Saturday, May 23, 2009

Christians and Torture, Pt. 3...

Ok, a quick review:

In my initial post, I suggested that the Christian propensity to see torture as necessary stems from a deep-seated assumption about God -- namely, that God tortures (primarily via hell). Therefore, it is reasoned, torture must serve some good purpose.

In my second post, I asserted further (though somewhat clumsily, I think) that this assumption is a terrible misconception, based in the same lie told to Eve by the serpent: "You can be like God." Our primary concern, I suggested, is not to equate our actions with God's actions, but rather to follow Jesus Christ, who is the fullest revelation of God in our reality.

This means that, as Christians, our every action ought to first and foremost be a reflection of Christ's actions, and it is extremely difficult to find any support for torture in the Gospels, unless it is Christ's willingness to accept torture on the behalf of others. With William Cavanaugh, I agree that the proper Christian response to a potentially violent threat is Christ-like sacrificial behavior, not torture.

I also pointed out that only God can determine God's parameters for punishment. This may have sounded like I was saying 'God can torture, but we can't.' If so, that doesn't seem particularly comforting. But what I was actually attempting to point out is that it is quite possible what we interpret as torture by God might not have been torture at all. Our inability -- attested in Scripture -- to grasp God's parameters outside of the context of Jesus Christ means that we should not only be slow to support torture ourselves, but slow to accuse God of torture to begin with.

But, this still leaves us with the troubling question: What about situations where torture might be a way to save many lives? Would it be allowable then? A few thoughts here -- and I'm going to number them, in the hopes of being as clear as possible.

1. First, it seems important to note that this entire question may be rendered moot, if -- as quite a bit of evidence seems to suggest -- torture really doesn't provide much useful intelligence. This debate is ongoing, but it seems quite possible that torture, in fact, does not achieve its goal, at least when it comes to preventing violent terrorist attacks.

2. Even if the torture did provide some valuable intelligence, it would still be wrong for a Christian to support torture, precisely for the reasons stated above. Jesus' example is not based in pragmatic considerations, it is based in self-sacrificial love. So, whether we like it or not, we do not follow Jesus because we think our lives will be safer, we follow because we believe our souls are being saved.

3. "But," someone will probably say, "That is fine for you, but what about the Christian's responsibility to stand up for the oppressed, to fight against the forces of evil, and to prevent innocent suffering?" Here, we finally reach the heart of the matter. Christians shouldn't stand by and allow others to suffer. This is certainly true. So, does Jesus really disapprove of torturing one to save the lives of many? In a word: Yes.

4. Jesus disapproves of sin. Period. Unfortunately, there are times when, no matter what we decide, sin is unavoidable. This requires careful explanation. Torture is, in effect, a symptom of the deeper reach of sin. Human evil is so entrenched that we are all continually reaping the results of previous actions, and sometimes a conflagration of results will lead to an impossible situation. In other words, some situations leave no other option besides sin. (Read Jacques Ellul's "The Presence of the Kingdom" for more on this subject) But -- and this is important! -- this is not a reason to shrug and say "Oh well, there was nothing else I could do." Rather, it is a reason to mourn our complicity in the whole situation, beg for God's mercy, and by God's grace begin to live differently!

5. So, torture is always wrong, but there may be times when, in our sin, we cannot see any other option. I am not comfortable with this conclusion, but I don't expect any resolution of this issue to provide comfort. There is danger either way. The possibility of death looms large. We are dealing with the results of centuries of collective human sin, and our utter inability to break free from the cycle, absent the grace of Jesus Christ. But the wise thing to do, as a Christian, would be to err on the side of grace, which means no torture.

6. Additionally, we must ask ourselves whether what we are gaining by torture is really enough to offset what we are losing. It is easy to think that torturing a few people who are, after all, violent terrorists, is not a terrible crime, even if it is not easily justified. But this reflects, I think, a narrow perspective of the power of sin. As Cavanaugh points out, actions like torture divide the world. Christ calls Christians to be reconcilers. It seems clear that we cannot truly fulfill our call to reconcile the world to Christ while at the same time torturing our enemies.

So, that's my take on it. I'd love to hear more responses... this is an important conversation.


Phil said...

Geoff, I'm going to respond to this post at more length a little later (when I have time to read it very carefully), but an initial thought: is hell "torture" or "torment"? Is there a difference? Is torment something else? I just thought of Luke 15 or 16(?), e.g., the rich man and Lazarus.

Geoff said...

Good question! I look forward to your thoughts.

Phil said...

Hi Geoff,

Not to beat a dead horse (I wonder were that idiom came from?), but I really don’t think that you have defined torture adequately. What I’m saying is that this whole argument stems from a fundamental and working definition of torture, and I don’t think that the dictionary definition carries enough weight to be a working definition for your purposes. This is perhaps the reason I made a distinction between torment and torture, and that’s because I believe there is a significant difference with which the dictionary fails to delineate the concept in the way you might be using the word. Basically, it's too broad and too general; there's too much interpretive room and subjectivity.

For example, some forms of police interrogation could be considered torture under the definition. Authoritarian intimidation tactics could be torture. Political ideologies could be torture. Making children go to youth group could be mental anguish and therefore, torture (joke but still possible). Paul telling Christian slaves to obey their masters could be torture, etc… Ya, sure, all these could be defined and demarcations could be made, but I guess that’s my point. I don’t mean to be cavalier about this whole thing, but I’m being very serious about definitions because I don’t think any mainline evangelical will stand for someone having their hand cut off, or flesh cut to the bone, or their fingernails ripped out with pliers, etc…

phil said...

Pt 2

On the flip-side, I don’t think justified interrogations are necessarily torture, and many others do. But you would say, what do you mean by justified and the word, interrogation? This is precisely my point. Should those being interrogated be electrocuted, cut, stabbed, punched, water boarded, or anything like that? NO. Christians cannot stand for this, to be sure. But why? You stated all the reasons in your blog post. However, I just think your argument could be made a little stronger if you qualified your definition to incorporate the slipperiness of the word—torture. I think you were trying to do this in the first post but it didn't come through enough for me.

Furthermore and in the slippery sense, I think that this is the reason the word, torture, is being used as a propaganda technique by certain segments of the political world. Torture is bad, and if the word can be applied to a certain segment of people, then those people can easily be demonized based on an umbrella definition which is really no definition at all, but a rhetorical devise. Instead of assuming that the majority of evangelicals are torture hungry, I’d bet that they would hardily agree with your conclusions if the word and concept of torture was qualified in an appropriate way that was devoid of ideological baggage. (BTW, I'm not saying that that's what you're doing, but I'm saying that that might be what some people are hearing) What ideological baggage? Example: Nancy Pelosi saying that making a terrorist suspect, caught on the battle fields of Afghanistan, listen to loud music (Metallica) for 5 hours at a time as torture. Compare this to, say, having one's fingernails ripped out with pliers. Maybe we should coin the phrase, cheap torture??? I don't know?

Also, I don’t like the “whipping boy” mentality of grouping all evangelicals into a pot and saying that they all have a warped view of God’s actions and thus that’s why they’re somehow bloodthirsty for torture. I’m not buying it; it's way too presumptuous and comes off as being self righteously judgmental. In sum, then: when broadly generalized that evangelicals have some sadistic hermeneutic regarding their justification of torture (whichever definition one likes to maintain) relative to God’s “torture” of people in hell—which is really not torture but I will assert, torment (maybe their own), then I think the argument seems to be set up as a straw man.

All this said, though, I think a lot of what you’re saying is relevant and theologically thought provoking. Legitimate torture is completely unacceptable and, even I say, anti-christian. No Christian should ever condone torture.

Geoff said...

Hey Phil, thanks for the dialogue! To answer your last point first, I wasn't trying to imply that all Evangelicals support torture, I apologize if that's how it came across. Of course that's not the case.

Your point about defining torture is important. I think I started out with that broad definition because I wanted to make it clear that any form of torture is wrong... so I cast my net wide. Torture isn't just about enemy combatants; it applies to every area of human interaction, including police interrogations, and even - yes - Christian living! Hence my point about some forms of "witnessing" potentially being a form of torture.

However, a clear definition would certainly help, and that's something I'm still working out. I think it would have to say something about coercion -- i.e., I want to begin by defining torture as any attempt to coerce another based in a threat of enacted violence. That's still pretty broad (what does "enacted violence" mean?), but it's a beginning. I definitely think that threatening death, whether physically or psychologically, constitutes torture.

So, to use the Metallica example, perhaps just playing Metallica loudly for hours isn't torture, but playing a heavy metal song with lyrics understood by the detainee as "I'm going to kill you, I'm going to kill you" or something like that, would be torture. In the same vein, simply telling someone that apart from Christ, one will be separated from God, wouldn't be torture, but coercively saying "If you died tonight without Jesus, you will BURN eternally in hell!!" would constitute a form of torture.

What do you think?