Against torture

Against torture

TortureI recently received this question in an email:

« Where does it say that we are not to torture others? No where in Scripture does it say “Thou shalt not torture.” »

While it is true the proscription against torture can be nowhere found in the Book, we can also say that nowhere is doctrine of the Trinity explicitly spelled out. But this is an argument from silence, which says that because a text is silent on an issue, it has nothing to say to the issue.

But this argument from silence ignores the whole testimony of Scripture as to the expected character of the righteous man.

I would find it extremely ironic that the same God who instructs the righteous to care for animals would not expect us to extend similar care for prisoners (Proverbs 12:10, Deuteronomy 22:4, Exodus 23:5, Deuteronomy 25:4).

And since murder was forbidden because it it does violence to the imago dei within every man, woman, and child (Genesis 1:26-28; Genesis 9:5-6), it would seem wrongheaded to forget that fact when it comes to torture.

If we are commanded not to seek revenge (Leviticus 19:18) why is it morally better to punish beforehand, or in proxy, or to get information rather than justice? If anything, a just vengeance would be an attractive moral objective, but it is forbidden. Why would preventative violence be any less forbidden?

Further, we are instructed to not vex, mistreat, or oppress the “stranger” because the people of God were once “strangers” in Egypt (Exodus 22:21-23; Exodus 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 10:18-19; Deuteronomy 23:7; Deuteronomy 27:19). The Jews were oppressed, beaten, killed, and tortured as strangers–it would seem that treating strangers from the formerly oppressive cultures in like fashion would be a natural reaction. But God expects a different standard of behavior and character from us.

We should not treat others as we have been treated, but as we would wish to be treated. This is the command, it cannot be undone (Luke 6:31; Luke 10:27; Matthew 7:12).

Torture is not the way to love your enemy.

Personally, I want murderers and terrorists to be tortured. It would please me.

And that horrifies me.


[tags]BlogRodent, Pentecostal, Charismatic, Evangelical, Christian, torture, terrorists, prisoners, imago-dei, image-of-god, murder, vengeance, revenge, justice, golden-rule[/tags]

17 thoughts on “Against torture

  1. Rich Post author

    Hey, Matt.

    My employer, Christianity Today, has spoken out against torture in an editorial (“5 Reasons Why Torture Is Always Wrong“). And I’ve seen debates raging about this on some discussion groups. There is also the NRCAT (“National Religious Campaign Against Torture“) — but there are not many Evangelicals represented there.

    I suspect its because we are infected with pragmatic thinking. There is nothing less pragmatic than love when it comes to your enemies. But it’s what the Word commands. And where we are unable to envision the path Jesus calls us to walk, we are just that much farther removed from his heart.

    As I said when I concluded my post, I understand. There is a part of me that rejoices in vengeance and would delight in the torture of someone I consider evil. But that is the part of me that also abhors me.



  2. Ben Wilson

    Rich, I think its a bit simplistic to just talk about torture and not include some other considerations. It’s a little bit like regarding all forms of poisoning as the same — whether it’s a husband trying to kill his wife or an oncologist trying to save a life of a child with chemotherapy.

    There’s poisoning for evil’s sake, and there’s poisoning to try to correct an evil. It’s all the difference in the world. You need to make a distinction between torture for torture’s sake and torture for justice sake.

    Sound confusing?

    Let me explain. Let’s suppose we are the police, and we come upon a rapist/kidnapper that who we know has done some very heinous deeds in the past. He surrenders meekly, and we take him and decide to “waterboard” him for a while just to extract our dollup of revenge.

    I think that would be hard to justify.

    However — if we capture the same criminal, and we know that an hour earlier he was seen with a 10 year old girl, and that same 10 year old girl is now missing. . . . . .

    I would hope you would resort to “waterboarding” if you thought that would cause him to fess up as to what he did with the girl and where he left her.

    This would not be torture for torture’s sake — this would be torture for the child’s sake.

    You would be judging that the rapists/kidnappers enjoyment of life for a few minutes is more than outweighed by possibly saving the life of a 10 year old girl.

    If you are going to make a blanket statement that all torture is wrong — don’t you have to also make a statement that all theivery is wrong — whether it’s a criminal doing a bank robbery or the government extracting taxes from us? And if we’re going to condemn kidnapping, don’t we also have to oppose prisons, since a prison is just a centralized area where the government holds their kidnap victims?

    “Torture” should be considered no more than a tool to achieve a certain goal. If the goal is to just inflict suffering — then it’s wrong. If it’s a tool to protect the innocent — then it’s right.

    Cutting off a woman’s breast for vengenance would be horrific; cutting off a woman’s breast in an attempt to keep her from dying of breast cancer is an entirely different situation.

  3. Amber

    Torture as a means to achieve an end? Sounds like we’d be no better than the hypothetical rapist. With that argument, I can easily see justifying ANY amount of torture as “for the good of the innocent”…

  4. carl

    Rich — This very subject shows the level of moral depravity in our government. The fact that there is no clear voice in the public sector that calls this evil is frightening.

    There is more to Christianity in public office than abortion and the judiciary.

    Jesus took the worst torture to rid evil so according to some it was ok. Yet on the cross he knew it was sin and the men had to be forgiven.

  5. Ben Wilson

    Amber opined;

    “Torture as a means to achieve an end? Sounds like we’d be no better than the hypothetical rapist. With that argument, I can easily see justifying ANY amount of torture as “for the good of the innocent”… “

    Well, Amber, I guess I’m no better than the “hypothetical rapist”, because I have cut off women’s breasts — on numerous occasions.

    Of course, it was done as a “means to an end” ==> I’m a surgeon, and I was trying to keep the woman from dying of breast cancer. So I was doing something that under most circumstances would be abhorent — but under those particular circumstances, was laudatory.

    As far as justifying “any amount of torture for the sake of the innocent” — perhaps if you can’t grasp the concept that doing cruel things to individuals can occasionally be very warranted for both the individual and collective good — then perhaps you are not the one to decide whether or not the police should be able to speak harshly to a rapist about where he buried the 10 year old girl.

    You also shouldn’t be the one to decide whether or not police should be able to threaten criminals with guns, or arrest people and put them in jail. After all, if you let police have guns and jails they might be able to justify haressing people for any pretext, right?

  6. Rich Post author

    Ben Wilson wrote:

    Rich, I think its a bit simplistic to just talk about torture and not include some other considerations. It’s a little bit like regarding all forms of poisoning as the same — whether it’s a husband trying to kill his wife or an oncologist trying to save a life of a child with chemotherapy.

    Yes, it is admittedly simplistic, as any ethical guideline is until it confronts the the real world in all its gray-ness. It’s a bit like defining obscenity, which Justice Potter Stewart couldn’t do in 1964 any better than we can today:

    I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…

    Augustine used your line of reasoning when thinking through the issue of a “just war” and violence itself–including killing in the cause of a just war. As he concluded:

    The commandment forbidding killing was not broken by those who have waged wars on the authority of God, or those who have imposed the death-penalty on criminals when representing the authority of the state, the justest and most reasonable source of power
    (Cited in Christianity Today’sA Time For War?“)

    Your reasoning follows Augustine’s, according to Professor Riley-Smith (author of The Crusades: A Short History)

    Augustine gave this example: Suppose a man has gangrene in the leg and is going to die. The surgeon believes the only way to save him is by amputating the leg. Against the man’s will, the surgeon straps him to a table and saws off the leg. That is an act of extreme violence.

    But was that violence evil? Augustine said no. And if you find one exception to the idea that violence is evil, he concluded, then violence cannot be intrinsically evil.
    (From: Christian History & Biography, “Holy Violence Then and Now”)

    Unfortunately, that rationale enabled the Crusades–which were initially defensive in nature, but also created the occasion for admittedly questionable excess.

    I am familiar with and understand the reasoning, Ben, and I am not denying its usefulness nor its value. I also know that Jesus’ call to be merciful as God is merciful has no place in the State’s training of soldiers in combat or police in defending the public. The State is not the Church, and it’s unlikely you’ll find much moral indoctrination there exemplifying Christ’s teaching. We need the State, its soldiers, its police, and all the pragmatic thinking they require.

    But where does one draw the line when coercing information from a combatant?

    To return to my opening thought, how does one define torture, anyhow? You mention speaking “harsh words,” as a low level of discomfort and torture. Is it? Is playing Brittany Spears at top volume torture to the Muslim? It isn’t tortuous to an American pre-teen. What about forcing the Muslim to view pornography? That wouldn’t offend or torture most pagans. Is it acceptable? What about beating? This isn’t tortuous to the fetishist, is it okay for a captured combatant? Maybe we draw the line at “No blood, no foul.”

    When do we know that forcible, aggressive questioning will reveal the information that will save lives? What standard do we use to ensure that the unobtained information will prove valuable enough to justify violent torture? In medicine, you have standards, history, trials, procedures and experience enough to believe that the application of pain and violence to the body will ultimately prove restorative. But in warfare, how do we know that a particular prisoner has the particular information that will save lives? And if we do know with absolute certainty that a given prisoner has that information, where does one set the acceptable level of pain and torture? Is there a sliding scale of pain-to-lives-saved? Say, if it’s only one or two lives, we stop at fingers and toes crushed? But if we could save a thousand lives we can take the legs off up to the knees, perhaps? Why stop there?

    Your illustration justifying torture for a hypothetical kidnapped child’s sake is interesting. But I would challenge you to describe what the acceptable level of torture would be. You jest with “harsh words,” but also suggest waterboarding. Would you stop there if unsuccessful, or would you start removing body parts? Would you stop at digits? Extremities? Limbs? Eyeballs? Organs?

    If saving a life truly justifies torture, then it justifies any torture up to even the death of the prisoner. Release that genie and the bottle is destroyed.

    You and I would be forgiven by our fellow man for resorting to torture (again, whatever that is) to save the life of another–especially for a little girl’s sake. But the hard part of living up to Jesus’ standards is accepting that no matter what happens in these scenarios, God will make his justice known.

    I know I would have a hard time accepting it.

    But the way of Christ is narrow and not broad and easy.

    Ben, I’m not hoping to make blanket simplistic statements here. I’m aiming at a principle. Principles have to be applied by individuals in each situation according to conscience and that person’s understanding of both the principle itself and the situation at hand. I’m not even pretending to define torture here because that’s so far outside my scope of expertise that virtually anything I say about that will be nonsense.

    All I really know is this: an ethical system truly based on Jesus’ moral teaching is difficult to follow in a fallen world. But that’s what you and I are called to do.

    And if you’re going to take up the gun, the scalpel, or the waterboard, you better have your moral compass set true, or it’ll be spinning out of control before you know it.


  7. Ben Wilson

    A couple of comments here, Rich. . . .

    “But where does one draw the line when coercing information from a combatant?”

    There’s an easy answer to that. We draw the line at the point the information is no longer useful. I understand that given enough duress, anybody can be made to confess to almost anything. The problem with that is if the “confession” is not truthful — then all you’ve done is 1) waste your own time, and 2) waste the time of those on your side who would act on the spurious information.

    “Is there a sliding scale of pain-to-lives-saved? Say, if it’s only one or two lives, we stop at fingers and toes crushed? But if we could save a thousand lives we can take the legs off up to the knees, perhaps? Why stop there?”

    Several years ago here in River City USA (Salem, Oregon) there was a psychopath who abducted a six year old girl. This was a witnessed event and the department of Police were soon hot on his trail. A high speed chase ensued and the fellow crashed and overturned his car in the process. Fortunately, the car wasn’t hurt; unfortunately, he wasn’t hurt either. Not one to give up without a fight, he stayed in the overturned car holding the little girl hostage. . . . .until the police sniper arrived. As I recall, from about 50 yards away the marksman took his time, aimed, and waited for the man to move so the little girl wasn’t in the line of fire. He then blew the guy’s head off, and the little girl quickly scampered away from the car.

    Was that justified? You bet. Would Jesus have done something like that? Yeah, I think so. He had a history of violence at times (ask any of the Temple merchants).

    Was it possible that with a bit of gentle persuasion the psychopath might have released the little girl anyway and he would have surrendered and submitted to successful treatment and been converted and led millions to Christ eventually?

    Sure. But that very small possiblity wasn’t worth the very large possiblity that he might have killed the little girl as he was being gently persuaded.

    Now if you (speaking generically here) believe that the police action was not justified, then we obviously have quite different world outlooks. You (again, speaking generically and not personally) don’t believe that evil should be opposed. I don’t believe that way. I believe that God is the one that has ordained governments and rulers and the police and the military.

    On the other hand, if you do believe the police snipers actions were justified — how can you rationalize it being okay to kill someone to save a little girls life, but at the same time be opposed to doing something much less permanent to achieve the same result, i.e., waterboarding? (Which has, I understand, been shown to produce reliable information.)

    “But the hard part of living up to Jesus’ standards is accepting that no matter what happens in these scenarios, God will make his justice known.”

    That’s true. But that doesn’t excuse us from opposing evil. If the Nazis are operating extermination camps, we have an obligation to go to war with the Nazis. Just because justice will finally prevail doesn’t mean will should ignore the actions of those that seek to destroy us.

    “And if you’re going to take up the gun, the scalpel, or the waterboard, you better have your moral compass set true, or it’ll be spinning out of control before you know it.”

    That’s true. The gun, scalpel, and waterboard have certainly been instruments of destruction in the past. However, the gun, the scalpel, and the waterboard shouldn’t be proscribed just because evil men have made use of them in the past.

  8. Ben Wilson

    Rich asked:

    “So, in practical terms, I’m curious…

    How does a Christian interrogator love the one they are torturing?”

    To answer your question, let me recount three things that I have personally done to patients that would more than qualify as “torture” if done in different circumstances. All of these patients were awake, and the things were done without sedation or anesthesia.

    1) I have stuck a large tube — about 3/4th of an inch in diameter — in between a person’s ribs and into their chest cavity.

    2) I’ve taken a very sharp knife and made a rather long (18 inch) gash in someone’s leg — where they were quite awake and in much pain. Again, this was done without anesthesia.

    3) I have grabbed hold of a rather badly fractured leg and pulled and twisted it as hard as I could while some other people restrained the person.

    Now how was I showing love to these people?

    1) In the first instance I the person had a tension hemo-pneumothorax and was in the process of dying quite rapidly. I saved their life by my action.

    2) While walking through the ER, minding my own business one day, I went by a room where some paramedics and nurses were transfering a trauma patient from a stretcher onto the exam table. No physician had come into the room yet. As I glanced toward him, I noticed that he had massive swelling of his right lower leg. I recognized that the fellow was developing what is called a “compartmental” syndrome, where massive swelling will literally choke off the blood supply to the leg leading to permanent injury. I yelled at a nurse to a) throw me a bottle of alcohol, and b) give me a scalpel and c) told the guy that I was sorry, and that it was going to hurt, but there was something I needed to do. Within the course of 30 seconds I had done the definite immediate treatment for a compartmental syndrome, which is making a long incision down to the muscle to release the pressure. In doing so I kept the fellow from having a crippled leg in the future.

    3) Another trauma patient I examined in the ER was the one with the broken, twisted leg. It was twisted enough that the arterial blood supply had been kinked off — which is not a good situation. Straightening the leg out had to be done quickly, which it was, and fortunately it was also quite successful.

    Was I showing “love” in each of these situations?

    You bet. I may have been inflicting pain, but there was no doubt that it was for the greater good.

    How about the prisoner that we are extracting information from? Is it for the greater good? If you consider the preservation of the life of your countrymen and family the “greater good”, then absolutely yes.

    Are you showing the love of Christ in doing so?

    Yep — at the very least your are showing his love to the intended victims.

    Are you showing the love of Christ to the terrorist?

    I would argue that even in that case you are — you are trying your best to convince the terrorist of the error of his ways and giving him a chance to avoid amassing more blood on his hands.

    Would torture be something that I would like to do?

    Nope. But I don’t like doing trauma surgery either, and I did that because it needed to be done.

    So I’m not going to be the one casting stones at those in authority as they try their best to protect us from the destroyer.

  9. Rich Post author


    I cede your medical expertise and relinquish the floor to you and Augustine on the moral necessity of inflicting pain to save the life of a patient. I have no argument with you or any doctor there, and never have.

    I also grant that by abstracting and conflating “the good” into “the greater good” one can morally justify many violent acts, including dropping nuclear weapons on enemy cities.

    I further grant that one may rationalize a torturer’s actions by saying he’s doing it for the prisoner’s good as well as the potential victim’s well-being.

    But is that how the State generally goes about about torture and interrogation? Is the good and well-being of the prisoner really in mind? Or are we reading that back into the act to satisfy ourselves that, philosophically, some good can come from torture other than the practical ends?

    Your medical analogies are interesting but not analogous. In the case of the triage examples you cite, the violence done to the body simultaneously hurt and helped the recipient of the violence — the latter more than the former. But in the case of tortuous interrogation, the pain is inflicted upon the prisoner for the hoped-upon benefit of some other victim. The prisoner, I suspect, will never be grateful.

    Further, in the case of your medical analogies, you at least have a certainty about the act that torture does not always carry. You are certain that the violence you must perform will address the ailment at hand. Indeed, the patient and the ailment are co-identified. Further, you have experience with previously successful efforts to guide your hand.

    But with torture, how can you know with certainty that the one being interrogated even has the information you seek? And our lax controls on interrogation have led to many, many false confessions and flawed convictions just within our criminal justice system. I suspect the methods used by the police hardly compare to those used by the State. But am I to believe the State has better knowledge of who has exactly what information?

    You heal in the wisdom and knowledge gained through experience. The torturer wounds in ignorance hoping for more data. There is a significant qualitative and moral difference.

    I am not satisfied that your answer shows me how one can torture a prisoner and still fulfill Christ’s commands to love one’s enemies, and to show mercy as God is merciful. You may feel your answer does satisfy the question and that nothing more needs to be said, and that’s fine. But I remain unconvinced.

    Look, as I’ve said before, there is a part of me that is perfectly fine with torture. But when I read the scriptures, I don’t see room for it.

    What you’ve given me here is a rationale founded on pragmatism. Unfortunately, the Scriptures don’t always satisfy human pragmatism. Can you demonstrate by the Scriptures why my reasoning — shown in my post above — is flawed? I know you say it is simplistic, but I’d really like to know what you think the Scriptures have to say about this issue.



  10. Don

    Hi Rich. So, you are in favor of the spiritual ostrich approach to moral dilemma. It is sometimes known as sticking one’s head in the sand of theological certitude. Not all Christians have stuck to that clearly defined and simple road, especially when they have lived in the real world. Corrie ten Boom had a different concept and practice when the lives of innocents Jews mattered. Corrie lied and fewer people died. Isn’t that what happened to her? She saw a higher obligation to life than merely following a rigid doctrine, the letter. Bonhoeffer supported murder…? Didn’t he? Wouldn’t love also demand that we stop the brutal murder of innocents, and if coercive means might succeed in this, shouldn’t the option be on the table? If making a terrorist temporarily uncomfortable by employing “coercive means” can reduce the number of severed heads, torn legs and arms flying through the air, shouldn’t it be a reasonable option? Rich, perhaps you can help with definitions. What is “coercive means?” Is this the same as “torture”? Do you employ the term “torture” as the same as “coercive means” in your arguments above? Is playing Iron Maiden or turning down the temperature in a cell, torture? How far would you go in order to save the lives of those kids who are about to die by having their bodies torn to bits? I believe that some Christians are threatened by the real world and pragmatically do anything the can to hold on to their “black and white” vision of reality. They are doctrinaire pragmatists of a sort. They reject any approach that would threaten their theological straight jacket. And they are going to get allot of people killed….

  11. Rich Post author

    Don, when you have properly read what I have written, I will be happy to engage you in dialog. Your questions reveal you may have looked at the words but you did not apprehend them.


  12. Matt Green

    The argument that the “end” of torture (i.e. saving innocent lives) justifies the means requires that we have a virtually omniscient grasp of the ultimate consequences of torture — or other forms of violence.

    Of course, this same objection can be applied to war. It was recently announced that the war in Afghanistan has claimed 3,700 civilian lives. Interestingly, these 3,700 Afghan lives were lost in an effort to avenge 2,700 American lives lost on 9/11 — and ostensibly prevent further loss of American life. To one who supported the war, it is a further reminder that — regardless of my intentions — if I can’t be sure that my well-intentioned violence will result in immediate good results, maybe I shouldn’t carry it out in the first place.

    [On another note, how in the world is it possible that we have killed more people on accident in Afghanistan than Al Quaeda killed on purpose on 9/11? Weird …]

  13. Rich Post author

    Don, I’m not dismissing you. But it seems clear to me that you haven’t read what I’v written here, else you wouldn’t need to ask the questions.


  14. Jason

    Greetings in the Name of the Lord!

    I have been reading your blogs on this subject and have found them interesting. But the underlying question seems to be “Does the end justify the means?”

    One thing that we must remember is that throughout history, war has its tragedies and its travesties. Even in scripture, things were done in an effort to subdue the enemy. For instance, the time that the Children of Israel circumcised an entire people (all the men), and then slaughtered them all because they were too sore to fight. In that instance I do not recall God bringing punishment upon Israel for its doings.

    The very first question that sparked such heated debate was concerning if the scripture says anything directly concerning the torture of an enemy. While in fact it doesn’t, let me share with you a thought that I found in a book entitled, “The Power of Prayer and the Prayer of Power,” written by R.A. Torrey. In his book he discusses this vein of thinking. It was in terms of obedience to God’s commands. We who are Christians, are held to the Ten Commandments as a standard of conduct that is eternal. In fact you could say that all of humanity is held to the same standard in the eyes of God.

    But what about the things that aren’t specifically commanded in Scripture? Because there is a vagueness in Scripture, what do we do? Mr. Torrey put it this way,

    “God gave us few commands to live by and then expected us to draw close enough to Him to know that even if it isn’t written in scripture specifically, to know what pleases and what doesn’t please Him. It isn’t enough to know what he has plainly said, we must know the heart of God. This only comes through seeking His face and drawing closer to Him.

    In a marriage, many times spouses want each other to be mind readers. This only comes by knowing not just what the spouse believes, but how they also feel. It is a conclusion drawn through deeper intimacy (not sexual but rather communicative) with that person. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount spoke concerning the command, “thou Shalt Not Kill”. He says (not in the King James… LOL) You’ve heard it before that you shouldn’t kill. Well I’m telling you that if you even look on a person with anger in your heart that it is the same as murdering that person.

    You see, the Pharisees taught that murderous anger in your heart but not touching or killing was OK, since the Law said don’t kill. Jesus however showed that the Law was not just an external command, but one that reached further and deeper to the internal being of a person. It is here that we find the answer to the question is it justifiable to torture?

    While I myself am not necessarily against torture, after all I am a patriot and Love the United States, I have to ask myself where is the heart in all this? It began for the “greater good,” and is it still? Are we truly acting on our country’s best interests, or is it now a matter of frustration with guys who won’t talk?

    In the end it truly boils down to the heart issue. And even more so, it is God that Judges the heart. The bottom line since this is a Christian blogsite is that the terrorists need Jesus Christ in their lives. Shouldn’t that be what matters most? Doesn’t the Bible tell us to pray for our enemies? Doesn’t Scripture tell us to bless those who have wronged you? When was the last time that we as Christian people got on our knees and sought God for His direction in all this? When was the last time that we sought God for His mind on this? Shouldn’t His mind be our mind?

    Our country is in dire need of Revival, I need to be working while it is day. To bring people into the Kingdom of God. People need the Lord, if you haven’t read your Bible lately, the time of the end is drawing near, Jesus is about to return and he is looking for a Bride that is prepared for Him. We want our land healed, we must pray. We want Revival we in our country we must pray. We want the War to end we must pray.

    Where is the Prayer in ALL of this Discussion? Maybe that is our problem, you think?

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