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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.]