No, Sarah Palin, waterboarding is not how we baptize terrorists

“Well, if I were in charge,” former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said at the NRA Convention this weekend, America’s enemies would know that “waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”

Palin’s position on waterboarding, a torture technique which slowly smothers and drowns the subject to extract a confession, isn’t too surprising. In the past, she has sometimes supported an aggressive foreign policy, and since George W. Bush’s presidency, many Republican hawks have approved of waterboarding.

What is surprising—and concerning—is the way Palin endorsed waterboarding, using phrasing which she has since said she still completely supports.

As I assume Palin understands given her very public affirmations of faith, baptism is a central tradition of Christianity. It’s a public way we join the body of Christ, a visible sign of our dedication to following Jesus and his command to love God and other people—neighbor and enemy alike.

Baptism is the celebration of someone joining God’s family.

Waterboarding is making someone feel like they’re drowning so you can force them to confess information they may or may not have.

The only thing these practices have in common is water.

The theology problems are even more obvious when we think about what Jesus had to say about dealing with our enemies. His message is pretty inescapable:

Love your enemies.”

Pray for those who persecute you.”

Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Turn the other cheek.”

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Now, many have suggested that all the stuff Jesus said about peacemaking and loving your enemies was about personal relationships only: Be nice to the irritating coworker. Don’t scream at people who cut you off in traffic. If your sister throws sand at you in the sandbox, don’t throw sand back.

All of that is surely included in what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, but I don’t think it encompasses everything he was expressing. There’s never an exception clause—a cutoff point at which the fight gets too big for “love your enemy” to apply.

And we can’t forget that for the audience Jesus was originally talking to, foreign policy was an inescapable part of daily life. There was no detachment. While our wars are located thousands of miles away, in First Century Israel your foreign enemy—the Roman soldier—was your neighbor, your customer, and potentially your abuser on a daily basis. In fact, as theologian and pastor Greg Boyd notes, “[National enemies] were exactly the kind of enemies Jesus and his disciples would have had in mind,” when he gave the Sermon on the Mount, because “Jesus was talking to people who were not only threatened by vicious nationalistic enemies; they were already conquered by them.”

“Turn the other cheek” didn’t start out as a metaphor; Jesus actually expected his listeners to get punched.

Unfortunately, Sarah Palin isn’t the only modern American Christian who has ignored what Jesus had to say about enemies in favor of a “waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists” mentality. A 2009 study showed that white Evangelical Christians with high church attendance were the group that most supported the use of torture against those suspected of being America’s enemies—a whopping 62% approved, the highest of any demographic surveyed.

But Jesus said we should love God, neighbors, friends, enemies—everyone. In I Corinthians, Paul says that anything we do without love, no matter how right or smart it seems, is worthless. And the apostle John even says that anyone who “does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

Love is the nuts and bolts of the Christian life. And it doesn’t baptize by torture.

As Christians, we may disagree on a general strategy of foreign policy. We may disagree on whether a given war or tactic is justified. We may even disagree on whether Christians should support war at all.

But we can agree on this: Waterboarding is not how we baptize terrorists. We baptize them like we baptize every other repentant sinner—like we baptize you, like we baptize me.

We baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.


This essay is adapted from Bonnie Kristian’s forthcoming book, “Love God. Love People. Love Liberty.”


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