The Theology of Waterboarding

by Richard on February 25, 2008

Picking up on this comment thread, I came across this fascinating article on the reasoning behind the use of what has come to be called waterboarding in the Christian tradition. The author makes a strong case for seeing waterboarding as a perverted inversion of baptism.

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. Is it the purpose of the United State nowadays to seek the conversion, repentance, and purity of supposed terrorists and thus to take on the trappings of a religious rite? The question is so buried behind public discourse that its full import is hardly recognized.

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }


DH 02.25.08 at 7:25 pm

I don’t believe that this is the premise of the support for waterboarding. It is the fact that it doesn’t cause physical health problems to people when done correctly which all evidence supports the US has done every time.


Alex 02.25.08 at 8:09 pm

DH, I agree with your first sentence. First, of all torture can never be done correctly. It is wrong. Second of all, what evidence? Of course any evidence we’re allowed to supports what our government does. Furthermore, they’ve destroyed tapes that may or may not show otherwise. We have destroyed the system of checks and balances in this country that us conservatives have cherished for so long. We are now beholden to unaccountable executive power. We will live to regret it. Remember, Bush will not be in power forever, but the executive branch power grab that is his legacy will be with us forever. Furthermore, numerous military interrogators have come and said that this is not an effective method of interrogation. Most of the information given to us by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed turned out to be false. I always have to go back to what De Tocqueville said, “American is great, because America is good. If America ever ceases to be good, it will cease to be great.” In the last 6 years, we have ceased to be good. You know what comes next.


DH 02.25.08 at 8:17 pm

Alex, I’m sorry that I have to disagree with you that Bush is a “power grabber”. The fact remains that many many terrorist incidents have been prevented over the past six years at the hands of this president. I still like Bush and I just can’t sit back and be like France was in 1938.

I don’t believe waterboarding and baptism are connected in any way and as such the premise of the original author is totally off.


Alex 02.25.08 at 9:41 pm

DH, once again, I agree with you that the equating of baptism in any way with waterboarding is absurd.

I’m not arguing against preventing terror attacks. As an American living in a major city, I’m all for it. I’m saying that torture has not prevented a single terror attack. I’m asking that the commitments America has made, i.e. the Geneva Conventions be respected. Two wrongs don’t make a right. There are far, far more effective methods of interrogation and there are numerous accounts of professional interrogators who have spoken up about this.

Speaking of France, 1938 is one thing. But our liberal nation-building experiment in Iraq is looking more like the 1954-1962 France and their little experiment in Algiers, than it could have ever looked anything like pre-Hitler France. Your playing a little fast and loose with your analogies to compare the situation Europe faced in 1938 to that which America faced post-9/11. I’ve heard the analogy before, believe me, I watch Fox News. But this is shoddy foreign policy thinking and they know it, but hell, you gotta get ratings.

Two books I would recommend to you. First, “A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962″ by Alistair Horne. Second, “Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy” by Charlie Savage. Both are the most well-respected and reviewed pieces on their respective subjects. The first book is being read by some of the highest ranking members of our State Department.


Rachel 02.25.08 at 10:06 pm

I too don’t think that waterboarding was intended as a perverted form of baptism, although the irony is still there, such as with the Reformers drowning the “re-baptizers.”

As long as the irony is there, I guess we can compare the two. Baptism is supposed to be death and re-birth sort of experience…this was more obvious back in the days when people were baptized by full immersion. It is our dying and rising with Christ. And it is a sacrament given to us by our Lord.

With waterboarding, though, you only get the dying part. Sometimes people do physically die, but it is mostly a spiritual and psychological death, which is probably irreversible in most cases. Torture strips people of their humanity, dignity, and bodily integrity. Certainly the opposite of a sacrament in which a person is welcomed into a community and life with Christ. Plus, Christ never sanctioned torture. When Peter tried to solve a problem with violence (cutting of the soldier’s ear), Jesus rebuked him.

I think it’s easy for us to look at torture and say that the end justifies the means, but in the end that just doesn’t do it for me. I mean, the medival Catholic church probably thought they were doing the right thing executing all those heretics, but now we look at those events with shame, as we will be looking at this waterboarding debacle in the future.

I don’t remember the reference, but there’s this verse that says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Just my 2 cents. :)


Kim 02.25.08 at 10:38 pm

I think you guys - not Rachel - are missing Schweiker’s point. That Schweiker is talking inversion, not equivalence, I would have thought was a no-brainer. Clearly the relationship is not deliberately contrived - torturers are much too stupid and theologically illiterate for that - but symbolically freighted.

Do you know William T. Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist? I suspect Schweiker is drawing on this groundbreaking work, which explores the church’s practice of eucharist in the context of the Pinochet’s practices of torture in Chile (for which DH will no doubt put in a good word), the inversion of re-membering by dis-membering. Similarily water-torture as a violent nihilistic drowning in the waters of chaos provides a perverse contrast to baptism as a life-giving passing-through the Red Sea of Christ’s death and resurrection. That the victims are Muslims adds weight to the contrast.

DH, your pathetic apology for torture, your willful refusal to see that waterboarding istorture, your total lack of theological argument - check that, at least that is to your credit: there can be no theological argument for torture - I really am concerned about the state of your soul. Even if torture “worked” it would still be an absolute abomination, an instrument of the devil.


Rachel 02.25.08 at 11:43 pm

Kim, thanks for the book reference; I’ll have to check that out. Sounds provocative…and chilling. And thanks for the Red Sea connection…that hadn’t occurred to me. Oh, to have more theological training…


Rachel 02.25.08 at 11:58 pm

Oh yeah, this is off-topic, but if anyone’s interested Jason Clark is having “Hell Week” over at his blog with a few guest posts on Universalism…one of them is a philosophy prof. from my school! Should be a good time…with some heated discussion. (ha! get it? heated! sorry…) The link is:


DH 02.26.08 at 2:41 pm

Alex, there is evidence that waterboarding DID prevent a terrorist attack. From the information given they were able to implicate a person who was planning an attack that was to kill 10’s of thousands of people.

It seems to me this post kind of proves my point:


Wood 02.26.08 at 4:33 pm

Was doing evil the only way that terrorist attack could have been prevented?

Maybe. But if so, by adopting tactics which put one on a moral level down there with terrorists - like, you know, torture - one still loses any right to assert any moral superiority. Torture is wrong. Maybe you might think there are shades of badness in play, and that one evil can sometimes be justified in order to prevent another, greater evil, but still. Let’s not pretend that torture is anything other than evil. That is the tactic of either a liar, a fool, or of someone who is lying to himself.


Alex 02.26.08 at 5:04 pm

DH, thanks for the link. I don’t think you have the full picture from that article of the Abu Zubaydah interrogations. Please check this one out as I was willing to read yours:

Also, I’ve posted some links on torture at my blog. Please check them out here:

There are multiple ways of getting information out of a detainee. One is obviously waterboarding. But most interrogation professionals would consider this a short cut. Have we really stooped so low as to take morally indefensible short cuts when other methods are available? Furthermore, there is no evidence that there was any kind of Joel Surnow-style “24″-esque attack imminent. Even if there was, the evidence has now been destroyed, effectively limited the power of the people to keep checks and balances on our government. The fundamental question here is, do the ends justify the means? For you and the current administration, they apparentely do. The thrust of my argument is that we can gather the exact same intelligence without resorting to evil ourselves. I also recommend you check out the now Oscar winning documentary, “Taxi to the Dark Side” if you’re really interested in grasping the full picture of just how far our country has moved away from the principals of the founding fathers. Torture has been compared to the ring in Lord of the Rings. It is a shortcut to power, when more righteous means are equally available. Waterboarding is a shoddy interrogation tactic and any skilled interrogator can extract better information in other ways. Waterboarding is lazy.


DH 02.26.08 at 5:36 pm

Well Alex, my url wasn’t “biased” for me it is hard to look at documentaries unless they are objective and don’t come with certain predispositions. Many “Oscar winning” documentaries do have bias and predispositions that many times cloud reality. I prefer looking at unbiased information.


DH 02.26.08 at 5:40 pm

Alex, Andrew operates from a premise that America is torturing people which is not the case so really his premise is totally off. Again for the upteenth time I in no way endorse the use of torture. So in that sense I agree with Andrew. I think his ridiculous hypothetical questions really do not deserve any reply whatsoever. I do not respect the hypothetical questions asked by Andrew Sullivan.


DH 02.26.08 at 5:47 pm

Wood, again for the upteenth time I do not endorse torture in any way. What do I have to do to get you people to understand that. I don’t believe evil was done to prevent the terrorist attack. I don’t condone torture so therefore I agree with you Wood. I’m glad we agree. I still just don’t agree that waterboarding is torture. However, for the sake of agreement with you all, I’m glad that they have refrained from doing it since 2005 because there are other ways to get information that are “less controversial” that are being used. I don’t know what I can say that can get you guys from thinking that I condone torture when I don’t condone torture.

Wood, I’m also glad you acknowledge that this non-torture act was successful in implicatiing terrorists. At least we are moving somewhat to a level of agreement.


Dave Warnock 02.26.08 at 7:00 pm


“Wood, again for the upteenth time I do not endorse torture in any way.”

Yes you do, until you reject water-boarding by anyone you are advocating torture.


Alex 02.26.08 at 7:24 pm

DH, any report has bias in it including the author of the link you provided. I’m not denying that. But take a look and bias or not, there is truth being told. Just because Sullivan happens to disagree with you on torture doesn’t mean that what he says isn’t accurate. I’m confused about what your trying to say about bias there. Of course the questions don’t deserve a reply, they are rhetorical. That’s the nature of them. Furthermore, information in itself can’t be biased, only those who relay it. If you have a specific accusation regarding the falsity of the links I sent you please point it out. Let’s talk specifics.

Also, your happy it stopped because it’s “less controversial”? Are you not at all concerned with unchecked executive power under any administration of any party? For your information, waterboarding has always been called water torture. The name change is a recent American invention. The attorney general himself, Michael Mukasey, said that he would consider it torture if it were done to him. And it certainly qualifies as torture under the Geneva Conventions, and I’m sure it would qualify in your mind if it were done to you. Article 3 specifically prohibits “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment”. Waterboarding fits that description easily.


DH 02.26.08 at 7:30 pm

Are terrorists under the Geneva Convention? There are some questions, I’m not saying they aren’t, as to whether they are or not. I don’t consider it uncheck Evecutive Power but understandable Evexcutive Order for the sake of National Security. Also, many people, including Bush who recommended Mukasey, disagree with Mukasey. I think Mukasey has and will be a great Attorney General I just happen to disagree with him with regard to waterboarding being torture. However, in fact Mukasey, didn’t totally reject waterboarding by saying “I don’t want to get into a discussion or debate of specific interegating techniques due to National Security. So it doesn’t seem that he wholeheartedly disagrees with me.


DH 02.26.08 at 7:34 pm

I agee we need to look at facts that is why I brought to bear the link showing that in fact a terrorist act which would have murdered hundreds of thousands was prevented. To me that is enough of a reason to support that specific case for the use of waterboarding. However, we know it has been done in rare incidents in America and has not been done since 2005. These are facts. I understand there may have been some unsuccessful interegations but one still should have ones bias to cloud the fact that there have been successes.


DH 02.26.08 at 7:37 pm

Dave, I’m not advocating torture.


Alex 02.26.08 at 8:13 pm

DH, I believe you are right regarding Geneva’s applicability to terrorists. But even if the the Geneva Conventions didn’t exist at all, as Christians, is it ever ok to perform “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment” to anyone? There is no way I can answer yes to that question.

Also, regardless if you consider it unchecked or not, it is unchecked. I’m sure you’ve heard the famous quote, “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I am not saying don’t interrogate, I am not saying don’t have the best intelligence service possible. What I am saying is that human nature is prone to evil and abuse of power. It’s a dangerous thing to grant such sweeping power to abuse an individual to another individual, especially when it is unecessary considering it is not close to the best method of interrogation available.


Alex 02.26.08 at 8:15 pm

Speaking of “successes”, again, the ends don’t justify the means. Success is no argument for morality. Imagine a world where it was.


DH 02.26.08 at 8:28 pm

Ales, have you heard of “top secret” if we did what you said and had some of these things “checked” we know the press will get ahold of this making our national security worse than otherwise. I don’t believe Bush abused power. I believe it IS checked because it is the Executive Branch job to make sure no laws are violated and when they have they have been dealt with swiftly and those who have violated laws have been implicated (aka Abu Ghraib). I still don’t believe that waterboarding is “abusing” or “torturing” people and as such.

I believe it is immoral to see the guy who was implicated do what he was going to do if not implicated. That is what is truly immoral, terrorism and as such people, nations, etc. must defend themselves.


PamBG 02.27.08 at 8:35 am

All of the following DON’T COUNT when it comes to America:

* Love your neighbour as yourself;
* Love your enemy
* Love those who persecute you and return good with evil.

I mean, I can understand how Jesus said that in his culture. He was talking about foreigners.

But come on now, we’re talking about AMERICANS! If Jesus had known about America - real people like you and me - he most certainly would have allowed his followers to kill people who hurt them. After all Jesus loves us more than them; America is probably the most Christian country lefts in the world.

The ends DO justify the means when it comes to America. The Bible tells me so.


PamBG 02.27.08 at 8:36 am

Argh, I mean ‘Return evil with good’ - too early in the morning!


Wood 02.27.08 at 9:24 am

DH: Like people keep saying, if you advocate water-boarding, you’re advocating torture. To say you’re not is crazy. Torture is torture is torture, and no matter how hard you try to spin it, you can’t make exceptions.

“It’s not torture because it’s just a little bit torture-y” is not an adequate argument, and that is precisely what your argument boils down to.


DH 02.27.08 at 3:03 pm

Well Wood there are many more people more intelligent than myself who happen to believe waterboarding isn’t torture. It isn’t crazy to believe waterboarding isn’t torture. My argument doesn’t boil down to your conclusion because no one is physically harmed. That isn’t “a little bit torture-y” but a fact.


DH 02.27.08 at 3:05 pm

Pam, I love my neighbors that is why I condone coming to their aide to prevent them from being murdered by evil terrorists by having terrorists implicated.


Wood 02.27.08 at 3:55 pm

“there are many more people more intelligent than myself who happen to believe waterboarding isn’t torture.”

Well, apart from the obvious fact that this clearly isn’t saying much, so what?

Many people who are evil and/or crazy are clever. Intelligence has nothing to do with morality.


Richard 02.27.08 at 4:07 pm

I offer this link with no further comment.


DH 02.27.08 at 4:08 pm

I consider it moral that hundreds of thousands of people are saved from the hands of terrorists. That is what I consider moral.


Dave Warnock 02.27.08 at 4:43 pm


As Christians we follow the teaching of Christ. Do you agree?

I understand that the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches that all people are our neighbours and that we are to love them all. That means the terrorists are your neighbours just as much as their victims.

I understand the teaching of Jesus that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute them as meaning that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. I thought you were in favour of a plain reading of scripture.

Where does Jesus teach a morality such as you suggest in your last comment?


Wood 02.27.08 at 4:57 pm

Thanks for the link, Richard. Didn’t know that waterboarding was the torture John McCain endured in Vietnam.

Also: Like I said.


Richard 02.27.08 at 5:14 pm

We’ve got that message, DH. Repeating it doesn’t make it more convincing.

The UN definition of torture, contained in the UN Convention Against Torture reads: “For the purposes of this Convention, the term “torture” means any
act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is
intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or
a third person information or a confession…” There can be no question that waterboarding falls under this definition. The only reason that the question arises is that the US does it. The US doesn’t do torture, therefore… But what the US has done, while banning the use of ‘torture’, is allow ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. It’s a euphemism which, along with ‘extraordinary rendition’, is calculated to cover up what actually happens.

But we’re all repeating ourselves. Is there anything else that needs to be said?


Paul Martin 02.27.08 at 5:46 pm

The only thing left to say is that it must be a top priority to bring those who have authorised and those who have carried out this obvious form of torture to justice. That justice must mean firm sentencing.


DH 02.27.08 at 6:02 pm

I follow the teachings of Christ as well as the entire Bible which includes the OT.

Richard, why single me out? It seems to me others are doing the repeating as well. I just get really upset at people accusing me of supporting torture when I don’t condone it. Shouldn’t I get upset? I’m not attacking anyone else but it sure does seem others are here. That is why I’m repeating myself for which I’m sorry. I only wish others would stop repeating themselves as well.


Richard 02.27.08 at 7:59 pm

>> “Richard, why single me out? It seems to me others are doing the repeating as well. ”

What I said was, “…we’re all repeating ourselves”. How does that single you out? I understand that you don’t *think* you approve of torture. I’m not doubting your sincerity. But at best you are being misled, because there is absolutely no doubt at all in my mind that waterboarding is a form of torture. I don’t need you to tell me again. I’m convinced you’re wrong. Can we leave it there?


DH 02.27.08 at 9:01 pm

Richard, I agree we can leave it there, I only mentioned “single out” because I was solely mentioned on your first sentence. I am glad you mentioned that we ALL are repeating ourselves.


Alex 03.01.08 at 3:48 am

I’ll leave it with a couple quotes from the founding fathers:

First, Alexander Hamilton:

“A nation which can prefer disgrace to danger is prepared for a master, and deserves one.”

Then, James Madison:

““If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy. It is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to the provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>