Jesus: Brother of the Tortured and Judge of the Torturers

Pietà by Bernard Buffet (The National Museum of Modern Art, Paris) – Used in the Cover Art for Jesus Christ for Today’s World by Jürgen Moltmann

In Jesus Christ for Today’s World, Moltmann devotes an entire chapter to the subject of torture, titled “The Tortured Christ.” In light of the recently released Senate report on CIA interrogation methods,  I thought I would share a few highlights and reflections from Moltmann on this topic.

Torture can be justified using religion; even using the Bible

Moltmann begins by exploring the religious reasons for why we torture: torture is necessary as punishment for the wicked, or as purification of the righteous. Torture can even be supported using the Bible; Moltmann gives a few examples here, but the most scathing one is the doctrine of hell, for “hell is nothing other than religion’s torture chamber.” (59) (We’ll return to this later) We demonize our enemies to the extent that their rights and dignity as humans are nonexistent in our eyes – therefore, torture is rationalized away as a necessary punishment. Of course we wouldn’t normally treat a person this way; but this person has it coming to him as an enemy of our country/god/religion. In a similar vein, torture is also practiced for judicial /  expiatory reasons: “In expiatory penal law, suffering equivalent to the wrong committed is inflicted on the wrongdoer: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Evil is repaid by evil… The punishment of wrongdoers accomplishes something that is cosmically important.” (61)

But today we usually justify torture for more secular reasons

The justification that hits home with most of us in America is secular: The ends justifies the means. We value our safety and security enough that many of us are OK with the thought that maybe somewhere a Jack Bauer is electrocuting a suspected terrorist in order to get him to give up some vital piece of information that might be used to stop some terrorist threat just in the nick of time (it works so well on TV, why not in real life, right?). At least, I know I thought that way in the wake of 9/11 (and yes, when 24 was capturing my imagination).

Moltmann explains why this is problematic:

Does the end justify the means? In German one even asks: does the end sanctify the means, showing that there is still a religious element in this thinking, even if here we are at the furthest limits of what can be called religion. Is it permissible in wartime to torture prisoners in order to extort information from them? Is this merely a question of weighing up one thing against another, if the information is vital for me and my own cause? Or are there absolute limits which can never, ever be crossed whatever the circumstances? Is there any end which justifies the means of torture, or does torture as means discredit every end to such an extent that it can no longer be an end at all for human beings? Many people – and by no means just soldiers and policemen – will point to exceptional situations which justify the use of torture for the sake of getting information.

But can any country permit its ends to be sullied through the use of torture without losing its self-respect? Ends justified by the means of torture are unjustifiable; they are no longer ends worth living for. Every country needs this self-respect, because its political legitimization depends on it. The Germany in whose name the Nazis used the cruelest tortures for twelve long years lost all its luster in our eyes. A country that uses torture cannot be a ‘fatherland’.

But if a country’s glory radiates from its constitution, and if its value rests on the human dignity and human rights it guarantees, that country cannot permit torture, not even in extreme situations. Even if in some individual case everything would seem to speak in its favour, here we come up against a limit which is absolute, because here the foundation of the constitutional democratic state is infringed. A soldier or policeman who tortures other people in the name of his country is destroying that country, not protecting it. (62-63)

For Christians, torture is not justifiable because the tortured Christ stands as brother of the tortured and judge over the torturer

If this Christ is not just one human being among others – if he is the messiah, Israel’s deliverer and the redeemer of men and women – then his history if first of all an expression of God’s solidarity with the victims of violence and torture. Christ’s cross stands between the countless crosses set up by the powerful  and the violent throughout history, down to the present day. It stood in the concentration camps, and stands today in Latin America and in the Balkans, and among those tortured by hunger in Africa. His suffering doesn’t rob the suffering of those others of its dignity. He is among them as their brother, as a sign that God shares in our suffering and takes our pain on himself Among all the un-numbered and un-named tortured men and women, that ‘Suffering Servant  of God’ is always to be found. They are his companions in his suffering, because he has become their companion in theirs. The tortured Christ looks at us with the eyes of tortured men and women.


If the judge of the torturers is called Christ, then these torturers are confronted by someone who has been tortured. That is the moment of truth. The mask falls. the torturer recognizes himself for what he is. That is judgment. If the judge of the torturers is called Christ, then they are confronted by the one ‘who bears the sins of the world’. That is the moment of justice, the justice which creates new life. (65, 69)

Therefore, resistance against the practice of torture is imperative for followers of Jesus 

Doing this means at least three things that I pick up from this passage of Moltmann:

1. We need to rethink the way we talk about hell.

There are good theological reasons for us to do so, but also a practical one:  “As long as there is a hell for God’s enemies – and ours – in religion, there will also be direct and indirect justifications for torture chambers on earth.” (60-61). When we see only hell in the future of our enemies, there will be no reason for us to do anything other than create hell on earth for them here and now. For a religion with “love your enemy” at its core, this is unacceptable.

Because Christ was in hell, no one who is in hell is without hope any more. But this means that for Christian faith hell is no longer what it was once supposed to be – religion’s everlasting torture chamber. Its gates are open. Its wall s have been broken down .In hell the trumpet signalling liberation has already been heard. The person who sticks to Christ has no need to fear hell, nor can that person ever threaten others with the tortures of hell. If anyone thinks that for biblical reasons we still have to talk about hell, believers will answer: ‘O hell, where is thy victory? But thanks be to God who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (I Cor. 15:55,57). (67)

(For more of Moltmann on hell, I recommend reading his essay, The Logic of Hell. Better yet, pick up The Coming of God and dive in!)

2. We need to rethink expiation and punishment.

I’ve shared before Moltmann’s comments about resisting capital punishment:  “After the capital punishment that Jesus suffered, there can be from my understanding no justification for capital punishment, which is a violence in the name of the state and is creating new violence.” This needs to be extended to our understanding of torture as well; after the torture that Jesus suffered, can there be any justification for further torture? Moltmann takes it even further, calling into question the entire idea of punishment-as-expiation/deterrent:  “Anyone who wants to take a stand against torture and have it abolished will also have to abandon an expiatory criminal law, and the notion of punishment as a deterrent.” (62)

3. We need to question authority.

“Anyone who enters the lists against torture and wants to have it abolished must see to it that the sadists are not given a chance, and that the power of personal conscience is stronger than the compulsion ‘to obey orders’ or than the ‘force of circumstances’ which we hear so much about.” (64)  Torture must be called into question especially when it seems justified, when it seems small, when it enhances our sense of safety and security, when it is practiced against people who are our sworn enemies or who themselves commit crimes of inhumanity.

We must resist the practice of torture in hope for a better future. And we must proclaim the presence of the tortured Christ who offers compassionate solidarity to the tortured and reconciling judgment to the torturer.

7 thoughts on “Jesus: Brother of the Tortured and Judge of the Torturers”

  1. Ben,

    I’m so thankful for all the Moltmann goodies you share with us. I am slowly reading Crucified God and Theology of Hope. My goal is to eventually read all of his published books. Reading Jürgen has been truly life/faith changing!

    Thanks for the good work you do here!

    P.S. What would you think Moltmann would say about so-called Neo-Marcionite readings of scripture?

    1. Thanks for reading and for your kind comment! Moltmann has some interesting comments on Marcion in RRF, basically that when he was rightly rejected as a heretic (as is usually the case when any heresy is rejected) something was lost, namely the category of the “new” to describe God’s working in history. He explains it better than me so i’ll look for the quote later, maybe put it in a new blog post.

      I also think some people (like Greg Boyd) who have been labeled neo-Marcionite have been influenced by Moltmann’s cruciform approach in CG. That’s not to say Moltmann would endorse where they are going with it, but i can see a connection.

  2. While not disagreeing with anything in the article, it does raise the problem for me as to where is the line to be drawn. Granted torture cannot be justified, what amount of pressure can be applied in extreme cases to solicite information about terrorist activities. When appeals fail, what level of violence is justifiable?

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