The Truth About Torture


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What is the toughest question you have ever been asked about the Christian faith?

“What about evolution?”

“Why do bad things happen to good people?”

“Do you believe the Bible is literally the Word of God?”

Certainly if you’ve been around the block a couple of times in the Christian life you have come face to face with an opportunity to tackle these challenging issues.

But lately another question has come to the forefront that makes even these traditionally tough questions look like a walk in the park by comparison.

Do you as a Christian support torture?

This issue has been rushed to the forefront as a result of a poll conducted by the Pew Research organization.

The results were controversial to say the least.

The poll data from a survey of 742 U.S. adults released April 29 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found 62 percent of white evangelical Protestants said torture of a suspected terrorist could be often or sometimes justified to obtain important information.

By contrast, 51 percent of white non-Hispanic Catholics, 46 percent of white mainline Protestants and 40 percent of the religiously unaffiliated held that position.

Those who attend religious services at least once a week were more likely than those who rarely or never attend to say torture is sometimes or often justified in that scenario — 54 percent to 42 percent.

To say this is an uncomfortable subject among believers is like saying the Grand Canyon is just a little hole in the ground.

“I have said before that torture is like a bone caught in our throat — we can’t swallow it and we can’t spit it out,” said David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta and president of Evangelicals for Human Rights. “I think we’re still there.”

Even more significantly it appears that even among Bible believing Christians, most are taking their cues on this issue from their political affiliation or hard line “ends justifies the means” pragmatics than any exploration of solid scriptural principle.

Last fall, a poll commissioned by Faith in Public Life and Mercer University found that 44 percent of white Southern evangelicals rely on life experience and common sense to form opinions on torture. By contrast, 28 percent said they relied on Christian teachings or beliefs.

There is no doubt that this is one of those issues that can generate a lot more heat than light, even among committed Christians.

And so we must be extremely careful to base our position on this controversy not on “common sense” , but the clear teaching of God’s Word.

It seems to me that there are four key questions we must work through to approach the issue of “enhanced interrogation techniques” from a biblical lens.

Is the use of force ever justified to ensure public safety?

It is significant to grasp that the Bible answers this question with an emphatic “yes”.

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.

Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.

For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.

Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. (Romans 13:1-5)

A few principles here to grasp:

Notice that God has ordained government (not individuals) to ensure safety and orderliness in society.

This mission of ensuring orderliness and safety includes the use of force to restrain those who do evil.

Those who contemplate evil should be held back by a reality based fear of consequences imposed by the governing authority.

What constitutes evil?

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Any questions?

What constitutes torture?

Here is where the Pew Research poll becomes extremely unhelpful.

What constitutes torture is left completely undefined.

Most of us would definitely include burning, mutilation, the breaking of bones as torture.

But what about the so called “enhanced interrogation technique” of water boarding?

Water boarding creates the psychological impact of certain death by drowning in the mind of of the subject.

No one actually drowns, but the panic it produces creates a deep and lasting impact. In fact, it was the water boarding technique that broke Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

While few of us would want to sign up for a water boarding session, it is a technique that is used in the training of our own special forces.

Those who declare water boarding torture find themselves in the strange place of also having to maintain we torture our own soldiers as a matter of training.

And here we see where things get murky.

If water boarding is to be banned because it creates psychological distress, couldn’t the same be said of sleep deprivation?

Or listening to offensive music for hours on end?

Or even harsh language?

Clearly one man’s definition of torture is another man’s experience as a pledge in a college fraternity.

The use of  “the sword”  to ensure security and safety is not an unbiblical concept.

What limits should apply?

Here is the real issue.

As 9/11 and the subsequent acts of terror that followed have proven we are in a war with an enemy who believes that killing innocent men, women and children is a legitimate tactic.

The key to winning this war isn’t lowering ourselves to the level of these evil fanatics.

But ensuring that the God given task of providing safety and order for innocent members of our society is carried out does require the use of force.

But that use of force should not include crossing the line into acts of barbaric violence.

To use an analogy, police officers on the beat may find themselves in a place where they use physical restraint to subdue a perpetrator of a crime.

But that doesn’t mean the same cops have the right to use a Tazer on someone who rolled through a stop sign.

A ticket will do nicely.

But the threat of a ticket will probably not impress a bank robber, or a car jacker, or a serial killer.

The use of force has to be proportionate with the evil doing involved.

And when evil is extreme, then serious measures must be taken to restrain it.

In the same way, a Christian can support the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” if the situation calls into jeopardy the lives of innocent people.

Failing to use every reasonable approach at the government’s disposal to protect the innocent and restrain evil is to bail out on the God given reason government exists.

Which would be more godly?

To protect the lives of hundreds of innocent people?

Or to ensure the physical and psychological comfort of someone actively plotting to kill school children?

And in doing so, also ensure the success of his murderous mission?

God’s mandate to those entrusted with the safety of His people is more relevant now than ever.

Defend the poor and fatherless;
Do justice to the afflicted and needy.
Deliver the poor and needy;
Free them from the hand of the wicked. (Psalm 82:3-4)


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