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Posted by on May 1, 2009 in At TMV | 8 comments

One Reason So Many Churchgoers May Accept Torture

I’m a Christian and I’m an American.

Therefore, I oppose the use of torture. Ever. No exceptions.

Because ours is an imperfect world, I accept the fact that nations must sometimes go to war, just as I accept that when lives are threatened–be it one’s own life or the lives of others–defensive action that may result in an attacker’s death is justified.

As a Christian, I accept the notion of just war.

But torture is never just.

I also reject torture as an American. As I’ve pointed out here many times, the United States was the first country to decide itself into being around certain core principles. Among them was an unwillingness to engage in the kinds of depraved behaviors evidenced in tyrants, be they kings, emperors, Nazis, Soviet Communists, or radical Islamic fundamentalist terrorists.

During World War 2, when German soldiers had the opportunity to choose between being taken prisoner either by US or Soviet forces, they always chose the Yanks. They knew the chance of being treated humanely was exponentially higher if they were in the custody of the United States than of the Soviet Union.*

Besides being profoundly un-Christian and un-American, torture, as any solid military person will tell you, doesn’t yield good intelligence. People who are tortured will tell you what you want to hear, factual or not, just to get you to stop.

All of this is why I am appalled by Pew Forum research showing that regular churchgoers are more likely to support the use of torture than the rest of the US population.

Appalled, but not very surprised.

And my lack of surprise has little to do with suspicions about the content of what’s being preached and taught in our nation’s pulpits, Catechism classes, or Sunday Schools.

While there are more than a few preachers whose “theology” contains jingoistic nationalism and spiritual arrogance, many churchgoers, I’ll bet, adopt such ideas, including the acceptance of torture, in spite of what they’re being told at their local church.

Several years ago, I ran across an article about Lutheran Christians’ understanding of “justification by grace through faith.” This is the fundamental doctrine of Biblical Christianity, traceable to the Old Testament story of Abraham, who was acceptable to God not because of any achievements, but solely because God wanted to make him the father of nations and Abraham believed God’s promises. The justification doctrine is well-summarized in the most famous passage of the New Testament, John 3:16. They’re words of Jesus, spoken to a prominent Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “

What this verse tells us is that there is nothing that human beings can do to make themselves good enough–no moral ladder they can climb–to make themselves acceptable to God or to earn eternity. Instead, acceptance by God, together with forgiveness and eternal life, are gifts to those who believe (or trust) in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. (Christians believe that Jesus is God in the flesh.)

The grace–literally charity, charitas, in the original New Testament Greek–of God that accepts sinners, faults and all, should make Christians personally humble as well as loving toward their neighbors. As the New Testament writer Paul puts it:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

People in my own tradition–Lutheran Christianity–hear about the doctrine of justification by grace through faith all the time. It was to defend this doctrine that the Lutheran movement began. And yet the article I mentioned earlier revealed that, year after year, survey showed that majorities of Lutheran Christians still persist in believing that people enter eternity if they’re good enough, completely and totally contrary to what the Scriptures teach and what they’ve been taught.

The inescapable conclusion is that many churchgoers aren’t especially engaged in their faith. They’re like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, people with whom Jesus often tangled. The Pharisees were, in many ways, laudable people. They were regular in worship, scrupulous about keeping religious law.

But Jesus called them whitewashed tombs. In spite of the insistence of the Old Testament that God loved his people as a matter of divine choice (grace) that should evoke faith, they turned faith into a legal transaction. God was whittled down to the size of the local peddler. “If I perform these religious duties, God must accept me,” was the implicit notion of the Pharisees. When a person starts to think that they can deal on an equal footing with God, humility goes. So does a sense of humanity.

We have modern day Pharisees in our churches. They sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me/I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.” But for too many, those have become mere words and what they really believe is, “How good I am and how clever of me to be moral, upstanding churchperson and how right I am to condemn others and make them tow the line.” The actual teaching and preaching they hear is just background noise.

The existence of boastful Pharisaism in the modern US church must be one of the poisonous springs from which “Christian” acceptance of torture emanates.

It’s not the only source, I know. There are committed Christians who love others and sincerely believe that torture is OK, I’m sure. But I am equally sure that they are mistaken.

I’m also sure that Pharisaism is hurting the Church and its witness in the world. I’m sure that it’s one very bad reason that so many churchgoers excuse a barbarism that my Lord abhors.

It is deeply disturbing.

*Americans haven’t always lived up to those high ideals. But the wonder of the United States is how often those who have so failed have been called to account for their wrongs.

[This is being crossposted at my personal blog.]

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  • Ryan

    Maybe part of the reason they’re not concerned about torture is that no matter what they do to another human being, a) it pales in comparison to the fires of Hell and b) they don’t think they’ll ever be held accountable for it anyways.

  • rudi

    Glad to be a non-Christian…

  • gregpiper

    I could just as easily say that a lot of Christians not particularly engaged in their faith are strident opponents of torture, since there’s a pretty big connection between the liberal mainlines, whose numbers are worse than Chrysler, and liberal views on crime issues in general. It’s rather proud of you to call people Pharisees who think torture may, in some cases, be a just thing if it really saves lives and doesn’t have a peer alternative. I’m really glad you’re a member of the clergy and not an executive in charge of protecting people.

  • Diane

    Do unto others….

  • Mike_P

    These so-called “Christians,” those who support the death penalty without reservation, and the torture of those who are deemed imminently dangerous to the peace and welfare of the common good, must have learned lessons from a different gospel than the one I was taught.

    What was Jesus to the Romans if not that, and wasn’t he subjected to torture and the ultimate “stress position” in the process of carrying out the sentence of death? If the most basic lesson of his life and death isn’t part of your moral core, then attending church each Sunday is an exercise in futility, or more likely, an unholy exercise in being seen.

  • Marlowecan

    Mike P.: The Gospel account of Jesus interrogation by Pilate make clear that Pilate did not consider Jesus to be a threat to Rome whatsoever. Pilate agreed to his death, urged by the Jewish leadership, to avoid a riot. Certainly the Roman state was always overstretched at the time…and Pilate just wanted to “wash his hands” of the whole business, and enjoy a less stressful administration.

    In re: Mark Daniel’s argument…did not Christ – in his own words – declare a Christian version of separation of Church and State:

    “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21)

    Jesus was, of course, referencing an imperial Roman state which practised torture as a matter of course.

    Of course, it may be objected that Jesus was ambiguous in not clearly defining — beyond the immediate question of taxation — what are “Caesar’s” due, and what are “God’s” due.

    However, I would argue — contra Mark Daniels — that Christ’s own words here on the divided roles of Spiritual and Temporal power suggest that the “Christian” view of torture may be more complex than Mark suggests
    (i.e. that torture in a good cause — saving the lives of innocents — in the service of “Caesar” is not a contradiction of Christianity).

    • HemmD


      “However, I would argue — contra Mark Daniels — that Christ’s own words here on the divided roles of Spiritual and Temporal power suggest that the “Christian” view of torture may be more complex than Mark suggests
      (i.e. that torture in a good cause — saving the lives of innocents — in the service of “Caesar” is not a contradiction of Christianity).”

      I suggest that the complexity you cite is merely willful, and it’s the ‘complexity’ that allowed the Inquisition and witch burning. If one merely looks at the death of Jesus to see just what was Caesar’s,and what was God’s.

      As Jesus hung from the cross, a Roman cross with a Roman indictment proclaiming the sentence, He asked for forgiveness for those who executed him. You may contend that this was just Jesus being the Christ, but don’t forget he also rebuked Peter’s defense in the garden. Those who live by the sword, die by it. The line is pretty clear where man’s and god’s realms were proscribed.

      Time and again, it’s when man’s ego decides to “do god’s work,” atrocities are condoned in the name of god. I suggest what you call ‘complex’ should in fact be called ‘confused.’ The irony of the christian religion has been its repeated attempts to govern a realm that is not theirs to rule.

      Jesus made the destincion quite clear:
      “Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom belonged to this world, my servants would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But for now my kingdom is not from here.”” john 18, 36.

      When Jesus returns, feel free to torture if he commands it, in the mean time, knock it off.

  • kathyedits

    Just the fact that we, all of us, are having this discussion about the permissibility of torture is an indication of how degraded we have become as a people. That in itself is part of the reason why torture is morally wrong, always. There is no such thing as “torture in a good cause.” There is no such thing as “torturing to save innocents.” These are the reasons that torturers have used throughout human history to justify the unjustifiable. The Spanish Inquisitors tortured to save souls. Stalin tortured to save the Soviet people from anarchists and subversive elements who wanted to destroy the socialist revolution. Pinochet tortured to save Chile from communists and socialists and dangerous radicals who were bent on destroying the country. The Nazis tortured because Jews were dirty, filthy scum who fought against their own country in WWI and bankrupted Germany through their control of the centers of money and power.

    Of course you will say, How can you possibly compare the United States to all of those evil regimes! All of those governments you mention tortured out of hatred and racism and lust for power, and for the sheer sadistic joy of it. *They* didn’t torture to save the lives of innocents, like *we* do.

    Yes. That is exactly what they said, too.

    Torture does not save the lives of innocents. It destroys the lives of innocents — both by subjecting people who do not have the information their torturers think they have (and are thus innocents) to excruciating pain and suffering, and by rejecting more effective, more reliable, and in the end less time-consuming methods of information-gathering that *could* save the lives of innocents.

    There is no such thing as torture in a good cause because any cause that resorts to torture to advance itself is a bad cause, even if it started out as a good cause. Torture turns good and decent people into monsters. Torture is addictive and seductive and plays into one of human nature’s least attractive features: a sick, perverse fascination with and attraction to tragedy, pain, suffering. Torture encourages and elicits sadism, no matter what more noble impulses it started out with.

    I could write more (on this subject, I could always write more), but I’ll stop here for now.

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