Should We Do Evil That Good Might Result?

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.


19 thoughts on “Should We Do Evil That Good Might Result?

  1. i had to laugh – i was in a conversation with someone here who started off bemoaning lack of liberty – “before long the government will be locking up Christians” – and then was also mad because the government was getting soft on torture. – absurdity is such sweet sorrow.

  2. I’m with Prager and many other conservative thinkers on this issue. Ban it, but understand that just like murder (self-defense, anyone?), there are acceptable exceptions to the rule.

    Furthermore, a distinction should be made between the motives and methods used by Americans and our allies and those of our enemies (especially Al Qaeda). It’s important to note that the point of “torture” for us is to save lives, whereas the point of real torture for terrorists is to inflict pain and suffering. Also, the methods used by us are barely torture, while Al Qaeda’s methods are unmistakably torture.

    The Bible makes it clear that motives are everything to God.

  3. I guess another question is this: are we humans not morally justified in executing terrorists? Assuming that is the case, then why is it okay to take their lives but not inflict some momentary pain? It’s illogical and not faithful to Scripture to think otherwise.

  4. Well, as counterintuitive as seems, I am not in principle against the death penalty. I am not sure our society executes it justly, but that is another matter.

    As for torture, I can understand the sort of thing Prager is talking about, especially in the so-called “ticking time bomb” scenario.

    And I think you are right about the motives–they do matter.

  5. Jim says:

    I’m fascinated by this subject. I’d like to know if you guys know, though, what are the arguments for self-defense or “righteous judgment” coming from people in the new testament? I can only think of verses that condemn revenge or striking back in all cases.

  6. Jim, as individuals, self-defense seems to be on shaky ground based on the NT. Defense of another, however, is quite another thing. Is it more loving to watch an innocent be murdered or to hurt or even kill the would-be murderer and save the innocent’s life?

    I’m not sure where I fall on self-defense. In some ways, one could look at it along the same lines as defense of an innocent. I tend to think that Jesus was getting more at the heart and having a lifestyle which seeks the interests of others first.

    Either way, though, what He was telling individuals doesn’t apply to the government (or at least, not in the same way). The government is given authority to punish and even kill, the individual is not. What should be made clear is that a government is not out for revenge but for justice (at least, as much as can be had in this life) and the protection of its citizens.

  7. Yeah, I am not sure how you would defend “self-defense” in the NT. I don’t think Jesus is commanding people to be trampled on, but he certainly doesn’t condone violence as far as I can tell.

  8. I think there is some freedom here (as is the case with many issues within Christianity). In Matthew 5, Jesus seems to be trying to install a new ethic of living that gets people away from a vengeful, eye-for-an-eye worldview. With that in mind, it seems possible that the point was not that all resistance of an evil person is wrong, but that one should not be quick to be angry or shed blood or strike back against a bully.

    In the case of someone breaking into your home, if you have that mindset, you may still shoot or resist the guy, but perhaps only to wound and stop him from committing evil and sinning against God? Or maybe you let him steal everything and also give him your car keys, but not before sharing the Gospel with him? I’ve read plenty of stories where criminals have been won to God by the example and witness of their hostages/victims. Nothing heaps burning coals on a criminal’s head more than the forgiveness and love of a victim.

  9. “Yeah, I am not sure how you would defend “self-defense” in the NT. ”

    To paraphrase, um, you, I’m not sure you can defend taking a dump in the NT. You just kind of assume everyone did it, and that Jesus didn’t have a problem with it, just as you assume Peter had a sword for a reason.

    All the study really reveals is that most protestant white Christians are conservative politically. Discussion about this issue has devolved into a an attempt by the left to cast conservatives as torture lovers.

  10. Peter certainly had a sword for a reason, and that reason came when Christ was being betrayed. And Jesus certainly had a problem with that.

    And if you take a look at the comments at Justin’s blog you will see that the “attempt by the left to cast conservatives as torture lovers” really isn’t based on a caricature. When people start using the Cross as a justification for the morality torture, we are serving the gods that lead us to torture others, not the God who was reconciling people to himself. I know we disagree strongly about the Bush policies, but you would have to agree that the Church’s response should be better than this.

  11. “Peter certainly had a sword for a reason, and that reason came when Christ was being betrayed. And Jesus certainly had a problem with that.”

    So Christ was cool with Peter having a sword – knowing the sword could only be used for evil – simply so he could make a point about violence at the end of his life? A point that had gone unmentioned theretofore, in spite of any number of ideal circumstances for intervention against violent defenders (e.g. the Roman Centurion)?

    Without an the priori assumption that Christ opposes violence in all forms, I would employ a more straightforward reading. Peter had the sword, and would have had every right to use it in his own defense. However, Jesus had just finished telling the disciples what would happen to him, and so Peter was literally taking a sword to God’s plan.

    To the poll results, I sincerely doubt that the majority of those who favored torture were making the sort of calculations found on Taylor’s blog. The percentage saying torture could often be justified (the only logical stance based on the arguments you cite above) is small across the board.

    Should evangelicals do better? Sure. Our whole nation could use some moral clarity on this issue, and arrive at a moral consensus. But the preening and finger-wagging over water-boarding is having the opposite effect.

    To many, this has become an issue of partisan affiliation. My guess is that these numbers will largely reverse themselves in a couple of years, when Obama’s administration is found to be using equally harsh interrogation techniques.

  12. “Peter had the sword, and would have had every right to use it in his own defense.”

    That is a priori assumption too, Kevin. You can’t find anything in the text like this. It simply is not there. I don’t make an assumption that Christ opposes violence “in all forms.” But the fact that he doesn’t bless our moral faculties and says in another place that we should not resist an evil person is enough to make me question the alienable right to self-defense. Jesus was a respector of the Mosaic law which permitted self-defense, but it also permitted divorce. Jesus permitted divorce, but he certianly thought it was an unfortunate state of affairs if not altogether sinful. I take the view that Jesus allowed for these things because our hearts are hard, but in his kingdom he is emphatic that it will be blessedly different.

    And I think Peter found that out in those moments when it was about to be climatically ushered in…

  13. “That is a priori assumption too, Kevin.”

    No, it’s a deduction based on common sense. Peter had a sword. Presumably, he didn’t have a Zork moment and find it in the trophy case moments before. He had it the whole time.

    Jesus told the wealthy man to abandon all of his possessions. Does that mean nobody should have possessions? Of course not. Same principle applies here. Peter valued his own strength above God’s.

    As for divorce, Jesus goes to great lengths to delineate his view unequivocally. Why such clarity regarding divorce, but (at best) opacity w/r/t self-defense?

    If you want to take the view that self-defense is a necessary allowance for a fallen world, on the basis that a fallen world necessitates self-defense on account of sin, then we agree on the ends, but not the means. This establishes very little about how Christ regards the act itself. Worse, it opens the door to the possibility that Jesus would allow torture as a concession to a fallen world.

  14. “No, it’s a deduction based on common sense.”

    I really don’t think it is. It is an argument from silence, and it does not come close to substantiating the right to self-defense. If anything, this text is quite opaque for forming a Christian ethic of just violence, since Jesus says those that live by the sword die by the sword. And with that principle in mind, are we not valuing our own strength when we appeal to the necessity of torture tactics in the name of self-defense?

  15. You all forget that Jesus told them to get a sword. So not only did he know that Peter was carrying it, He was the one who told Peter to carry it.

    That said, I’m not sure that He wanted his disciples to have a sword or two to actually use them, but so that He could fulfill Scripture (as in, “he was numbered with the transgressors”).

  16. That is true. In Luke Jesus tells them to bring a sword. But he only says take two and not to buy anymore! Not such a big arsenal to defend against an arrest party. Then when they are drawn he condemns their use. Again, I don’t think you can use these isolated instances to build nuanced and comprehensive doctrines off of. They are filled with ambiguity and don’t give us the information we need to justify absolute pacifism or a right to self-defense.

    One commentary I read said that the tension explains it like this:

    “This text … has nothing to say directly on the question whether armed resistance to injustice and evil is ever justifiable. It is simply a vivid pictorial way of describing the complete change which has come about in the temper and attitude of the Jewish people since the days of the disciples’ mission. The disciples understood the saying literally and so missed the point; but that is no reason why we should follow their example.”

    The passage Luke is referring to is in chapter 10 of his Gospel where Jesus commands the 12 and 72 to go out without worrying about money or food and rely on the hospitality of the Jewish people. Now that his life is coming to an end, such a mission would not be possible due to the change in their attitude from hospitality to hostility.

  17. “Then when they are drawn he condemns their use. ”

    So, bring a couple of swords, just to weigh you down. This is the summation of his advice?

    He condemns their use specifically, and recommends their equipment broadly. From this I glean “have a sword, but don’t make an idol of it.”

    I don’t know what “absolute self-defense” is.

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