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Torturous Questions: Potential Good and Certain Evil

Dr. John Mark Reynolds | The Torrey Honors Institute | Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Torturous Questions: Potential Good and Certain Evil

May 5, 2009

A government decided to execute a prisoner who threatened its control of a region. It did not just kill the man, but selected, as usual, a means calculated to do the most pain and prolong the suffering. His torturous death is recorded in the Gospels and should give every Christian pause in supporting any form of torture. Torturing any man, even the most base, may not elevate the victim, as it did with the Son of God, but it almost certainly debases the torturer to the level of the Romans who killed Him.

Torture of any human being is incompatible with the Christian faith.

This should have been obvious, but like many hard and inconvenient moral lessons it was not. Christianity grew in cultures that used torture frequently and so had cultural assumptions inconsistent with their faith. Like most evil things, torture is justified by the good that can come of it. Most bad things are tempting because of alleged goods, but Christian experience shows that any gains from torture are not worth the cost to the souls of men and cultures.

Because there are times when torture seems like a good idea, Christians followed the practice of most ancient cultures and sometimes used it when they gained power. However, it was always a difficult decision for Christian civilizations to make and always had critics amongst Christian theologians and philosophers. The practice was modified and prisoners were given greater rights. The longer Christians thought about the practice and experienced the results, the broader the disdain and condemnation for it.

Eventually, a consensus developed in the traditional Churches that torture was a temptation to do evil, a snare of devils to corrupt souls, and a delusion that promised good, but only certainly did evil.

The condemnation of torture is part of the culture of life so central to the Faith. It is sad to see some Christians use arguments and lines of reasoning to justify torture that are similar to those used to justify abortion.

Traditional Christians disdain those who mutilate the corpses of enemies, because it dishonors the Image of God. How much worse is it to mutilate the living body or the immortal soul of a man?

Most Christians are not pacifists. They will honor the choices of a man who declares himself their enemy by fighting him in fair combat. Once he is a prisoner, they will honor his God-given free will by allowing him to preserve his conscience. Christian nations developed rules regarding interrogation that allowed prisoners to preserve their dignity and God-given choices. A Christian can kill a man who is asking for it, but he will not warp and twist his body and soul when the fight is done.

Sadly, Christian history reveals that the “good reasons” for torture tempted many Christian leaders to torture in order to do some hoped for good. We don’t have to guess at the bad results or the later condemnation of history for our short-sighted pursuit of immediate gain over our deepest principles.

Men have always been tempted to torture to get information to “save the city.” However, experience showed that saving the physical city by destroying its values was never a good bargain. At the very least, a nation that ordered torture had to turn some of its own sons into torturers. There has proven no way to compartmentalize such men after the alleged good they did was done.

A nation that turns its bravest and best into torturers instead of warriors has dishonored itself. There are worse things than losing a war and that is one of them.

A general condemnation of torture does not mean that we already know that what the Bush administration did was torture. Reasonable people can disagree about exactly what torture is and some believe that what the Bush administration ordered in prosecuting the War on Terror was not torture. They should be heard and not ignored, but so far the arguments advanced have not been persuasive.

Many of the practices used by the Bush administration have been widely condemned as torture prior to their use. However modified by the administration, in the laudable attempt to keep them from being torture, the actions ordered do not pass an immediate “smell test” as exemplified by the fact that they were condemned by the candidates of both political parties in the last election.

For those of us who are not experts, there is the practical “John McCain Test.” Everyone agrees that Senator John McCain is a brave American hero for the way he endured torture at the hands of the Communists. When John McCain condemns our actions as torture, most of us should have a presumption that there is a serious problem with the actions.

Of course, there is no comparison regarding the degree of horror he experienced and the amount of suffering ordered against the terrorists. John McCain experienced far worse at the hands of the Communist government than anything that has been revealed so far about American interrogation techniques. However, John McCain looked at what was being done and saw too many similarities to what was done by our government to condone the actions.

If the United States did not torture prisoners, it gave a reasonable imitation of doing so. The fact that a torture is not horrific does not mean it is not bad.

On first review, it appears that what the Bush administration did to terrorists was torture and so morally wrong. If a calm and full disclosure of the facts sustains this judgment, then the Bush administration will have done permanent damage to its reputation. That such a wrong may have been done with the authority of an American President who professes an Evangelical faith would be shameful.

Of course, the men and women in government in both parties were sorely tempted after the events of 9/11. Fear and a desire to protect the innocent often drives good men to do very bad things. Congress was aware of the administration’s policy and authorized it. No party has clean hands in this situation, but the President is ultimately responsible for pressing for authority to take the actions he took after 9/11.

If a bipartisan and judicious examination finds that men and women were ordered to torture, then those who gave the orders should be condemned, if not legally then in the court of public opinion. Torture is incompatible with a great nation and with the beliefs of the Christian majority of that nation.

We must act as the Prince of Peace would act and not as Caesar did.

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.