the work of a few “bad apples.” An experiment done by Wheaton College students nearly 20 years ago now makes for a revealing look at what prison does to the best of us. On March 19, 1985, the college’s sociology department obtained use of an abandoned prison for 6 hours, and 40 students participated in a mock prison experience—10 acting as guards and 30 as prisoners. The result? In the words of one student, “After perhaps an hour, Wheaton students who were normally respectable and upright, were making some very crude comments, burping, farting, etc., and basically acting like they were twelve and thirteen years old. One female student became the butt of a number of crude and generally sexually oriented comments for at least a half hour.” In later experiments conducted by the department, “guards” stripped the students of their clothes, used handcuffs to pull their ankles behind their backs in a painful position, and forced them to eat cold food off the floor.

Ultimately, we must realize that what happened at Abu Ghraib is symptomatic of a disease all of us are infected with—sin. Paul’s damning words of Romans 1 trace the fall of ordinary, “good” people into all kinds of heinous acts: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened …. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another…. Since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.”

Let’s rightly react with revulsion when we see these pictures, and call for an accounting for the crimes committed. But let’s also recognize the evil nature in ourselves, and out of this recognition, cheer on the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams and others seeking to counter the evil done by Christians who have failed to live up to their calling. May God have mercy on us and the guards and prisoners of Abu Ghraib.

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Related Elsewhere:

Christian History Corner, a weekly column from Christian History & Biography, appears every Friday on Christianity Today’s website. Previous editions include:

Patrick’s Italian Brother | Lost amid the celebration of Patrick is the important story of Benedict, the father of western monasticism (Mar. 19, 2004)

When God—or Allah—Is In the Details | What do Islamic “sharia” law and the colonial Massachusetts’ Puritan experiment have in common? (Jan. 23, 2004)