Monday, January 5, 2015

Torture: A Biblical Perspective

Image Courtesy of Shankar S.
At the outset I feel obliged to acknowledge that torture is a technical and complicated legal issue. However, the issue of torture also implicates God’s eternal law; the law which we must all one day answer to. Simply put, the Biblical truth-claims involved in dealing with government torture are necessarily the very same ones that literally form the basis for how we approach other human beings in every facet of our lives.

As Christians we have come to the correct conclusion that the word of the one true God (the Bible) is completely authoritative over all areas of our lives, including justice and public policy. This doesn’t mean that the Bible explicitly deals with every moral and ethical quandary we may face in life, but the principles of the Biblical narrative, taken as a whole, must primarily guide our beliefs. This is why a Christian’s worldview must be a Biblically consistent one. Remember Luther’s  battle cry: sola scriptura. Does the Bible speak directly and/or explicitly on the issue of torture? No, but it does provide the necessary principles to come to the correct position to this issue.

The more important question here is are we willing to let the Bible frame our position on the issue of torture  no matter how uncomfortable or insecure it may make us?

The word “torture” comes from the Latin tortus, which means to twist. From a legal perspective, there are a myriad of definitions already in place from statues to the UN Convention on Torture, to the Geneva Conventions. They are generally very similar in nature, but I cite one below for a general reference. According to Part 1, Article 1 of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, torture is defined as:
For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
Whether or not you agree with the release of the Senate report on the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, it is clear, even if the report is biased, that the U.S. Government engaged in at least some acts of torture under the premise of protecting American citizens against Islamic terrorism. But can such a reason, or any reason for that matter, be Biblically justified? In a word, no. Many  Christian leaders have articulated this position, people like Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet. To date, I have seen only one commentator even attempt to use the Bible to support the use of torture. Unfortunately, the article itself was very near torturous in its misapplication and misunderstanding of the Biblical text.

Allow me to briefly frame the issue of torture before delving into it. We are dealing with action by the government, not individuals. This distinction is important because it leads us directly to Romans 13:1-7. This passage stands for the proposition that God instituted governments among men, that they have been delegated with limited authority to administer temporal justice here on earth, and that they bear specific tools toward their designated end. As Jesus noted, what defiles a man comes from within (see Mark 7:20-22). While it is clear that sin originates within the heart (Matt. 15:19, Matt. 5:21-23, 27-28), governments are only authorized to punish the outward manifestation of sin in the form of deeds or omissions (compare Jeremiah 17:10, with Romans 13:3-4, Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15). From Romans 13 we see that the government is given only the sword (to kill) and the ability to tax (including civil fines). God hasn’t given the Government complete authority over the administration of justice, because we, as limited, sinful beings, are incapable of correctly providing complete justice. It is the process of justice that renders justice in a temporal sense because we cannot look into a man’s heart and mind. God provides eternal justice. (See Jeremiah 17:10).

Romans 13:4 notes that government serves as an “avenger” or “revenger” (literally one who inflicts punishment in return for an injury or offense). The key point here is that government’s limited role in justice is that of paying back for offenses, not doling out punishment for the state of a man’s heart or for prospective crimes (see Leviticus 24:17-22). Governments can’t kill a person because they might or even will kill again; governments kill people because they have killed in the past and have been tried and convicted. (Deuteronomy 16:20). It is holy to kill a murderer for taking, or sometimes even attempting to take, a life. (Genesis 9:6.) It is holy to kill an adulterer for having a single affair. (Leviticus 20:10.) It is not holy to torture a man in the hopes that even a million sinful lives can be temporarily spared. No terrorist can justly be tortured for the sake of saving one person or a million in the future because there are no “innocent” people for a government to save (see Romans 3:23). As Christians we must remember that the authority of government in providing justice is narrow, limited, and but a shadow of the true justice Christ will bring. (Matt. 10:28.)

As a creation of God, human governments are capable of and required to administer their limited authority in a holy manner. In fact, holiness is required of each of us even in our fleshly bodies (1 Peter 1:14-16). Borrowing from the law of God, we have a template for holy governance. Capital punishment then, is necessarily a holy act. And if a holy act, it is fundamentally an act of love to all involved, even to the one put to death. This understanding lead Abraham Kuyper in his lecture, “Calvinism and Politics,” to exclaim:
"Thus God, ordaining the powers that be, in order that, through their instrumentality, He might maintain His justice against the strivings of sin, has given to the magistrate the terrible right of life and death. Therefore all the powers that be, whether in empires or in republics, in cities or in states, rule “by the grace of God.” For the same reason justice bears a holy character. And from the same motive every citizen is bound to obey, not only from dread of punishment, but for the sake of conscience.”
Government must ever be cognizant of human dignity in the administration of its solemn duties. Torture for information and/or to stop a prospective threat can never be described as an act of love toward the tortured since it is focused on only one side of this equation. In that context, torture consists of using a human being as a means to an end for the benefit of other sinful human beings. This cannot be.

Perhaps we should focus on whether or not it’s wrong not to do everything theoretically possible to prevent murder. We as a nation agree with the Bible that the answer to this is 'no.' Consider our policy not to negotiate with terrorists. This position tragically and necessarily leads to some deaths at the hands of terrorists, but our government bears no culpability for those heinous crimes. Simply put, to torture a terrorist is to become a terrorist regardless of one’s motivation because whether as punishment or an exercise of force to procure information, torture fundamentally undermines human dignity.

This leads to another argument I have come across as a justification of torture. The argument suggests that a person by engaging in sinful acts justifying capital punishment somehow forfeits their human dignity. However, this argument falls flat from a Biblical perspective.  No one has the ability or authority to forfeit their image bearing status, no matter how depraved (I don’t care what Aquinas said).  I think those that appeal to the human dignity argument are really appealing to imago dei, but the fact is this: the most evil men in history bore the image of God. It’s not something that one provides himself so it’s not something one can lose or give up. We only live because Christ sustains us. The terrorist may forfeit his right to life for planning, organizing, and contributing to acts of terrorism, but he can’t give up his right to human dignity because it isn’t dependent upon him. His human dignity remains intact while Christ sustains the life in his veins. As the Hebrew denotes, we are a “shadow” of God. We are all of equal value in that sense. Therefore the government killing a person justly convicted of a capital offense is nothing less than an expression of pure love. Indeed, the capital offenses contained in the Old Testament relate directly to the breaking of the greatest commandments according to Jesus (loving God and loving others). It is out of respect for human dignity that we kill for certain crimes, but only upon a conviction or in defense of an immediate threat of death. Compare these verses:
"Say to them, ‘As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?’” (Ezekiel 33:11 ESV)
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” (Psalm 116:15)
The argument for the legitimacy of sacrificing one for the sake of the many has only one application in all of history. It occurred when the sinless God-man was crucified and purchased with his blood all those who would accept him. When a government does what ours did to people (yes, islamic terrorists are people) under its enhanced interrogation program, it isn't keeping its people safe; it's sinning, which is never "safe." I submit that it is not naive to stand on moral principle, even in the face of Islamic terrorists. Doing so recognizes that to remain faithful to the solemn and holy task of justice, we must recognize and distinguish between right and wrong even when plumes of smoke from falling buildings fill our streets, our eyes, and our lungs, while grey clouds of ash and disintegrated cement envelope us into a fog of confusion, anger, and fear.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your well reasoned argument. I appreciate your treatment of a sensitive and charged issue starting from this point "The more important question here is are we willing to let the Bible frame our position on the issue of torture no matter how uncomfortable or insecure it may make us?"

    I especially appreciated the well-referenced comments on the limited scope of Biblically authorized government action regarding punishment.

    I would be interested in reading a similar application of these principles concerning federal exercise of police powers (both legislative and executive action) that target "doling out punishment for the state of a man’s heart or for prospective crimes."