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.

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2 thoughts on “Christianity and “Torture”

  1. Michael Snow March 7, 2015 / 10:53 am

    Just war or pacifism, the Christian position on torture should be “never.” . While I have disagreements on John McCaoin’s hawkish positions, as a POW he understood what torture meant and faithfully opposed it, unlike kids in diapers or politicians in depends. As for American evangelicals, we have a lot to learn and a lot from which we ought to repent, but I believe harder judgments will fall on America before (or if) we ever see such; Are there any willing to listen to a faithful pastor like Spurgeon? https://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com

    • michaelkeating March 11, 2015 / 12:54 am

      Thanks brother. Spurgeon was a pacifist at heart and his yearning to see war avoided at all costs shows God’s heart also. He also lived in a time when nations went to war against nations – I wonder how he would respond to al qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram.

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