Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Torture is in the news these days. I am not concerned to pontificate on what the U.S. has or has not done, per se. I have not read the infamous memos, nor do I have the time to do the research required to verify all that did or did not happen.*** Rather, I am concerned with the ethical principles involved. Keeping a clear moral vision goes a long way toward properly adorning the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I am especially concerned that Christians not fall into the trap of utilitarianism or consequentialism in our ethical arguments. Utilitarianism in very simple terms asserts that what is right is determined by what produces the greatest good for the most people. I am also concerned that we not fall into a "left vs. right" grid in our moral choices. That is to say, if the left-wingers are against it, and if I am a right-winger, then I must be for it (or vice-versa). This is a sure recipe for moral chaos. But beyond that, it often means that Christians become a sop for whichever political party they happen to agree with. When that happens, we are not shining as lights in the world.

Thankfully, some serious thinking is being done on this topic, and I would like to draw your attention to a few recent pieces of work. Peter Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center has a thoughtful article defending the practices of the U.S. since 9/11 entitled "Morality and Enhanced Interrogation Techniques." He rightly objects to the ongoing politicizing of the previous administration's interrogation techniques. [Victor Davis Hanson also isses a wise warning against prosectuing Bush administration lawyers in "Damnation of Memory."] Nevertheless, Wehner's argument is morally weak because it is entirely utilitarian.

A more thorough and careful argument against torture is given by Christopher Tollefsen in his article "Torture: What It Is and Why It Is Wrong." He argues that "if torture is understood to mean an intentional damaging of bodily or personal integrity, then it is intrinsically wrong, and hence absolutely prohibited." He fully recognizes that some interrogation techniques, taken in themselves, are not always wrong. They do not constitute torture because they do not intentionally disrupt a person's integrity. Yet, he argues that, taken all together, the techniques applied to some terrorists were clearly torturous, and that this is immoral. Given that this is the case, Tollefsen says,

...Then neither legal distinctions between this and the infliction of severe pain and suffering, nor consequentialist judgments about national security, nor even reasonable awareness that these terrorists were bad people, and that the US was in a very difficult situation, making hard choices under considerable stress with, in most cases, the good of the country in view, should obscure the judgment that these approaches involved torture. This judgment should especially guide us in going forward: we should repudiate such techniques across all intelligence gathering operations, as was done in the Army Field Manual for Human Intelligence Collector Operations and resolve to hold such operations to the highest moral standards. But we should hope that such a resolve is possible without descent into the politicizing and partisanship that threatens to knock any effort at serious moral self-criticism off course.

Tollefsen's case is solid and his conclusion sound, provided we grant his assumption that human life and health is a basic human good. But why should this carry moral weight with us? This is perhaps the crucial weakness in Tollefsen's approach. He thinks he can make his case without invoking God or God's revelation.

In contrast, Russell Saltzman's response to the released memos in "The Mental Murder of Torture" explicitly invokes God. Saltzman is less dispassionate than Tollefson, but his strenth is that he is more theological. He writes,

Whether torture “worked” or not as an interrogative tactic is far from the main question. I’m a pastor. I think as a pastor, which is to say as a parish theologian. I don’t care if these guys shrieked like little girls on the playground and blubbered out plots for everything from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre to knocking over Bagdad candy stores as juvenile delinquents. Torture is morally wrong. It is morally wrong, theologically speaking, because it is an attack upon the imago Dei, upon the image of God inherent to every human life.

Now we are getting somewhere. We must reject utilitarianism, which falls far short of a biblical ethic. But once we have rejected utilitarianism (as Tollefsen did), we have still not arrived at a biblical position. Right and wrong are never ultimately defined by man and his reference points. We must press on until we define right and wrong by God and his clear and sufficient Word.

I believe that both Saltzman and Tollefsen fail at this point. They grasp a generally true principle, but they do not apply it consistently as God wants it to be applied because they do not deal with what his Word says. One of the ways this failure reveals itself is that both of them deny capital punishment on the basis of their principle, while God's Word clearly and explicitly endorses duly authorized capital punishment.

Consequently, I am still awaiting a Christian, biblical response to torture. Read these articles. Learn from them. But always go back to the Scripture to test what you read. Let's think like Christians so that we can better point people to Christ, whose torturous death on the cross is and will become the death of all torture in this world.

***Here's an example of what I'm talking about when it comes to verifying information. One almost always has to double check what the media reports!

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