Torture – How did we get here?

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>Maybe you’ve heard the story: “Once the camel’s nose is under the tent …” Well, in case you haven’t noticed, with regard to torture we are all out in the cold and there is a large animal standing in the space where we used to lay our head. The tent may have never been as secure as we had first thought, but when a person is exposed to the elements it does make one wonder what might be next.

I am not sure when the nose first poked its head into the space that formerly housed shared values like civility, decency, and basic human rights, but even I can tell when there is no more shelter for at least the appearance of such values, if we ever had them (which of course is rather questionable).

I have never been a strong advocate for such routinely cited “American values” anyway, opting instead for the fruit of the Spirit, but I do know that in an imperfect and fallen world, there is common ground to be gained for Christians who are willing to address such things in the public square. Some may say that you can’t regain what you never had, but maybe that is not the point. I, for one, believe that people, communities, and even nations can change. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing this preacher thing. The money isn’t all that hot and the hours … well, you get the picture.

No honest historian can argue that brutality is anything new to the United States, or to any other country for that matter, but that doesn’t mean we should becomes ostriches just because the camel is bigger and has a nasty habit of spitting. What is new is that no one seems to blush anymore. Our greatest threat is no longer hooded cowards running around in white sheets under the cover of night or treaty-breaking politicians who say one thing only to do something else when it is to their advantage. Now, it seems, there is no need for the charade. Sheets have been traded in for Italian suits and dungeons have been upgraded to board rooms and halls of Congress. We want to bring torture out into the light of day – and now that it is out we give it a standing ovation.

As an aside, you should know that I can enjoy TV shows like 24 just a much as the next guy. I have to confess – my family actually experienced something of a 24 fest this past summer. If you haven’t seen it, be forewarned – it can be addictive. For those who don’t know what the show is about, it deals with a counter terrorist unit (CTU) based out of Los Angeles. The cowboy in me can enjoy an hour of some butt-kicking, arm-twisting, and results-producing strong arm tactics used on the bad guys by torture expert Jack Bauer. At the end of the day, or at least of the episode, I can usually turn the TV off and return to reality – but therein lies the problem for me, at least lately. Reality. Is there any surprise that such shows are so popular in a post 9-11 world?

I am not sure that we can move the camel out of the tent, but it may be time to build a new shelter. And though we do have a sordid history with regard to such things, it may also be important to retrace our most recent missteps a bit before we start construction. To take Jonathan’s advice, we could start by drawing the line at torture.

Update: Click here to join Amnesty International’s efforts to preserve fair trials and humane treatment.


  1. >Anyone interested in the Fruit of the Spirit knows that physically harming another person in order to extract information – that is, torture – is out. How can love, joy, peace, patience and the other spiritual fruits grow amidst their opposites: loathing, agony, and absolute fear? They simply cannot. But perhaps even a spirit-filled, fruit-bearing Christian might give pause when considering the following ethical dilemmas:(a) If, by harshly torturing one person, you could prevent the deaths of thousands at the hands of unremorseful terrorists, would you do it? – or – (b) If your own parents, spouse, and children were brutally murdered by unremorseful terrorists, would you authorize the torture of those terrorists?Both of these ethical questions doubtlessly have been debated in the halls of Congress and for good reason. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 created a moment never before realized in human history. True, towers have toppled before – Jesus alludes in the Gospel of Luke to the mysterious fall of the tower of Siloam, which killed eighteen Galileans. The number eighteen, however, appears miniscule in comparison to the nearly 3,000 who died in the September 11th attacks. The tragedy of 9/11 was unique in world history both in its largess and in its calculated evil. I have heard a number of interesting arguments since September 11th about how the United States “deserved” this catastrophe because of their so-called callous foreign policy, their economic arrogance, and their cultural imperialism. Those arguments are ethically unsound. The United States’ political, economic, and cultural role in the world doubtlessly needs reevaluating and may in fact be patently wrong at times, but it simply does not comport with scriptural ethics to suggest that the United States’ purported faults somehow justify the killing of innocent civilians. Those who make this argument, interestingly, fall into the same kind of ethical debate as those persons justifying torture. Their ethics are retributive, that is, they intentionally or even accidentally support the view that one wrong deserves another, an “eye for an eye.”The Old Testament introduced this kind of retributive ethics, but Jesus challenges it, insisting in his Sermon on the Mount:“You’ve heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one also; and if someone takes you to court and sues you for your cloak, give him your undergarment, as well” (Matt. 5:38-41). Jesus’ ethic is one of compassion and service even in the face of abuse. This passage raises a lot of difficult questions, though, and has been misapplied in the past by those who have used it to recommend, for example, that a physically abused spouse stay in a clearly abusive relationship or that a young child remain in an emotionally and physically violent home. We must remember Jesus also said, “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble” (Luke 17:2). It is clear Jesus did not mean to justify the uncritical submission to evil when he gave his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus instead was saying something meaningful about justice and power.Even though the Old Testament law – and the societal law prevailing in those times – emphasized retributive justice, Jesus was emphasizing a “law” higher than that. This law is not based on “an eye for an eye”; it is one rooted in the fruit of the spirit. As Paul tells the Romans, “We [now] know that the law is spiritual” (7:14). This spiritual law gives us life as Christians because it enables all of us, through Jesus, to avoid the retribution due to us for our sins:“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2).The mercy Jesus shows to us in our sinfulness requires us Christians to think differently about the world. But how? The ethical questions raised at the beginning make it difficult for us to know what to do. To deal with this ambiguity, let’s consider for a moment two contrasting ethic dilemmas:(a) If you knew that the moment the United States tortured a single person and justified it as legal it would create the opportunity for other nations and individuals also to legally justify the torture of captured Americans, would you then authorize the torture of a suspected terrorist? -or- (b) If you knew that several top United States military and political officials have testified before Congress that torture does not produce effective results anyway, would you still authorize the torture of a suspected terrorist? ( United States is in a position of power, and while it has faced tremendous evil, it must guard against demanding an “eye for an eye” for very practical reasons. Violence tends to beget violence, and violence often does not produce the desired results anyway. The United States has not had the best record with torture since September 11th (, but the halls of Congress are NOT per se dungeons for torture because the American tradition of respecting all persons – even suspected criminals – with due process and fairness is one that originated in those halls and which continues to be debated there today. Indeed, this tradition has been discussed fervently this month in Congress, resulting in a bill articulating the means for dealing with captured terrorist suspects ( This document decries torture, but it does not define it either, leaving open the possibility that the secretive interrogation methods still permissible in this bill could, as some fear, result in tactics akin to torture. Based on all of this ethical complexity, we might find ourselves asking in the words of Francis Schaeffer, “How should we then live?” Jesus tells us that retribution is different than justice. While retribution may be a necessary component of societal justice (as it is in the American legal system), it is not reconcilable with the personal manifestation of the fruit of the spirit. Neither is it often practically advisable for sustaining political peace – any possible utilitarian benefits of retribution manifested through the use of torture are outweighed by torture’s ineffectiveness in extracting reliable information and by the vitriol it perpetuates. In other words, there are personal, spiritual reasons why Jesus wanted to undo the Old Testament thinking on justice, and there are practical, societal reasons why the United States has had a tradition of affording the accused due process rather than endorsing torture. How should we then live? We should live as persons who are aware of our own sinfulness, our own redemption in light of Jesus’ mercy, and our own consequent responsibility to support the kind of justice that, in our broken world, most closely mimics the manifestations of the fruit of the spirit. The American democratic system is an imperfect political system and will never fully embody the fruit of the spirit. Because of the United States’ hegemony, however, those of us who are Christians would be wise to seek the fruit of the spirit – that is, both personal holiness and social responsibility – in our own lives and to pray for our leaders, asking God that those who have authority over us would be wise. dt

  2. >The “frame” the two questions about authorizing the torture of “terrorists” is very misleading. It’s not about that.Many of the people being tortured in Guantanamo and Abu Ghaib were not proven to be “terrorists”. It is not even proven that they are “enemy combatants” – another misleading buzz word.Many of them were completely innocent – picked up on or near the battlefield in their own countries. They have never been charged with terrorism, nor could they be since they are denied fair trials. The current debate in the Senate is about whether or not to uphold “habeas corpus” – an important constitutional right. In other words, the prisoners will never know what their charges are.Continuing to frame the torture around “terrorism” plays right into the hands of those who want to continue the justification for torture and unending detention of people who have not even been convicted of a crime.A recent editorial in the Washington Post stated that torture not only contaminates the victim and the perpetrator. It contaminates anyone who stands back and lets it happen.To me, it’s pretty clear. As responsible, socially concerned Christians we need to delve underneath the spin of the media that creates misleading frames and strive to discover the truth. Then we must take action to prevent injustice and preserve our values.

  3. >The first two questions posed in the above response to Pastor Kevin’s blog use the phrase “unremorseful terrorists,” and the second two questions posed used the phrase “suspected terrorists.” This frame was an intentional one used to juxipose what we understand from the media with what may in fact be the case. While we must reframe the discussion, I am of the opinion that we should start from the popular, more widely understood frames and move out from those in an effort to reframe the debate. I agree: the current frames of the debate are not as black and white as they have been presented to us. dt

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