Torture Is Iconoclasm

by Matthew Cooper

The nomination of Gina Haspel to the position of CIA director is deeply troubling to me, should be deeply troubling to all Americans—and should be most troubling to Orthodox Christians in particular. To explain why this is so, allow me to begin with a historical anecdote.

In 1169, the Bishop of Rostov, a stiff-necked and arrogant man named Fedor, was sent to Kiev by his prince, Andrei Yurievsky—later commemorated as Saint Andrei “the God-Loving.” This bishop had committed a number of egregious ecclesiastical crimes – many of them, it must be said, at Prince Andrei’s own instigation. One of these crimes was attempting to create his own jurisdiction over the head of the Metropolitan. Fedor’s behaviour even attracted the criticism of the celebrated preacher Bishop Saint Kirill of Turov, who urged him to resign his position. Long story short, when his conduct became intolerable, he was sent to Kiev to confess and face trial for his crimes before the then-Metropolitan of Kiev, Constantine II.

The Metropolitan of Kiev, however, had his henchmen cruelly torture the bishop. They cut out his tongue, cut off his right hand and put out his eyes. They then drowned him and then burned his corpse. According to the Russian émigré historian GP Fedotov in The Russian Religious Mind, such cruel forms of punishment, though de rigueur in medieval Byzantium, were rare in contemporary Kievan Rus’, and even then were executed solely by ecclesiastical courts. Prince Andrei, a choleric-tempered man by all accounts, was particularly incensed by the judicial torture and killing of Bishop Fedor. He assembled an enormous armed coalition including other Russian princes, their retinues, and Polovtsy (ancestors of various Finnic and Turkic peoples in the modern day) and stormed Kiev that same year, taking it ‘on the shield’. The city was devastated and not even the churches were spared. The Polovtsy even set fire to the celebrated Kiev Caves Lavra.

The sack of Kiev in March 1169 was and remains rightly seen as barbaric. But the attitude of the contemporary Kievan monastic chronicler was complex. According to Dr Martin Dimnik’s The Dynasty of Chernigov, although the chronicler deplores Prince Andrei for his wrath and pride, he also reports that the calamity fell justly on Kiev “because of our sins” and “for the metropolitan’s falsehood [in his treatment of Fedor].” And the anger which prompted Prince Andrei’s attack, horrendous as it was, should be understandable. It must be understood that the “secular” government of Kievan Rus’, even in its remoter outposts, viewed torture with an utter abhorrence. Upon his conversion in 988, Prince Vladimir “the Great,” later Saint Vladimir of Kiev, forbade all forms of torture and mutilation, along with capital punishment, over the objections of his bishops. As Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) puts it in The Orthodox Church: “When [Vladimir] introduced the Byzantine law code at Kiev, he insisted on mitigating its more savage and brutal features. There was no death penalty in Kievan Russia, no mutilation, no torture; corporal punishment was very little used.” Though the injunction against capital punishment was later lifted, that on torture and mutilation never was—except, as we have seen, in ecclesiastical courts following contemporary Byzantine canon, not Kievan civil, law.

The Rus’ polity was not alone. Prince Andrei’s daughter-in-law, Queen Tamara Bagrationi “the Great” of Georgia, placed a similar legal ban on the use of torture and mutilation in her kingdom, despite the fact that her early reign was contested by intrigue-happy noblemen on account of her being a woman. And even in Byzantium, the celebrated Emperor John II Komnenos “the Handsome,” though he did not ban the use of torture, nevertheless steadfastly refused to use any tortures or mutilations on criminals or even on his political opponents.

Why this revulsion against torture even in medieval Orthodox countries like Russia and Georgia, when it was so common in Byzantium? Why did Prince Andrei seemingly believe that the torture of one man merited the destruction of the city which committed it? Perhaps they intuited, better than the more jaded medieval Greeks did, that torture is iconoclasm. I do not mean by this simply that the historical Iconoclasts were particularly notorious torturers of their ideological and theological opponents, though they certainly were that. Even by Byzantine standards, Emperors Leo III and Constantine V were considered sadistic in their use of cruel juridical extremities against monks, including Saint Stephen the Younger. Rather: torture itself is an iconoclastic act. Human beings are made in the full image and likeness of God; we are all marked as belonging to Jesus Christ. The human body is an icon of God. The defacement of the human person, in the deliberate and dehumanizing infliction of severe pain or mental or physical suffering, is every bit as blasphemous an act as the desecration of a wood-and-paint icon of Christ. In the Gospels Christ identified Himself with those in prison. The torture of any prisoner or suspect is therefore an infliction of the same stripes and scourges, the same spit and mockery, as the Roman soldiery dealt to Christ in the extremities of His Passion.

Torture is explicitly condemned not only in the Orthodox Basis of the Social Concept document of 2000, but the Roman Catholic Church has also repeatedly, emphatically and categorically condemned the use of torture since a Papal bull issued against the practice in 1816. As Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI said: “Public authorities must eschew any means of punishment or correction that either undermine or debase the human dignity of prisoners. In this regard, I reiterate that the prohibition against torture ‘cannot be contravened under any circumstances.'” The Church of England and many Protestant churches around the world are party to the World Council of Churches’ condemnation of torture issued in 1974.

This brings me to John Kiriakou—the brave and principled ex-CIA whistleblower who has been at the forefront of opposing the nomination of Gina Haspel to the head of his former organization. His opposition is based on the grounds that Haspel not only engaged in the torture of terrorism suspects, but that she also destroyed the evidence that would reveal the CIA’s complicity in torture.

John Kiriakou is a Greek Orthodox Christian. His objection to the CIA torture program, to begin with, was not only ‘moral and ethical’ as he himself says, but also based in his Christianity. As thus demonstrated, his case should be unimpeachable as far as all Christians are concerned.

However, for revealing the CIA’s complicity in torture, Kiriakou was sent to prison for two years and essentially blacklisted by the CIA and all other federal government agencies. Being fairly hard up, he took a job as the host of Loud and Clear the Russian government-affiliated Sputnik News, but only on the condition that he be allowed complete journalistic freedom including with regard to Russia (which he was granted). He has since been repeatedly attacked and libeled in the press as a Russian propagandist, left, right and center. These attacks on Mr. Kiriakou have been coming in harder and thicker since his public and high-profile objections to the now-successful nomination of Gina Haspel to the position of CIA director.

The Orthodox churches in America, and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of the Americas in particular, here have the opportunity to bear a powerful witness to truth, against the modern iconoclasm implicit in the practice of torture. We can do that by standing firmly behind our brother in faith. John Kiriakou took a stand of conscientious civil disobedience, within and informed by Orthodox Christian social thought, both historical and modern, regarding the humane treatment of prisoners in custody. He is still being punished, even as the people he exposed are being promoted by our government. May the prayers to Christ of Saint Katherine of Alexandria, Saint Stephen the Younger, Saint Tamara of Georgia, Saint Vladimir of Kiev and, yes, Saint Andrei the Prince avail on his behalf, and on behalf of our nation.


Matthew Cooper is an Orthodox Christian blogger and English teacher based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.