Christianity and “Torture” – Part 2

From our last post we saw that while all war should make the Christian grieve, not all war is to be avoided. There are certain cases in the Bible and in history when government must act with force to stop evil, but it should always proceed cautiously and attempt to minimize rather than maximize the suffering caused by war. From a Christian perspective, this goal of minimizing suffering while seeking justice must extend to both enemy combatants and non-combatants. For example, when an enemy soldier surrenders the victorious side should treat the enemy humanely with a view toward future reconciliation since we serve a reconciling God who seeks reconciliation with His enemies (namely us). This means that enemies captured in the course of war are not fodder to do with as we wish but humans made in the image of God. That does not mean that governments should do nothing but give a YMCA club card to enemy prisoners of war – it is perfectly acceptable to attempt to secure information that would lead to a shortening of war and the misery it brings. Everyone would agree that something like physical mutilation, rape or murder would constitute torture. The pointless degradation imposed by some military police in the Abu Gareb prison was well over the line and those responsible were criminally prosecuted as they should have been. The question posed to the American public and especially Christians is whether things the military calls “enhanced interrogation techniques” are in fact torture. This is where things get more political than scientific, and we need a moral standard outside of ourselves to evaluate where the line might be. The challenge for the Christian is that the Bible never specifically talks about torture. It doesn’t provide a definition. In fact, much of the Old Testament conquest of the Promised Land would meet the definitions we just shared. These instructions to Israel as a government highlight the Biblical principle that government and the church have different spheres of responsibility and accountability. As we consider how God would define and view “torture” by governments, it seems important to establish some principles from the Scriptures. There as several contradictory definitions of torture that should each be considered as we look at this topic: Merriam Webster: the act of causing severe physical pain as a form of punishment or as a way to force someone to do or say something 18 U.S. Code § 2340: an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT):  the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical pain or suffering by or with the consent of the state authorities for a specific purpose. These definitions are not exhaustive and do not seem to limit some groups from describing as torture actions that clearly do not rise to the formal definitions of torture. For example, the International Committee for the Red Cross has charged that interrogations at Guantánamo Bay, which included solitary confinement and exposing prisoners to temperature extremes and loud music, were “tantamount to torture,” and the IRCT whose definition is above said that things like solitary confinement would be torture. How would God frame the limits of “torture”? Even though Jesus Himself saw the sphere of government and the Kingdom of God were separate entities (Matt 20:21),  God expects all people to be held in high regard as His image bearers and Christians should use available means to compel government to this view. Some implications would include:

  • God prescribes something similar to proportionate response. Even the famous “eye for an eye” passage is designed to limit retaliation, not endorse it. Measures should increase in severity with the opportunity to mitigate suffering.
  • God does recognize that evil ought to be dealt with as such. He ordains killing he wicked, and promises that the way of the wicked will perish (Ps 1:6, Ps 34:16), so he does not require mercy to be extended in every situation where it might be.
  • God’s ordinary practice with His own children is to escalate pressure until we reveal our sin that He knows we have not confessed.
  • God is watching when governments cross the line and He promises to avenge the innocent. This is most clearly seen in the Prophets but also in wisdom literature.

With these caveats, I will offer some clarifying of the term before I spell out in the next post how individual and groups of Christians ought to think about torture/enhanced interrogation and the Senate’s release of this report specifically. Something is most likely NOT torture if:

  • The same technique is used in regular training its own military or police forces
  • The outcome is simply short term disorientation rather than physical pain, disability or permanent psychological trauma
  • The act is not sanctioned by a ruling and custodial authority for the purposes of advancing its political or military agenda
  • Serious physical or psychological harm only arise during the course of otherwise acceptable military operations against combatants
  • If the captive voluntarily submits to the questioning and can freely leave at any point
  • It the technique is routinely used by closely monitored penal systems such as exists in the United States and Europe

I quickly admit that these standards are born from more common sense than the Bible, but I think they reflect the idea of people who are both fallen and made in the image of God. If these are basically right, then the vast majority of instances where US operatives have been accused of torture are not actually torture at all. Waterboarding is performed on most US SEALs and other special forces during their training, and in fact some SEAL training is much more physically and psychologically “torturous” than waterboarding. Isolation and solitary confinement for definite periods of time that maintain the subject’s due process rights is not torture. Feeding food that the subject would not prefer, requiring the subject to stand about as long as a typical retail clerk or depriving a subject of sleep in a manner that is not worse than the mom of a newborn is not torture. The major caveat on the other side is that from a Christian perspective even these kinds of advanced interrogation techniques can only be performed when there is a reasonable chance that the information gathered will mitigate future evil greater than these methods. While governments may act to restrain evil, they must have some basis in fact before doing so and their actions should be taken as a last resort.

Christianity and “Torture”

After learning they would lose control of the Senate, Democrats hurried to release what everyone agrees is a one-sided report on the American use of torture in its attempts to defeat terrorism. The report and most news accounts of it were pretty inflammatory and didn’t seem to present anything other than a monolithic point of view that was widely disputed by political opponents and intelligence analysts alike.

Still, a friend asked me a more difficult question – What is the Christian position on this stuff rather than the political position? How should a Christian think about torture in the “war on terror” and what should we do related to it?

I will spend the next several posts thinking through this topic. While I will try to be biblical rather than partisan, I will say that I generally come at issues like this from a more conservative point of view and my military experience probably makes me more sympathetic to war fighters generally than the average person.

A Christian Understanding of War Generally

Before we tackle the idea of torture (or “enhanced interrogation”) in war, I think it makes sense to ask whether war is a biblical idea in the first place. If the bible teaches pacifism then it sheds a very different light on the use of torture or “enhanced interrogation” with subjects captured by war fighters. I am not going to do a better job than Wayne Grudem on understanding the Bible’s take on war so for now I will simply share some of his thoughts on war generally and the “just war” theory (conditions necessary for a war and the suffering it brings to be justified”.

Biblical Justifications for Some Wars

No recognized Christian group or Christian leader today argues that any government should engage in war to compel people to support the Christian religion. This is because of the recognition that Christian faith, by its nature, must be voluntary if it is to be genuine (note the invitations in various parts of the Bible that appeal to people’s freedom to choose whether or not they will follow God: Ezek. 33:11; Matt. 11:28–30;Rev. 22:17). Jesus distinguished between “the things that are Caesar’s” and “the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21), thus establishing that the civil government (“Caesar”) and the church (“the things that are God’s”) have different responsibilities and different tasks, and that the government should not use its power to attempt to control people’s religious faith. Jesus himself refused to use deadly force to advance his kingdom or compel allegiance to him (see Matt. 26:52–55; John 18:36).

However, God does give civil government the responsibility and the authority to use superior force, even deadly force, to protect its citizens from evil. This is because, until Jesus returns (Dan. 9:26; Matt. 24:6), there are some people so deeply committed to doing evil that they can be restrained, not by reason and persuasion, but only by superior force. Therefore, in the OT God says that rulers must “give justice to the weak” and must “deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Ps. 82:3–4). The NT maintains that the civil government has been established by God with responsibility for maintaining justice. This is why the government has a rightful duty to “bear the sword” (Rom. 13:4), to be “a terror” to bad conduct, and thus to be “God’s servant” to do “good” for its citizens (Rom. 13:3–4). Part of this responsibility is acting as a “servant of God … who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4). Peter likewise affirms that civil government is sent “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:14). Therefore one of the primary duties of government is to protect its citizens, even through the use of force (“the sword”) if that is necessary in order to restrain evil. This is the justification for police forces that protect citizens from any harm that would come from others within a nation. And this responsibility from God also provides justification for nations to engage in armed conflict (“to bear the sword”) in order to protect their citizens from evildoers who would attack them from outside the nation, including a defense against armies sent by other nations when those armies and nations are “those who do evil” (1 Pet. 2:14) in the pursuit of such a war.

Several wars in the OT fall under this category of a war of defense against evil aggression (such as Abraham’s war to rescue Lot in Gen. 14:1–16; Saul’s war against the Ammonites in 1 Sam. 11:1–11; and Gideon’s war to defend Israel against the Midianites in Judges 6–7). Therefore it should not be thought inconsistent in the OT for God to command people to go to war (see Deuteronomy 20, for example) andalso to command his people, “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17). The Hebrew word translated “murder” (ratsakh) in the sixth commandment is used 49 times in the OT but is never used to refer to killing in war (for which other Hebrew words are used; see note on Deut. 5:17).

Just War

The just war ethic argues that warfare is sometimes necessary in order to resist or reverse specific unjust actions taken by one government or nation against another, but it also insists that war is always regrettable, is always something to avoid if possible, and is never to be used to establish some new vision of a social order.

The just war ethical tradition arises from both biblical and classical sources. In the Bible, just war principles can be found in rules revealed for engaging enemies outside the territory of the Promised Land (Deut. 20:1–20), in God’s judgment of war actions taken by the Gentile nations around Israel (Amos 1), and in the regard Jesus had for moral wisdom relating to the way kings go to war (Luke 14:31).

The NT church included many soldiers serving on active duty and saw nothing morally inconsistent with Christians serving as military professionals. The conversion of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, was confirmed by the Holy Spirit with no question of his profession compromising his faith (Acts 10). John the Baptist responded to soldiers in a way that implied they were serving in a morally legitimate profession (Luke 3:14). And when Paul was imprisoned in Rome, many in the Praetorian guard became Christians (cf. Phil. 1:13). As a result, Christians soon came to fill the Roman “fortresses,” military “camps,” and army “companies” (see evidence provided by Tertullian in Apology 37; c. a.d. 200), and the first persecutions of the church arose because of the high number of Christians serving in the Roman army. While some early Christians opposed military service (cf. Tertullian and Origen), the majority tradition of the church has never considered military service to be inconsistent with biblical standards.

Over time, the just war ethic has developed a common set of criteria that can be used to decide if going to war in a specific situation is right. These include the following: (1) just cause (is the reason for going to war a morally right cause, such as defense of a nation? cf. Rev. 19:11); (2) competent authority (has the war been declared not simply by a renegade band within a nation but by a recognized, competent authority within the nation? cf. Rom. 13:1); (3) comparative justice (it should be clear that the actions of the enemy are morally wrong, and the motives and actions of one’s own nation in going to war are, in comparison, morally right; cf. Rom. 13:3); (4) right intention (is the purpose of going to war to protect justice and righteousness rather than simply to rob and pillage and destroy another nation? cf. Prov. 21:2); (5) last resort (have all other reasonable means of resolving the conflict been exhausted? cf. Matt. 5:9; Rom. 12:18); (6) probability of success (is there a reasonable expectation that the war can be won? cf.Luke 14:31); (7) proportionality of projected results (will the good results that come from a victory in a war be significantly greater than the harm and loss that will inevitably come with pursuing the war? cf.Rom. 12:21 with 13:4); and (8) right spirit (is the war undertaken with great reluctance and sorrow at the harm that will come rather than simply with a “delight in war,” as in Ps. 68:30?).

In addition to these criteria for deciding whether a specific war is “just,” advocates of just war theory have also developed some moral restrictions on how a just war should be fought. These include the following: (1) proportionality in the use of force (no greater destruction should be caused than is needed to win the war; cf. Deut. 20:10–12); (2) discrimination between combatants and noncombatants (insofar as it is feasible in the successful pursuit of a war, is adequate care being taken to prevent harm to noncombatants? cf. Deut. 20:13–14, 19–20); (3) avoidance of evil means (will captured or defeated enemies be treated with justice and compassion, and are one’s own soldiers being treated justly in captivity? cf. Ps. 34:14); and (4) good faith (is there a genuine desire for restoration of peace and eventually living in harmony with the attacking nation? cf. Matt. 5:43–44; Rom. 12:18).

If a war is just, it should not be viewed as morally wrong but still necessary, nor as morally neutral, but as something that is morally right, carried out (with sorrow and regret) in obedience to responsibilities given by God (Rom. 13:4). Those who serve in a just war should understand that such service is not sinful in God’s sight but that they do this as “God’s servant for your good” (Rom. 13:4; cf. Luke 3:14; John 15:13; also Num. 32:6, 20–23; Ps. 144:1).

Most nations throughout history, and most Christians in every age, have held that fighting in combat is a responsibility that should fall only to men, and that it is contrary to the very idea of womanhood, and shameful for a nation, to have women risk their lives as combatants in a war. The assumption that only men and not women will fight in battle is also a frequent pattern in the historical narratives and is affirmed by leaders and prophets in the OT (see Num. 1:2–3; Deut. 3:18–19; 20:7–8; 24:5; Josh. 1:14; 23:10; Judg. 4:8–10; 9:54; 1 Sam. 4:9; Neh. 4:13–14; Jer. 50:37; Nah. 3:13).

The next post will talk more about biblically understanding the methods of war including interrogation and treatment of prisoners.