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.


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