28 August 2007

Jesus and torture

I’ve been meaning to blog on this for some time. Thom Stark makes a “Eucharistic” case regarding how Christians view, or ought to view, torture.

(Okay. Be fair. Stop right here and read Stark’s posting if you’ve not already done.)

It’s a very fine posting, but although I believe that torture may be inconsistent with Christian ethics I don’t agree with his reasoning. I also suspect that Stark and I will disagree upon which acts constitute torture. For example water boarding doesn’t make my list; I suspect it does his own. We will also disagree upon the grounds for objecting to torture.

1. Stark offers three definitions of torture, two from a dictionary and one from the UN:

[1] The act of inflicting excruciating pain, as punishment or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty.

[2]The deliberate, systematic, or wanton infliction of physical or mental suffering by one or more persons in an attempt to force another person to yield information or to make a confession or for any other reason.

[3] The United Nations Convention Against Torture defines torture as
any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

If we are going to have a problem with torture from the perspective of a Christian worldview, then we ought to have the term defined by the worldview in which the act is wrong. For example, the Scriptures tell us that murder is wrong, but also tell us that not all killing is murder. In the Law are specified the types of conditions in which one is authorized to take human life, or to use deadly force; murder is killing which occurs outside of those prescribed bounds. We get both a prohibition and a definition. (We also know that not all intentional killing of non-combatants [e.g., women and children, even cattle] is considered murder.)

Do the Scriptures offer us a definition of torture? I don’t think they do. Let’s say they don’t. One could argue that we ought to accept the current definition given, let’s be honest, by the world. But why accept the contemporary definition? The contemporary spirit of the age offers a definition of “tolerance” which I cannot accept. That definition has it that I must pretend to agree the other guy is right when I think he’s wrong. And if I won’t make this pretense then I’m intolerant. If I do nothing more than say I think homosexual behavior is immoral then I’m intolerant, even if I do nothing else, even if I let him alone in his homosexual acts. Just thinking it’s immoral makes me intolerant. I reject that definition of “tolerance” because it isn’t tolerance; it’s agreement. And it is nonsense to talk about “tolerating” what you agree with.

So I see no reason to accept either the dictionary or the UN definitions of torture in a discussion of whether torture is inconsistent with Christian ethics. The OT law requires stoning people to death for certain crimes. The UN definition could be interpreted, without absurdity, to include something which God commanded under the Mosaic covenant.

If we are looking for a proscription of some act, then the source of the proscription must also be the source of the definition of the proscribed act. What the law prohibits, it must also define.

2. Having accepted the above definitions of torture, Stark says that people who are the followers of one who was tortured cannot support torture. Now there he might really be on to something and I think we’d have to accept that he’s right, except for the fact that he isn’t. Not to be unnecessarily contrary, but our Lord wasn’t tortured; he was punished for a crime (albeit one he didn’t commit). There may be a fine distinction between torture and punishment; but there is a distinction nonetheless.

Now, some might point us in the direction of the UN’s definition of torture, which includes “punishing [someone] for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed.” Clearly, if we accept this definition of torture, then Jesus was tortured. But then so is anyone and every who is punished for a crime he commits. I guess, in addition to putting an end to the death penalty, we need to shut down our prison systems, lest we be charged with torture by punishment.

No. I think we’ll have to accept a distinction between torture and punishment. And this is true even if torture and punishment are inflicted in the same way. In other words, whipping someone 40 times with a cat o’ nine tails could be torture or it could be punishment. I suspect that someone would argue that insofar as use of a cat o’ nine tails is involved it’s torture no matter what. But that would be like saying that all sex is adultery – or rape. There are conditions; and conditions can render the same act right or wrong depending upon those conditions. The condition of being married renders sexual intercourse right; the condition of being unmarried renders sexual intercourse wrong. (I’m speaking of adultery only from a Christian point of view.)

Likewise it’s possible that conditions can render use of a cat o’ nine tails right (as in punishment) or wrong (as in torture). But the simple act of whipping is not of itself torture. And neither is the simple act of nailing to a cross. Jesus was punished, not tortured. The most that we could say is that we who follow a man punished for a crime he didn’t commit should see to it that we do not do the same. But if there is a reason for being opposed to torture I don’t think that the suffering of Christ is that reason.

In addition to the fact that Jesus wasn’t tortured there is something about the OT sacrificial system which makes things problematic. Stark wants to link opposition to torture to the fact that Jesus was tortured. The Christian understanding of the OT sacrificial system is that the system pre-figured (i.e., is a type of) the sacrifice of himself (i.e., the archetype) that Messiah would one day offer. One would think, given the slaughter (torture) of the innocent animals for the sins of guilty humans, that the Israelites (or, more importantly, perhaps, their God) would have some scruples about torture. But this seems not to be the case.

3. Having said all that, I do have objections to torture. But any objections I have to torture are rooted in the fact that it amounts to the conduct of war against unarmed opponents, even if those opponents were armed when they were taken prisoner. (Of course, since I make a distinction between soldiers and terrorists, whose hallmark is the conduct of war against unarmed opponents, it’s hard to care very much.) Whereas Stark and others would like to ground Christian ethics, at least in part, in the Eucharist, I think it is better grounded in the Law. The attempt to ground Christian ethics in the Eucharist strikes me as an attempt to derive “ought” from “is”. I don’t think that can be done.

And when it comes to the Law, the thing I think is important to bear in mind is that despite its apparent harshness, the Law is actually intended to protect the innocent – even if that means occasionally the guilty go unpunished. The rules of evidence are very tough. They don’t look that way, of course – two or three witnesses (see Numbers 35.30; Deuteronomy 17.6). But even at Jesus’ kangaroo trial, it was not possible to get a conviction on the testimony of two or three witnesses (see Matthew 26.59, 60). A confession finally had to be wrestled from him (id at 63 - 65).

To inflict pain upon those who have not been proven guilty of anything, even for the sake of acquiring information which can save lives is something to which I would not easily agree. Of course, if the pain is inflicted as a consequence of being guilty of something, then it’s punishment, not torture. (And there is a distinction between the two.) But there is another important difference here. The question is whether, since terrorists claim to be waging war, they can properly be afforded protections provided to the accused. Moreover, since they refuse to conduct their war in accordance with the laws and conventions of warfare – these are infidel conventions, after all – it is difficult to assign to them the protections afforded to “lawful” combatants. So despite my own qualms about torture I can’t find the ethical or legal grounds for opposing torture. Application of ethical and legal norms requires categorization; and terrorists belong, at best, in some penumbral category, making the application of the laws and conventions of warfare more than a little difficult. Those laws and conventions were conceived when warfare was “conventional”. (Many years ago, in this blog, I suggested that terrorists were sui generis, neither “criminals” nor “soldiers”. As such they may require hybrid and even ad hoc means of dealing with.) But if Stark would like to assert that we should err on the side of neither torturing nor abusing, as at Abu Ghraib, I’ll stipulate.

The problem isn’t that some people condone torture and others do not. For the most part, it’s that torture is defined differently and some group thinks its definition ought to carry the day. (Kind of like the way some people think their definition of marriage ought to be normative for all Americans.) Let’s say the definition of torture was other than those Stark offers us. Let’s say that grabbing someone by the ear and tweaking it was considered torture. Let’s say also that on 10 September 2001 an intelligence operative got wind that something “big” was going to happen next day and that he also got some information on who one of the principals in the “big” act was going to be. Our intelligence operative finds this principal, grabs him by the ear, tweaks, and says, “Pardon me, but would you happen to have any knowledge about ‘something big’ happening tomorrow?” The informant, who is surely suffering from having his ear tweaked, tells the operative all about it, and the horror of 11 September 2001 is averted. Wouldn’t it be worth tweaking someone’s ear to save three thousand people? One gets the idea from Stark that three thousand people can die as long as no one’s ear is tweaked, and all because ear tweaking is covered by the UN’s definition of torture. (And we’re better people than terrorists, even if it kills some of us.) But ear tweaking isn’t considered torture by everyone, so one further gets the idea that for Stark there are people who are the right people, the correct people; and these correct people get to define torture. Like Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada” who ultimately decides what everyone wears, these correct people decide for the rest of us what torture is. And if they say ear tweaking counts, why then it counts. And we dare not tweak any ears in order to prevent mass casualties.

Of course, perhaps even Stark would acknowledge that ear-tweaking isn’t torture. But if the person who has his ear tweaked howls and screams as if a toothpick has been inserted in his urethra, then nothing prevents us from acknowledging ear-tweaking as torture.

This is the problem with the aforementioned definitions of torture. Those definitions contain words that make whatever is to constitute torture either over-broad or relative: “excruciating pain”; “physical or mental suffering”; “severe pain or suffering”. Indeed, Stark, in addition to water boarding (which I can understand somewhat), also wants to include sleep deprivation and exposure to “extreme” cold on his list of tortuous acts. Sorry. Those don’t make my list just as such. I’ve been sleep deprived; and I’ve been exposed to extreme cold. (The temperature was sub-freezing and the exposure was long enough for frost bite to begin setting in [and put a damper on my military career plans], so maybe that could count as torture. Perhaps I should sue someone.) I have also almost drowned – for real, not water-boarding. (Always be careful going over waterfalls. That undertow can be a killer.) Pain, whether physical or mental, is experienced differently by different people.

The average American’s tolerance for pain or discomfort is apparently pretty low. Want to “torture” a teenager? Deprive him of his music and video games for a week. Want a visit from social services? Put a teenager who complains daily about the meals he’s fed on bread and water for three days. Social services will be on your door step in day or two; and they probably won’t knock before coming in to save the poor dear from his “abusive” parents. (Note: I’m not minimizing real torture. I’m pointing out the importance of tolerance levels when it comes to discomfort. Also note: I never put my child on bread and water rations during the teen years. I promised to, and would have, but it proved unnecessary – probably because she knew darn well I’d really do it. And, had I done, I’d have put myself on the same diet.) For crying out loud, we have college students complaining about the loss of tax-payer subsidized birth control. See? Low tolerance for discomfort, even the discomfort of having to go without sexual intercourse because one cannot afford it. (Perhaps Stark should add “promiscuity” to his characterization of our “way of life”.)

To make my list of torture we’d have to be talking about long-lasting (i.e., several months) or permanent physical damage, as well as insertion of objects into the body (so that will rule out the toothpick in the urethra, I’m happy to say). Not that the terrorists feel themselves obligated not to torture. But we’re better people, even if it kills us. But, of course, I’m not one of the correct people who gets to decide this, so it doesn’t matter how I define torture.

The greatest problem I have with “aggressive” interrogation techniques is precisely the aforementioned penumbral status of terrorists; and the conduct of a “war” against them. I said above that the conduct of a war against terrorists might be a hybrid approach, having elements of conventional (and unconventional) warfare and elements of law enforcement. Our hybrid approach should combine the protective aspects of our legal system and our desire, when it comes to war, to protect non-combatants as well as we can from harm.

It is inevitable that some people apprehended during this “war” will have the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, even if they are apprehended on the “battlefield”. The possibility of “aggressively” interrogating people under these circumstances ought to be distasteful. Applying the principle in Christian ethics – and American law – that the accused are not to be mistreated, abused, tortured, or punished without trial, we ought to be wary of allowing them to be “aggressively” interrogated. Also in the conduct of this war, information being as critical as it is, some of these people who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time will be detained for long – even unreasonably long – periods of time. On the off chance that they have no terrorist connections everything ought to be done to make the detainment as short and as comfortable as possible. Finally, it should not be the determination of those who apprehend or those who will interrogate detainees that they have been detained properly, or that they will be interrogated at all, much less “aggressively”.

As long as we are trying to apply Christian ethical principles regarding treatment of the accused and the conduct of war, perhaps there should be a grand-jury type panel to review the evidence against the detainees, an inquest. It would be nice to say this panel should be of civilians, consistent with the American principle of military under civilian control. Of course, some of the evidence against detainees, will have come from intelligence sources which may be compromised by sharing with such a panel. That’s problematic, of course. But if we don’t hand people over for trial on the say-so of a prosecutor but on that of a grand jury, it stands to reason that detainees not be handed over for “aggressive” interrogation on the mere say-so of those who apprehended them or of those of wish to conduct interrogations.


One thing that concerned me about Stark’s posting was his linking our putative practice of torture with our fully-matured capitalist democracy. About capitalism and our present malaise, he says:
[A]all of this …means we are living in dark days. We live in a capitalist democracy approaching boiling point—capitalism all grown up. Of course, the “democracy” in the capitalist democracy is an oligarchy of transnational corporations, virtual nation-states in their own right. United States policy, domestic and foreign, is determined not “by the people for the people” but by global market trends, oil, munitions and fast food. Accordingly, we are a society of virtual killers (television, PlayStations), killers (high-schoolers and the LAPD), and credit consumers, who have been formed by McDonalds, Wal-Mart, and Hiroshima to inhabit the “real world” where expediency always trumps truth. In such a society the question, “Is torture necessarily immoral?” is no longer intelligible. The question assumes that “morality” is something that can be determined apart from considerations of national interest (oil, munitions and fast food = security). If it’s expedient for us to torture some sandnigger, if it prevents having our way of life (obesity, debt, poverty, warfare, torture) taken away from us, the very question is offensive. It’s immoral not to torture! A bleeding heart liberal is no better than a terrorist when our children’s lives are at stake. So if we have to kill a few Muslim kids to save our children, well, that’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make, for freedom.

One gets the idea that were it not for our adult capitalist democracy we wouldn’t be in Iraq, and we wouldn’t be torturing people. (Because, as we all know, torture has not existed until now, except for when Jesus was executed, which of course only happened because Rome’s own capitalist democracy was itself fully-matured.) Stark also comes close, I think, to claiming that countries which are not perfect have no business defending themselves, or their “way of life”.

Moving on. Note his claim that our foreign policy is “determined not ‘by the people for the people’ but by global market trends, oil, munitions and fast food” as if none of these things is a function of “the people” making economic decisions on their own. Global markets (and their associated trends) don’t exist because there’s a demand for products and services available through those markets. No, these markets are summarily forced upon us by these virtual-nation-state transnational corporations. The “people” are dupes of the pretended patriots running U.S. corporations.

To say that something is good for the American economy is to say only that it is good for transnational corporations. It’s not that we prefer petroleum products to power our engines because internal combustion engines are (albeit arguably) more powerful and efficient than other alternatives, at least for now. No, we are a people “who have been formed by McDonalds, Wal-Mart, and Hiroshima” to make these decisions. We, but not Stark and his fellow travelers. They are not dupes. They have freed themselves from the matrix; they are not afflicted with the same “imperial pathology” that afflicts the rest of us – the same pathology which gripped Pontius Pilate. (And here I have been thinking that Pontius Pilate – Mister What-is-truth? – was simply his era’s version of a post-modernist!)

To disagree with Stark about the moral permissibility of torture (or even “aggressive” interrogation) is not to have a different, but equally principled, position – even if wrong, or even just a different definition of torture. To disagree with Stark means “the question, ‘Is torture necessarily immoral?’ is [not]…intelligible” to you. You aren’t mistaken on the issue, reasoning from premises which Stark just rejects. Your moral sense is calloused, having been formed and shaped by transnational corporations. You don’t simply disagree with him on the question; you don’t even get the question. For you, “‘morality’ is [not] something that can be determined apart from considerations of national interest.” Morality –for you – is defined by national interest; the ends justify the means used in pursuit of those ends. For you to say (if you were to say) that torture is morally permissible is just your way of saying it’s politically expedient, justified by your desire to preserve not your and your neighbors’ physical lives but our national “way of life”, which Stark defines as “obesity, debt, poverty, warfare, torture”. Those are the things you really want to preserve, whether you know it or not. Your own protests to the contrary notwithstanding.

I don't fault -- I can't -- Stark his position on torture. Although I disagree with the reasoning that takes him there, I think he's right: Christians ought not condone torture. What I find objectionable is the basis dismissal of those who would(?) condone torture. His dismissal of any argument they might make is not grounded in any such arguments. The basis for his dismissal is certain things he finds objectionable about his opponents, not their arguments. Apparently, his opponents are either evil (e.g., the corporate masters) or stupid (e.g., the dupes who have been "formed" by these evil corporate masters).


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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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