Thursday, May 21, 2009

Christians and Torture, Pt. 2...

In my previous post, I argued that Christians often tacitly approve of torture because of an underlying belief that God also approves of torture - after all, God clearly appears to torture people in Scripture, and God IS good. Ergo, there must be some sense in which torture is good. I further asserted that such a belief is, in fact, grounded in a lie.

What is the lie? Simply this: We can/should be just like God. It is the same lie the serpent used to tempt Eve in the story of the garden (Gen. 3:1-4); it is a lie that manifests in countless forms, which I don't have time to recount here.

This assessment of the lie, depending on your perspective, may appear to be either utterly banal or foolishly outrageous. Of course we are not God! There are some things we cannot and should not attempt, not being God. But, on the other hand, we are supposed to be like God, aren't we? If God does it, doesn't that make it good?

Short answer: No... and yes. ;-)

I want to suggest that there are two connected, but vitally distinct, themes throughout Scripture that are essential for genuine Christianity. The first is that we are to trust, love, and obey God. The second is that we are to be like Jesus Christ. Scripture's demand upon Christians is NOT that they do what God does per se, but that they follow Christ. [Of course, we could divert here onto a rabbit trail about God and Christ being one because of the Trinity, etc., but I believe that is an exercise in missing the point.]

Notice Jesus' words and actions. He never claims to speak or act on behalf of God; rather, he claims to speak the very words of God. When Jesus speaks, God is speaking. When Jesus acts, God is acting. His words and actions are certainly not the entire summation of God's words/actions, but they ARE the cornerstone of any truly Christian ethic. Without Christ, there is no grace, only law. Without Christ, our image of God is blurred at best. (John 1:18) Without Christ, we cannot really know God, so why would we think we can be like God? And whenever any Christian, consciously or not, acts on behalf of God without centering that action in the person and life of Jesus Christ, they are in grave danger of living a lie.

But how does this all relate to torture? Quite simply: Unless we can see evidence of advocacy for torture in the person and work of Jesus Christ, then Christians have no room for any advocacy of torture.

There is more. In a recent eye-opening and thought-provoking article, William Cavanaugh states: "'Torture' and 'Eucharist' denote two different types of enacted imagination... Torture helps imagine the world as divided between friends and enemies. To live the Eucharist, on the other hand, is to live inside God’s imagination. The Eucharist is the ritual enactment of the redemptive power of God, rooted in the torture, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ..."

Cavanaugh argues that torture creates the illusion of our own superiority and righteousness: "An important part of producing enemies is the creation of a sharp distinction between our virtue and their depravity. The dehumanization of enemies must be accompanied by a magnification of our own virtue and a forgetting of our own sins. Every nation has a version of this dynamic, whereby the friend/enemy distinction can lead to amnesia about the nation’s past sins and amnesty for its current sins..."
(This, of course, echoes Jesus' words about removing the log in your own eye, among other things.)

So what is the proper Christian response to torture? We ought to turn torture on its head; rather than advocate torture, we ought to advocate sacrifice. As Cavanaugh states: "In the sacrifice of Christ, God overturns our normal expectations of justice, such that, not only does God not destroy us for our sins, but God stands in our place to absorb the violence that we ourselves do... Christ becomes the universal victim."

It is, unfortunately, becoming almost cliche to refer to Jesus' admonition that we "love our enemies." (Matt. 5:44, Luke 6:27) But when dealing with issues like torture, the words of Christ suddenly becoming dangerously alive. Quoting Cavanaugh again: "...if we become the Body of Christ, then we too are called not just to minister to the victims of this world but to identify with them. The opposition of them and us, friend and enemy, even victim and helper, is overcome. Violence against the enemy is unthinkable, because we are the enemy."

But we still haven't dealt with God's apparent acts of torture. What can we call hell, besides torture? Perhaps one might say that hell is justified torture, since it is the final result of a soul that refuses to surrender to God's will. Such a one condemns him/herself to hell; God, therefore, does not really inflict torture, we inflict the torture ourselves. C.S. Lewis popularized this view with his wonderful book, "The Great Divorce."

But if we accept, or even lean toward this view, then we need to begin re-thinking our position on torture as a whole. Why? Because if hell is self-inflicted, then we must be open to the possibility that other humanly-inflicted forms of torture and punishment are, in fact, not analogous to God's activity. Further, because of Christ, we are not resigned to self-inflicted torture. There is a way out. Christians must always be bearers of grace, even to the ones who deserve torture.

God does, at various points throughout Scripture, appear to inflict intense suffering as punishment, or to cause his people to turn back to him. Yet, we are not God. Again, this may seem trite, but it has an important corollary: only God can determine the parameters in which people should be punished.

In God's parameters, punishment is always and only the result of turning away from God. And God's punishment is not reserved only for the "pagans"; in fact, God's greatest punishment is often reserved precisely for those who claim to be God's followers. So who ought to be tortured first? Again, if not for the grace found in Jesus Christ, there would be no question: torture would be the end result of every one of our lives, since we would never find God.

But, none of this helps us when we are faced with the question of torturing some in order to save others. This question actually leads into the thorny issue of trying to deal with the practical ethical dilemmas involving torture and violence... and that will be the subject of my next post. For now, I'll just say that torture and violence are not necessarily one and the same...


BenMc said...

The "image of God" aspect of this is really important, too. Just as an image looks like the thing but is not the thing itself, we should look like God looks ... which is how Jesus looked. I think Romans 13/14 has a view of "letting God be God and the church be the church (that is, the body of Christ)" that is perfectly consonant with this.

I do wish we could get away from the term "torture" -- I fear it is such a loaded word that it polarizes the issues needlessly. However, for all its faults, that word forces me to keep in mind that Jesus was tortured ... he was not the torturer. (Also, he will be the Judge but that's something else ... right?)

Roy said...

I realize I am "outside the fold" but to believe this is true, that "In God's parameters, punishment is always and only the result of turning away from God", you really have to cut out a great deal of scripture. If nothing else, particularly in the OT, God is certainly not a respecter of persons when it comes to unleashing a can of baby killin', nation destroying whoop ass. I really don't think God or scripture is the place to turn if you're trying to make a case against torture.