Thursday, December 11, 2014

Torture and the Integrity of Christian Faith

If you call yourself a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, you cannot participate in or justify torture.  That cannot be so, if your faith is to have integrity.

It would seem an obvious statement, but then, so little can be taken for granted with we human beings.   In the United States, surveys indicate that fully half of the population believes that torture can be justified.  At the same time, eighty three percent of the American population considers themselves Christian.

At a bare minimum and assuming the least possible overlap between those categories, this would mean that over a hundred million Americans are 1) Christian by self-understanding and 2) believe that the torture of prisoners can be justified.

This seems...problematic.

If you follow Jesus of Nazareth, he requires certain things of you.  He expects you do to do more than just fall on your knees saying, "Lord, Lord."  The Christian walk is considerably more than that.  You show your faith when you do what he has asked.  How do we treat others?  More significantly, how do we act towards our enemies?  These things are the measure of our faith, which is not an airy abstraction.  The more violent and coercive we are, the more we allow violence towards others to have a hold in us, the further we fall from being able to call Jesus Lord and have that word have any meaning.

And yet, again, there's that hundreds of millions number.

I know there are all sorts of hypothetical situations that folks spin out there, usually involving nuclear device countdowns in major metropolitan areas.  "You'd have to torture the terrorist then, or all those innocent people would die!  What, don't you care about innocent people?"  These are fabulistic absurdities created to distract the moral attention.  "What if a code key for that nuclear device had been surgically embedded in Jennifer Lawrence's brain, and you only had ten minutes to get it out?  You'd have to lobotomize her then!  What, you care more about America's Celebrity Sweetheart (tm) than the lives of innocent people?"  Such arguments are childish phantasms.

"What right have you to judge who is and isn't a Christian," I have also heard.  As a sentient being, I can observe what Jesus taught, which is remarkably consistent as a system of ethics.  I can observe what he taught, and see that it gives no ground to justify such an action.  If under no circumstances would Jesus have condoned brutalizing another person, and you condone it?  It is both self-evident and logically necessary that you are not acting in accordance with the heart of your faith.

There is nothing, nothing whatsoever, in the teachings of Jesus that can be used legitimately to justify torture.  In the Bible, there are descriptions of torture, acts of brutality inflicted on prisoners.  Those acts are, invariably and without exception, inflicted by the unrighteous upon the righteous.  Jesus was tortured, of course.  As were Paul, and Peter, and most of the early apostles.  There is no Biblical record, or biblical warrant, for Christians doing the same to others.  None.

Romans 13 gets carted out here, that passage where Paul talks about the state having the right to wield the sword.  But remember: this is coming from Paul, who himself had remained steadfastly nonviolent as he was beaten, abused, and imprisoned by that pagan, imperial state.  A state that would ultimately execute him for his beliefs.  It cannot be considered a legitimate sanction for Christian violence.

To those hundred million souls, I would say, again: your belief that torture can be justified--under any circumstances, and for any reason--stands in irreconcilable tension with your assertion that Jesus matters to you.

The two cannot be integrated.

That's not unusual.  Very few human beings are entirely consistent, and many of us believe things or do things that violate our stated moral purpose.  I am no different, and I will not claim to be.  I get irrationally angry.  I hold grudges. I feel greed and envy and the desire for power.  I lust.  Sometimes, on a bad day, I do all of those things at once.

What I try not to do, insofar as I am able, is lie to myself that all of that is just fine with Jesus.  And as what Jesus asks of me is not some little compartment, but my whole self, that's a problem.