‘He looked like Jesus Christ’

Crucifixion, torture, and the limits of empathy as a response to the photographs from Abu Ghraib.

By Sarah Sentilles

On April 29, 2004, digital photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were broadcast on the CBS television network, and reports followed in The New Yorker on May 1 and The Washington Post on May 6. In a letter to her friend written three days before any of the prosecuted activity took place at Abu Ghraib, Private Sabrina Harman wrote: “I cant [sic] get it out of my head. I walk down the stairs after blowing the whistle and beating on the cells with a [baton] to find ‘The taxicab driver’ handcuffed backwards to his window naked with his underwear over his head and face. He looked like Jesus Christ.”1

Harman was not alone. The body of Jesus hanging on the cross is an iconic image of a helpless, naked, tortured man,2 and many viewers of the photographs from Abu Ghraib have recognized echoes of the crucifixion in these images, likening the pictured bodies to the “mortified Christ.”3 Although most of the viewers who interpret the photographs as crucifixion images have antiwar, anti-torture, and anti-American imperialism views, their interpretation works against their intentions and their politics, and I want to argue here that applying the crucifixion narrative to the photographs secures empire rather than disrupts it. Interpreting the photographs through the lens of the crucifixion violates the victims of torture in three crucial ways: First, identifying Muslim prisoners as “Christ” is a form of forcible conversion; second, it renders the photographed violence necessary; and, third, it transforms empathy for the tortured prisoner into fear of the “other.”

In his sworn statement about his experience at Abu Ghraib, Ameen Sa’eed Al-Sheikh said: “The second day they transferred me to the hard site. Before I got in, a soldier put a sandbag over my head. I didn’t see anything after that. They took me inside the building and started to scream at me. The[y] stripped me naked, they asked me, ‘Do you pray to Allah?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ They said, ‘Fuck you’ and ‘Fuck him.’ “4

He then details what the guards did to him: beat his broken leg, threatened to rape him and his wife, threatened to kill him, put a gun to his head, deprived him of blankets and clothing, drew pictures of women on his back, made him stand naked and hold his buttocks, urinated on him, hung him from his bed using handcuffs until he lost consciousness, hung him from the cell door, took photographs of him, forced him to eat pork and to drink liquor. In the middle of his deposition, Al-Sheikh said: “Someone else asked me, ‘Do you believe in anything?’ I said to him, ‘I believe in Allah.’ So he said, ‘But I believe in torture and I will torture you . . .’ Then they handcuffed me and hung me to my bed. They ordered me to curse Islam and because they hit my broken leg, I cursed my religion. They ordered me to thank Jesus I’m alive. And I did what they ordered me. This is against my belief.”5

The torture at Abu Ghraib intentionally violated Islamic rules and customs; it was designed to transgress religious taboos. The handbook given to United States troops during a weeklong course on Iraq’s customs seemed to function as a guide for how to torture Muslim prisoners. It reads: “Shame is given by placing hoods over a detainee’s head. Avoid this practice. Placing a detainee on the ground or putting a foot on him implies that you are God. This is one of the worst things we can do.”6 In this context, identifying the victims of torture as the crucified Christ—like burning pages of the Qur’an, touching prisoners with menstrual blood, exposing them to naked women, forcing homosexual acts, making them curse Islam, demanding they give thanks to Jesus—is yet another religious transgression. It is, in effect, forcible conversion.

Labeling the victims of torture as Christ turns religious “others” into Christians, which is, at least rhetorically, the objective of most colonial projects. In his sworn statement, in which he details what he endured at Abu Ghraib, Hiadar Sabar Abed Miktub Al-Aboodi said: “They were laughing, taking pictures, and they were stepping on our hands with their feet. And they started taking one [photograph] after another and they wrote on our bodies in English. I don’t know what they wrote, but they were taking pictures after that.”7 When viewers interpret the photographs as crucifixion images, they, too, write on the prisoners’ bodies in English. They impose the narrative of the torturer onto the body of the tortured.


When a Christian story of violence and redemption is superimposed on the individual experiences of Muslim prisoners in Iraq, the individual is erased. The imposition of the crucifixion narrative on the photographs is, using Valentin Groebner’s term, a kind of defacement: “inscribing a complex story of sin and sanctification onto the body of someone defenseless,” turning the mutilated body of an “other” into a symbol.8 Such a reading uses the symbols and stories of Christianity to narrate the events in the photographs, shaping how the violence is seen and understood. Interpreting the photographs as crucifixion images attempts to make meaningful the suffering of another, but generates yet another violation. Overlaying a Christian narrative on someone else’s suffering to give that suffering meaning in the terms of the people causing that suffering imagines a story of victory—redemption, empty tomb, resurrection—where there is none for the victims of torture.

When the photographs from Abu Ghraib are interpreted as crucifixion images, the violence can be read as necessary for the maintenance of American power.

Although the symbol of the cross has been used to resist empire, it does not necessarily do so when applied to the photographs from Abu Ghraib. According to Susan Sontag, theologies of the cross link pain to sacrifice and sacrifice to exaltation, resulting in a view of suffering as something good rather than a mistake, an accident, or a crime; violence becomes a necessary means to a holy end rather than something to be fixed or refused.9 In The Suffering Self, Judith Perkins reveals how the violence of martyrdom in the early Christian era performed a ritualistic function that enabled the rise of institutionalized Christianity. Rather than reading the martyrs’ broken bodies as defeat, their bodies were interpreted as “symbols of victory over society’s power.”10 When the photographs from Abu Ghraib are interpreted as crucifixion images, the pictured violence can be read as necessary for, and essential to, the maintenance of American power.

Many viewers who make the analogy between the photographed violence and the violence on the cross resist United States governmental policies in Iraq. They assume that connecting the photographs of torture to the crucifixion will generate empathy that will lead to political action against torture. The problem, however, is that their logic is implied in the governmental logic they claim to oppose. The government’s justifications for torture also depend on a version of the crucifixion narrative, one that echoes the Christian doctrine of atonement: the sacrifice of one life to save the lives of many. The doctrine of atonement was articulated by Anselm at the beginning of the first crusade in 1095, ordered by Pope Urban II—one of many wars in which fighting Muslim “infidels” has been framed as a holy war waged by the soldiers of Christ. The language of atonement is the very language currently used by the United States government to sanction torture and abuse: soldiers and military police are ordered to use “harsh techniques to gain information to save lives.”11 Here, the “Christ” figure sacrificed to save American lives is a Muslim man.


Those (like editors at CBS, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post) who insisted that the photographs from Abu Ghraib be published assumed they would elicit an emotional response that would lead to action against the violence depicted in the photographs, and indeed they have. But this has not been the only response to the photographs. Their publication was met with a wide range of responses—moral outrage, empathy, triumphalism, warmongering, indifference, sexism, sexual fantasy, humor, racism, and humiliation. The very different receptions with which these photographs were met expose as false the assumption many photography theorists make: that viewing representations of violence necessarily leads to empathy, and that empathy necessarily leads to beneficent action on behalf of those pictured. The comparison of the photographs from Abu Ghraib to crucifixion images reveals that viewer response can be manipulated, and that no response is automatic, “natural,” or inevitable, but must be learned, taught, and practiced.

Understanding the photographs as crucifixion images connects them to the tradition of private contemplation of images of the crucifixion and of gory executions of Christian martyrs, during which, in Groebner’s words, “the explicit bodily agony . . . was intended to move the beholder and inspire compassion . . . allow[ing] the beholder to feel the pain of the Redeemer in pious empathy and affective piety.” In this tradition, the viewer is supposed to put himself or herself in the place of Christ. Through realistically rendered wounds and with an emphasis on blood, depictions of the crucifixion allowed the viewer to feel the pain of Jesus, the “Redeemer,” in pious empathy.12

Empathy has been identified by many theorists, philosophers, and theologians as the central requirement for ethical action: The viewer who feels empathy is assumed to be inspired to engage in action on behalf of the person experiencing violence. When contemplating crucifixion images, there is indeed a presumed connection between viewing representations of violence and feeling empathy. However, such feeling is assumed to be redemptive, not for the person in the image, but for the viewer.13 For example, focusing on the use of crucifixion images in the fifteenth century, Groebner writes, “Reproductions, published in large editions, of images of the (allegedly life-size) wounds in Christ’s side were popular: kissing them was supposed to gain one seven years’ remission of purgatorial punishment and protection from sudden death.”14 Reading the photographs from Abu Ghraib as crucifixion images reverses the assumed direction of beneficent action: rather than the recipient of the beneficent action being the person in the photograph, the recipient is the viewer of the photograph.

In this climate of fear, an empathetic response to the Abu Ghraib photographs supports the perception that the person doing the looking is the one at risk.

In addition, in the culture of fear in which most United States citizens find themselves, imagining oneself as a victim might increase violence rather than decrease it. Fearful citizens inundated by media images of horror, and who live in powerful, rich, imperialist nations, imagine their own victim status in everyday life as if it were both natural and inevitable, however small the risk of falling victim to violence might be.15 Since 9/11, the government of the United States has been encouraging people in this country to imagine themselves as victims, constantly telling its citizens they are about to be attacked by terrorists whose “objectives . . . are to kill large numbers of civilians and to strike at the heart of America’s political cohesion and its economic and military might,” to use language from The Abu Ghraib Investigations: The Official Reports of the Independent Panel and Pentagon. These “geographically dispersed terrorists . . . threaten America’s right to political sovereignty and our right to live free of fear.”16 The threat is everywhere, all the time; the terrorists are numberless, faceless, nameless; they hate “America,” and “freedom,” and they will stop at nothing to attack “America’s way of life.” In this climate of fear, an empathetic response to the photographs from Abu Ghraib—imagining oneself in the place of the person being tortured—supports the perception that the person doing the looking is the one at risk.

General Richard Myers and United States Senator James Inhofe used conceptions of empathetic identification to generate fear of the “enemy” rather than outrage on behalf of the torture victim. They insisted the photographs from Abu Ghraib, if seen around the world, would put United States troops at risk. Myers “asked CBS to delay the broadcast out of concern the lives of the Coalition soldiers and the hostages in Iraq would be further endangered.”17 In his rhetoric, the subject of concern shifts; suddenly, the victims are not the tortured prisoners shown in the photographs, but American soldiers. As the subject of concern shifts, so does the perpetrator of the violence. Inhofe said: “Many of them probably have American blood on their hands, and here we’re so concerned about the treatment of those individuals. It’s the fault of ‘the media,’ which are provoking, and will continue to provoke, further violence against Americans around the world. More Americans will die. Because of these photos.”18

In “Regarding the Torture of Others,” Susan Sontag documents the words of John Warner of Virginia, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. After the May 12 slideshow of photographs and videos from Abu Ghraib, he felt “very strongly” that the newer photos “should not be made public. I feel that it could possibly endanger the men and women of the armed forces as they are serving and at great risk.”19 According to Myers, Inhofe, and Warner, the people harmed by the photographs are not the men in the pictures, but American troops and the United States itself. Sontag writes: “The damage—to our reputation, our image, our success as the lone superpower—is what the Bush administration principally deplores. How the protection of ‘our freedom’—the freedom of five percent of humanity—came to require having American soldiers across the globe is hardly debated by our elected officials. America sees itself as the victim of potential or future terror. America is only defending itself, against implacable, furtive enemies.”20

Once the photographs were published, the government’s challenge was to reshape viewers’ emotional response, transforming it from outrage to fear. Empathy could be manipulated to do this work. When a viewer empathetically imagines herself or himself in the place of another, the other disappears (at least temporarily) while the viewer imagines that he or she is facing the threat of violence.21 This replacement of the other with oneself follows, in the words of William Pinar, “from a facile intimacy” that comes with imagining the other “to be us.” Identification with the victim does not necessarily interrupt the violence; it might be instead, regardless of one’s intentions, a different kind of violence, what Pinar calls a “violence of identification.”22

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag argues against sympathetic responses to images of violence. Critiquing liberal assumptions about sympathy, Sontag writes, “Sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence,” guaranteeing that the viewer thinks s/he is not an accomplice to what caused the suffering.23 Empathy functions similarly: the viewer places herself in the position of the other, ignoring or denying her own role in causing pain and, at the same time, imagining herself as a victim rather than as a responsible agent.

At the end of the letter I quoted at the beginning of this article, in which Sabrina Harman describes a likeness between the “taxicab driver” and “Jesus Christ,” Harman writes, “I dont [sic] know if I can take it mentaly [sic], what if that was me in their shoes.” Hers is the paradigmatic empathetic question, and yet it was written three days before any of the charged activity took place. Although the question did not cause her to torture prisoners, imagining herself in the shoes of the Iraqi prisoners did not stop her from torturing them, and, more importantly, identifying them as “Christ” did not either. Immediately after writing “he looked like Jesus Christ,” Harman continues: “At first I had to laugh so I went and grabbed the camera and took a picture. One of the guys took my [baton] and started ‘poking’ at his dick.”24 This, if nothing else, reveals the inadequacy of empathy as an ethical, justice-seeking, violence-resisting response to images that show the suffering of others.


In her article “Violence and Memory,” Anne Llewellyn Barstow quotes Margaret Atwood: ” ‘As a rule, we tend to remember the awful things done to us and to forget the awful things we did.’ “25 The crucifixion narrative plays a role in this remembering and this forgetting, letting us not simply identify with the victim, but as the victim. Labeling the photographs as crucifixion images obscures Christian violence by highlighting Christian compassion. Such a naming allows Christians in the United States to overlook the Christian nature of the torture.

I offer a caveat to my insistence that it is a mistake to read the photographs as crucifixion images. It is a mistake, I think, for American Christians to do so. Something different—and possibly instructive—happens when Muslims from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Palestine make this connection. In his article “Coetzee, Agamben, and the Passion of Abu Ghraib,” Harvard anthropologist Steven Caton writes: “The Arab and Iranian media . . . connected this symbolism to U.S. sovereignty over Iraq. For example, Jihan Jarar from Palestine sent to the Arabic Internet journal Arab Keys a letter dated May 5, 2004 in which he asked, ‘Can’t we call what we’ve witnessed in Abu Ghraib prison Christian terrorism?’ “26

Caton points out that “In Arabic the semantic connections between cross, Christian, and crusader are more self-evident than they are in English, because the words are derived from the same semantic root.”27 Emphasizing the Christianness of the torture is very different from emphasizing the Christianness of an empathetic response or the Christ-like status of the victim. What if the torturers, like the municipal executioners described by Groebner, were acting out the drama of the passion as they tortured prisoners?28 What if, as Jarar suggests, it is the torturers themselves who are embodying the Christian story? Critically analyzing the effects of interpreting the photographs from Abu Ghraib as crucifixion images forces us, in the words of Caton (who is quoting the novelist Coetzee), “to confront the possibility that a work of piety and devotion could have the opposite effect.”29


  1. Joanne Wypijewski, “Judgment Days: Lessons From the Abu Ghraib Courts-Martial,” Harpers, February 2006.
  2. Valentin Groebner, Defaced: The Visual Culture of Violence in the Late Middle Ages (Zone Books, 2004), 87–88.
  3. See, for example, Dora Apel, “Torture Culture: Lynching Photographs and the Images of Abu Ghraib,” Art Journal, Summer 2005, 91–92.
  4. Mark Danner, “The Depositions: The Prisoners Speak,” in Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror (New York Review Books, 2004), 226.
  5. Ibid., 227.
  6. Danner, Torture and Truth, 18.
  7. Danner, “The Depositions: The Prisoners Speak,” 245.
  8. Groebner, Defaced, 87.
  9. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (Picador, 2003), 99.
  10. Judith Perkins, The Suffering Self: Pain and Narrative Representation in the Early Christian Era (Routledge, 1995), 34, 117.
  11. The Abu Ghraib Investigations: The Official Reports of the Independent Panel and Pentagon on the Shocking Prisoner Abuse in Iraq, ed. Steven Strasser (Public Affairs, 2004), xvi–xvii, xix, 25.
  12. Groebner, Defaced, 91–93.
  13. I follow Wendy S. Hesford here, who questions the thinking of documentary filmmakers and human rights workers who assume that hearing and seeing reports of violence will translate “empathy into beneficent action”; Wendy S. Hesford, “Documenting Violations: A Pedagogy of Rhetorical Witnessing and the Spectacle of Distant Suffering,” Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 27, no. 1 (Winter 2004): 107.
  14. Groebner, Defaced, 95.
  15. Ibid., 154.
  16. The Abu Ghraib Investigations, 3–4, 21.
  17. Ibid., 38.
  18. Quoted in Susan Sontag, “Regarding the Torture of Others,” in At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches, ed. Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 141.
  19. Ibid., 142.
  20. Ibid., 140.
  21. William F. Pinar, The Gender of Racial Politics and Violence in America: Lynching, Prison Rape, and the Crisis of Masculinity (P. Lang, 2001), 36–38.
  22. Ibid., 37.
  23. Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 102.
  24. Wypijewski, “Judgment Days,” 47.
  25. Anne Llewellyn Barstow, “Violence and Memory: The Politics of Denial,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 68, no. 3 (2000): 594.
  26. Steven C. Caton, “Coetzee, Agamben, and the Passion of Abu Ghraib,” American Anthropologist 108, no. 1 (2006): 120. In addition, Caton reveals that another Iraqi website narrativized the images through the lens of Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Groebner, Defaced, 103.
  29. Caton, “Coetzee, Agamben, and the Passion of Abu Ghraib,” 116.

Sarah Sentilles earned a master of divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School and is now a doctoral candidate in theology. She is the author of Taught by America: A Story of Struggle and Hope in Compton (Beacon Press) and A Church of Her Own: What Happens When a Woman Takes the Pulpit (Harcourt). She teaches at California State University, Channel Islands.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.