A survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found the following stats about torture and the faithful:
White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified — more than six in 10 supported it. People unaffiliated with any religious organization were least likely to back it. Only four in 10 of them did.
This is pretty amazing considering that most Christian ethicists find torture morally objectionable and that it ought to be banned. But a simple look over at Justin Taylor’s blog will reveal that white evangelicals have a number of odd justifications for the heinous practice (Taylor, a very conservative voter himself, doesn’t seem to support torture either). I ended up participating in the discussion and dealt with arguments like these:
- God said lying was wrong, but let the Egyptian midwives lie to Pharaoh, which was also wrong, but God found their actions praiseworthy. Therefore torture is justifiable.
- The Jews deliberately made dud bombs and thus disobeyed their Nazi masters. That was morally wrong, but they served the greater good. Therefore torture, for the greater good, is justifiable.
- God tortures people in hell forever, therefore torture is justifiable.
- God commanded his people to slaughter the Canaanites, therefore torture is justifiable.
- God instituted the death penalty via stoning, therefore torture is justifiable.
- God tortured Christ on the Cross, for the greater good, therefore torture is justifiable.
- The government, which God sovereignly instituted, bears the sword to punish evildoers, therefore torture is justifiable.
Each of these arguments is rather surprising and revealing. First, they refuse to justify torture on the usual utilitarian/consequentialits ground that surmises that one suffering for the good of the many is what makes torture a morally justifiable practice. Each of them tries to locate the justification in something God condones. Only the first two appeal to a “greater good” defense that might be construed as utilitarian, but they both say that resistance to unjust rulers was morally wrong. The fact that God praises the actions of Hebrew midwives is evidence that he found their lying to be morally righteous. He did not say that the evil that they did was good, which would be nonsensical.
The arguments from religious violence in God’s judgments are pretty startling. God’s eschatological judgment is somehow supposed to give a justification for our government’s practices of torture in whatever circumstances they deem fit. You could not have a better textbook example of a non sequitur. The OT ethics are just that—“Old.” A distinctly Christian ethic that presupposes enemy-love and neighbor-love is both tolerant and protective. Thus, the deliberate harm of a defenseless human being fails Christian morality on both accounts. Furthermore, the non sequitur issue persists in God’s real time judgment. And while the government certainly as the right to use the sword as an instrument of force, it does not have the right to carve grooves in the enemy’s flesh. There is a just use of the sword and an unjust use that need to factor into the equation.
The atonement justification is perhaps the most offensive since it uses the cross of Christ to justify violence against others. The Trinitarian drama of penal substitution may be mysterious to us, but one thing is for sure: the Roman soldiers who tortured Christ were not doing something good.
It’s amazing that the same evangelicals who bemoan the government’s competence in taxation and moral reasoning with regard to family and human life are so quick to abdicate their sense of justice to the state and its “enhanced terrorists” techniques. The idea that God forbids us the liberty to do evil so good might come about is a staple of Christian ethics. I would not normally think that the neo-con vision of national security was an idol, but the above rationalizations are certainly bloody sacrifices on its altar.