Monday, April 28, 2008

Thinking Theologically About Torture: Introduction

As I get the time, I will be writing a brief series of posts surrounding the issue of torture: Thinking Theologically About Torture. This is in part a response to Michael Westmoreland-White, who in his recent return to blogging wrote these powerful words:

We are a pluralistic nation, but over 80% of us in this country claim to be Christian. Well over 50% attend church regularly. Evangelical Protestants, who elevate the authority of Scripture above all else, make up between 40 and 50% of the nation, according to surveys. But far too many evangelical leaders have tried justifying the torture or covering it up. White evangelicals are practically the only group left in the country who still support Pres. Bush and hold him up as a “Christian leader.” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the presumptive GOP nominee for president, stood out among the GOP candidates as the only one willing to oppose torture–but after winning the nomination, he spoke out and voted against a bill that would have forbidden the CIA to use such “harsh interrogation” techniques as waterboarding (called in all other times and places “water torture,” used in the Inquisition and prosecuted by the U.S. in previous wars!), and then applauded Bush for vetoing it when it passed despite McCain’s efforts to shipwreck it. Yet, although he can’t decide whether he’s a Baptist or Episcopalian, McCain claims a deep Christian faith and courts the endorsements of conservative evangelical and fundamentalist preachers (including pro-torturers like Rod Parsely and John Hagee!).

How can any follower of the Crucified One countenance torture?

How can any nation dedicated to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law countenance torture?

U.S. Americans, especially U.S. Christians, have clearly lost their/our way–their/our moral bearings. History will not absolve us–nor will the Lord of History.

However, I am less interested in attacking any politician (be it a Bush or a McCain or anyone else) who clothes themselves in Christian garb while advocating for positions that seem incompatible with any Christian theological position than I am in exploring the issue of torture through various different approaches to Christian theological ethics.

To that end, Westmoreland-White asks some useful questions here. There are other questions that can be asked, as well.

I have already dealt with the ethics of torture here before, especially in this post from Sept. 2006, in which I engaged torture from a consequentialist ethical perspective. There I argued that - independent of concerns about inalienable human rights - torture could never be justified because no conceivable benefit from any act of torture could outweigh the respective harms from that act.

In this series, however, I propose to engage the subject of torture not from the grounds of a philosophic ethic but rather from the grounds of my Christian faith. This is a somewhat more limited perspective, because as Westmoreland-White rightly notes we live in a pluralistic country that cannot be bound to a distinctly Christian ethic. I am doing this, however, because I am deeply troubled by the willingness of some Christians to defend torture as a legitimate act by our state.

The first lens I will look through is a Christo-centric lens. That is, assuming that the task of Christian ethics is to model on ethic on the person, nature, concerns, and behavior of Jesus as the Christ, can a Christian justify supporting and defending acts of torture? If the answer to that question is, as I suspect (for reasons to be argued for in the forthcoming post) a resounding NO!, what then does this say about the living of a Christian life within a state that persists in engaging in acts of torture?

Other questions include something like: Is a Christo-centric approach the best possible approach to Christian ethics in general and the ethics of torture in particular? Even if it is, are there some limitations to it? And, can any state be bound to adopt or even consider a Christo-centric ethic, or is such an ethic binding only on Christians living within a particular state?

From there, further posts hope to explore other Christian ethical lens through which to view issues surrounding torture.

But, the first question is simply this: What do we mean by "torture"? What behaviors can rightly be considered torture, and what behaviors push up against the boundary of torture? When discussing torture, do we need a firm definition of torture, or will a list of actions that can be rightly termed "torture" suffice?

At this moment, I have only these questions. Their answers will have to wait for future posts.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Another Adamism

Adamisms are what Sami and I call words or phrases that, frankly, could only come from Adam. I'm still kicking myself that I've never compiled a definitive dictionary of Adamisms, as most of the best ones have silently slipped from my memory.

Anyway, last night, just before bed, I overheard an Adamism that begged to be preserved in the inerrant memory of the blogosphere:

Mama, if the new baby is a boy, we should call him Bob the Builder!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Early Christmas Present

Not blogging lately, due to school, etc. I don't expect that to change any time soon.

However, I do have some good news:

Cone early December, Adam will be a big brother! He's very excited - maybe too excited. He keeps telling everyone,

We're going to have a baby TONIGHT!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

States Sue EPA Over Global Warming

MSNBC reports:

A coalition of states on Wednesday sued the Bush administration, saying it has failed to comply with a Supreme Court ruling that opened the door for regulating the greenhouse gases tied to global warming.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Back to Theodicy

While I'm sure I'm not done with my semi-permanent digression on race and culture, for at least this brief post I'm back to the more familiar ground of theodicy.

Ben Witherington has a wonderful new post on post-Katrina theodicy, a topic I've wrestled with here more than once. After posting some majestic pictures of the storm looming over Mississippi, he offers a few theological observations. Ultimately, I don't believe that any theodicy can successfully preserve divine omnipotence, but he does make good (and mercifully brief) use of free-will theodicy to argue that what appears to be a natural disaster, an "act of God," can also contain a great deal of human agency and responsibility:

There is another human factor in play as well. The over-heated waters in the gulf of Mexico contributed mightily to the magnitude of this storm. What caused the waters to be overheated? There are a variety of factors and several of them are human in origin: 1) the dumping of massive chemicals in the gulf; 2) the dumping of massive raw sewage in the gulf; 3) global warming which is in part attributable to human pollution.

This, connected with his use of Romans 8 to argue for the fallen state of nature, attributable also to human agency in that (in this view) sin, which enters into creation through human agency, corrupts the entire natural order, speaks powerfully to the kind of theodicy against "natural evil" offered by Augustine. You can see my own thoughts about that kind of argument here.

Witherington's tag stands as a challenge to my take on theodicy:

To what extent has God set nature in motion and allowed it to take its own natural courses, bearing in mind that there are various factors human and otherwise that affect eco-systems and ecological patterns? While I do not believe that God is absent or has simply wound up the world of nature and let it run, unless you believe in absolute divine determinism, you cannot simply assume that everything that happens in nature reflects God's hand or will, especially if you have a theology of the Fall that affects nature.

Implicitly embedded in my critique of the project of theodicy is the notion that, if God is truly all-powerful, then that which happens represents (of necessity) God's will for the world. This notion - despite my Methodist heritage - reflects a more Calvinist understanding of divine will and power, in which part of what it means to be all-powerful is to possess an (at least ultimately) irresistible will.

Here Witherington, like a good Methodist, implicitly preserves the language of divine omnipotence (never employed in the post, but embedded in the concept of God - for Witherington it makes no sense to talk about God as anything other than omnipotent; anything less would fail to be God) but challenges the necessary connection between omnipotence and irresistibility. God may be unlimited in power, but it is obvious that God does not have here a monopoly on agency. Human beings enjoy the freedom to act, even if such action mucks up the natural world, manufacturing a great deal of suffering - even the suffering that seems to be natural.

This is the essence of the free will theodicy. Its philosophic success rests on one's willingness to see freedom, human agency, as a good so great that it offsets any suffering created from it. But success can be measured in other terms, too.

While Witherington's reflections - even carried far beyond his brief post - may not be able to logically reconcile the traditional theistic description of God (omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent) with the fact of evil and suffering; in their emphasis on human agency in, human responsibility for, apparently natural evils, they serve a valuable purpose. Just as humans should not employ theodicies to let God off the hook for suffering, neither should we employ those same kinds of arguments leave God squirming alone on that hook, as though we ourselves bear no responsibility for our hand in apparently natural evil.

Hurricane Katrina was not a natural disaster. Humans made both the hurricane and the impact of that hurricane considerably worse through our sins of both commission and omission, our actions and our failure to act. We should, as Witherington implores us, "Think on these things."