Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Christian Perspective on “Torture” and the U.S. Interogation Methods

What does it mean to both create a safe society and yet love your enemies?  Can we love our enemy if by our acts of love we allow them to kill thousands of people?  And how to really define torture?


I know its popular right now, especially for those on the political left, to say that America should not have to give up its ideas so that we can remain safe.  They are, they say, absolutists, on the question of torture. 

I write as a theologian and a human citizen of a world where finitude is an ever present reality.  We live in a world where trade-offs have to be made, because this is not the “best of all possible worlds” as Voltaire’s Pangloss would say, but rather a world moving from the grace of creation through teh deep trough of falleneness and seeking its ful redemption in teh new creation.

If one reads the Bible, it becomes clear that while the Bible no where recommends torturous actions, it does not give us clear set of actions that we cannot do to prisoners of war.  I know what you are about to say, “turn the other cheeck” and “love your enemies.” Absolutely, i do not deny it.

But to love your enemy would also be to prevent them from engaging in even more sinful and horrendous actions.  It is not loving to allow them to commit mass murder.  If you capture your enemy and he is part of a plot to commit mass murder and the knowledge is accesible, then is it loving to sit by while his worst plans are brought to commition?  No, the best way of loving them is keep them from adding to the list of sins that they will stand before God and have to give account (we must remember that love is an eschatological word, not a human-oriented word, which means we must take a perspecitive that includes eternity rather than merely today). 

What about our American values? Well, lets see, George Washington, the Father of our Country, executed the spy John Andre, as was common in the warfare until very recently.  I think that hanging someone is far worse than waterboarding.  The same happened during subsequent wars.  Yes, America stands for human rights and given a choice between harsh interrogation and a nice conversation, we choose a cup of coffee over a table every time (that is why we are neither terrorists nor torturers by nature, which is not true of Al-Qada or countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia that regularly begin with torture).

What is torture?  Something that leaves a lasting physical scar certainly would count.  Think broken limbs (John McCain), pulling out of nails and electric shock.  We do not nor have we ever done these things.  What about mental anguish?  If you read the report that came out last week we did give the okay to use pre-existing mental anguish to weaken prisoners (the bugs in the box scenario).  Of course mental abuse is far harder to work with and define.  By definition being incarcerated is going to cause mental strain and lasting impact (talk to anyone who has served time in an American prison). However, in everything that I have read waterboarding (which is the only action that I think can really rise to the level of torture) indicates that it does not leave lasting mental scars beyond the fear all human being have regarding the fear of drowning.  We even protect their mouths and nose from inhaling water.  I have no desire to be water boarded, but we do this to some of our military to prepare them for interogation should they be captured and we know that we will never allow them to die in the procedure. 

Ideally we would not have to resort to this.  But if someone is desiring to commit mass murder, is it loving to stnad by while their efforts come to fruition when you could have used non-lethal, non-physically scaring and recoverable mental anquish to get the answer from them?  Again, we do not live in a world without tradeoffs.  The absolutists position says, “Hey, we may have lost 10 million people in an attack on L.A. but at least we didnt simulate drowning through waterboarding.  Is that loving?  Is that in the best spirit of our country?  And yes, this is the very reality we live in.  Is it better to say, hit the nuclear facilities of Iran, killing scientists and others who are not armed but part of the war making capacity of the country or wait for the bomb to be smuggled into our capitol and seeing our elected leaders from the President on down incinerated? 

Living in a fallen world is hard.  There are some things that are not zero sum games, driven by trade-offs.  Love.  Mercy, Grace.  These come from the infinite supply in the nature of God. But safety, freedom, liberty all do work in teh land of trade-offs.

Start with this question, “What does it mean to love an enemy who is in the midst of committing great sin?  If that answer for you means you do not touch them or cause them anguish, I ask you to seriously look at your definition of love.  Indifference can masquerade as love for those unwilling to make serious tradeoffs.  As a Christian I cannot I know that there is no perfect answer in this, but I know that love calls me to act. 

Posted by Christopher on 04/28 at 10:33 PM


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