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.


Beawhiz said...

Thanks for the sweet comment on my blog! I didn't realize anyone was reading it. : ) I think that I've lived too long in LA. People are so superficial here. The problem is not particularly being attractive enough, but being skinny enough. I feel like I have a lot of not so desirable quirks that a potential bf would have to overcome in order to date me. Since you knew me, I've acquired 5 tattoos and a couple of piercings. There are a few other things as well, but those are best not posted where the entire internet can see! LOL.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I look forward to your series, Chris.

Jeff said...

Nice post, Chris.

As far as the first Chisto-centric lens is concerned, I think you're right. It should be a resounding "No". Jesus should have been the last man to have endured both torture and capital punsihment. Any model of atonement in any tradition, whether it's ransom, satisfaction, moral example, or substitutionary, should incorporate that. Now, in the wake of the crucifixion, we certainly do "know of what we do." I think the earliest Christians had a very keen awareness of that.

Anonymous said...

For one of the most intellectually rigorous and theologically insightful discussions on the issues surrounding torture, see Keith Pavlischek's article here:

Sandalstraps said...


Sorry your comment didn't post promptly - it never showed up in my inbox. Or, if it did, I never saw it. Sorry you were a temporary casualty of comment moderation.

There was, of course, nothing in your comment that even remotely merits moderation. Thank you for your contribution, and again I apologize that this comment did not post promptly.