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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Shaken, and Stirred - Christianity and Torture

I'm finally able to put down some words regarding the release of The Religious Dimensions of the Torture Debate by the Pew Forum. It's a study with a somewhat small sample of under 800 people that seems to indicate that a large majority of evangelical Christians strongly agree with the belief that torture can usually or sometimes be defended. Mainline Christians form only a slight majority, but a majority nonetheless. Secular folks form a large majority -- against torture. Moreover, the study seems to show that the more often you attend weekly Christian church services, the more likely you will defend torture.

I simply don't understand how Christian beliefs can defend torture. After all, we're not talking about realpolitik policies, about secular governments, about the presumed guilt of those being tortured. We aren't discussing the efficacy of torture or the differences in political parties. The study supposedly showed a simple correlation between Christian identity and support for the use of torture.

The press releases from Pew started coming out last year. I guess they really wanted to make a splash with their findings, so they waited for a nice slow news week to really knock it out of the park. The results certainly caught everyone's attention. It's all over the blogs. And this weekend, Rector Ed Bacon at my church in Pasadena (All Saints Episcopal Church) chose to bring it up in his sermon. And now, even I am moved to write about it.

Since everyone from the Huffington Post and Fox News has an opinion, I figure I'm not alone.

But my thoughts were slow in finding form and substance. It wasn't until I saw Hugo Schwyzer's post that I was able to put my thoughts down. In an outraged, passionate way, he described what he saw as irreconcilable differences between Christianity as he practices it and the "enhanced interrogation techniques" as the US practiced it.

Both Father Ed and Hugo were ashamed and scandalized by the findings. I'm not so much ashamed as baffled and enormously saddened.

But, as I've reviewed the blogs and literature in the past week since hearing about the Pew study, contradictions seem to abound. I usually understand the consequentialist argument to be mostly inconsistent with most Christian doctrine. Whether it's from my Roman Catholic upbringing or my fascination with fundamentalism in high school or my collegiate libertianism, I've understood typical Christianity to disavow calculated ends-justify-the-means utilitarianism.

I recall a Pat Robertson sermon where he debunked Marxist thinking because of such amoral philosophy. I use amoral as he would have, but consequentialism does anticipate a greater good as a consequence of the possibly immoral behavior that caused it, so there is to me a real and definite moral structure there. After all, isn't Christ's death the ultimate "ends justify the means" sort of thinking that would please a John Stuart Mills?

But most of torture's Christian apologists don't talk from a right is right and wrong is wrong perspective. Rather than the expected deontological assertions, I was surprised that most seem to bring up political, non-Christian utilitarian arguments. Saving lives matters more than the torture of a single person, whether that person has guilt, guilt by association, presumed guilt, or innocence. This moral weighting of good and bad actions seems more consistent with the secular world than the Christianity world.

These arguments even come from folks who also argue that abortion under all circumstances is immoral. I'm terribly confused by this. This is a reversal of typical positions, to me, and it confounds me.

To be blunt, if one can save the life of one person by torturing another, then it seems easier to justify that the life of a mother can be saved by killing a fetus (killing at best, torturing and killing at worst).

Maybe I'm missing the point. Is it because the typical torture victim is a non-US citizen? If so, then I'm more worried if racism or xenophobia plays a part. Are we saying it's ok to torture people if they're not Americans? Not Christians?

Again with the comparison to abortion, what if the mother of the fetus were a non-US citizen and non-Christian, and the about-to-be-an-American fetus (with its mother) were currently in America? And why or how could Christian behavior be based on one's legal nationality anyway? Are the souls that our missionaries seek to save of a second class nature in God's realm? All this seems even more odd when Paul was so adamant that Gentiles and Jews are both saved by Christ.

So if abortion can or cannot be discussed in absolute terms, why or why not torture? The "under certain circumstances" phrase used in the torture justifications has typically been seen as one given by so-called wet liberal Christianity and secularism. (I've understood Liberal Christians as being folks like Episcopalians, Lutherans and Methodists. Oh wait, George W Bush and Dick Cheney were both Methodists. Interesting.) But in this topic, the phrase is found all over the blogs that defend torture, on ethical grounds or not.

What of the presumed innocence of the tortured person? The discussion on this aspect seems to treat is as an under-whelming inconvenience. It seems far easier for defenders of torture to assume that the person being tortured is somehow deserving of this treatment because they have already been found guilty of withholding information. Moreover, since "time is of the essence" arguments are put forth, innocence is largely irrelevant anyway.

Would any of these arguments been used by the British during the American revolution? Perhaps. We were fighting in a largely guerrilla fashion after all. Had the term existed then, I'm sure some of the British would have called us terrorists.

Would we apply this thinking to American citizens today? If a US citizen could stop a criminal act by divulging information, wouldn't waterboarding be justifiable? Would 183 acts of waterboarding be justifiable (the number is supposedly how often one person was waterboarded during the preceding federal administration)?

Is the number of torturous acts permissible directly related to the number of lives in question? Can you torture one person to save one person? If the number of lives threatened aren't known, is that unknown number to be treated as millions of people. Do we torture a person if we think Hiroshima and Nagasaki will land on our shores?

Hiroshima and Nagasaki of course are the ultimate in irony in the torture debate. Imagine the background story: Millions of innocent, unsuspecting lives are at stake. Every soldier you come across may have information on how this dastardly deed will be performed and where and when. Clearly, following the teological arguments most Christians seem endorse, it's justifiable and right to torture every one of those soldiers to prevent the nightmare that happened.

Since those soldiers were not tortured, two cities got nuked. Those who did not die immediately suffered miserably for the next two decades as radiation poisoning punished them for being in the wrong place. Casualties of war is one thing, but these innocent civilians, children and adults, bore the burden of cancer and other maladies for years after. All of this could have been avoided through torture.

If I am to read this correctly, 1940s Japan had every right to torture every American, Filipino and Australian soldier within any notable distance from its shores. WWII Japan had a moral entitlement and duty to torture scientists who could somehow prevent the situation.

Moving away from history, since utilitarian positions are acceptable when it comes to torture, do they apply to children? I recall many a times when a team of kids would encourage a slower, less skilled child on. That's nice. That helps everyone. And then they go too far. They do it in anger and fear. They bully the child to do better. They yell, punch, taunt, push. They want the team to win, and this one child's not going to keep them from winning. The greater good is that the team wins, isn't it?

And, if a child knows who will be causing a terrorist act (as many children in other parts of the world are in fact deployed as mules and messengers in war), is it acceptable to torture a child? Why the adult and not the child? Both might carry the same amount of useful information. There is an equal amount of benefit. The person to be tortured is just far smaller and far younger.

I think my final confusions over the study swirl around the responses of the non-Christian respondents. The folks who attended church least frequently or who were self-identifying as non-Christian were the least likely to endorse torture.

Are their positions as such because they are totally manipulated by the liberal media? If so, then are the Christian respondents just as manipulated by Fox News?

Are secular folks generally pacifist? That could explain their aversion to torture, as it would be consistent with their moral structures. But it certainly seems a gross oversimplification. Besides, the horrific genocides of the past century were done by secularists whose ends justified the means.

Irrespective of how the less- and non-Christian world finds torture unjustifiable, I'm shaken that self-identifying Christians sound less like my beloved Matthew 22:36-40 than the secular folks. And what exactly then do Matthew 7:12 (Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets), Luke 6:31 (And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise), and Luke 10:25-28 mean to Christians? Even a non-literalist like myself has to ask "Don't these verses mean anything any more?"

No, I cannot condone the torture of an individual, guilty or innocent, for the presumed greater benefit. In my love of Christ, I cannot imagine how the Lord would ever say that it's plumb ok to waterboard. I do not want to be the Roman crucifier. I do not want someone to do it in my name. I will not be the first to throw a stone.

And, to simplify, torture does not pass the simplest and oldests tests in morality.

Torture doesn't pass the standard set by Confucious: Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself
Torture doesn't pass you out of this Karmic cycle of rebirth
Torture doesn't pass the test of the Golden Rule
Torture doesn't pass the test: What would Jesus do?

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