Can Christians Support Torture?


This week, we saw the release of the Senate Democrats report on torture in the CIA.  I’ve already written a post about my views on the Torture Report at another blog and you are welcome to read it.  One note, if you are looking for a clear and ringing viewpoint, you won’t get it from that post.  You probably won’t get it here either.

What I want to talk about here is something more related to the church in relation to torture: can someone be a Christian and support torture?

One pastor, Brian Zahnd makes a bold claim; no, you can’t be a Christian and support torture at all:

You cannot be Christian and support torture. I want to be utterly explicit on this point. There is no possibility of compromise. The support of torture is off the table for a Christian. I suppose you can be some version of a “patriot” and support the use of torture, but you cannot be any version of Christian and support torture. So choose one: A torture-endorsing patriot or a Jesus-following Christian. But don’t lie to yourself that you can be both. You cannot.

(Clearly you do not have to be a Christian to reject the barbarism of torture, you simply need to be a humane person. But to be a Christian absolutely requires you to reject the use of torture.)

I remember when Pew Research released their findings in 2009 revealing that six out of ten white evangelicals supported the use of torture on suspected terrorists. (Patton Dodd talks about that here.) The survey stunned me. I spoke about it from the pulpit in 2009 and have continued to do so. I said it then and I’m saying it again today: You cannot support the use of torture and claim to be a follower of Jesus.

Any thoughtful person, no matter their religion or non-religion, knows that you cannot support torturing people and still claim to be a follower of the one who commanded his disciples to love their enemies. The only way around this is to invent a false Jesus who supports the use of torture. (The Biblical term for this invented false Jesus is “antichrist.”)

Those who argue for the use of torture do so because they are convinced it is pragmatic for national security. But Christians are not called to be pragmatists or even safe. Christians are called by Jesus to imitate a God who is kind and merciful to the wicked.

“Love your enemies! Do good to them.…and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked. Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.” –Jesus (Luke 6:35, 36)

I don’t know of a greater indictment against American evangelicalism than the fact that a majority of its adherents actually admit they support the use of illegal torture on suspected terrorists!

The issue of torture has always been at least in public a very black and white argument, even though there are surveys where the general American public seem to view this in more shades of grey. This one issue tends to inflame passions, to have people drawing lines in the sand and determining who is moral and who is not.
I will say up front that I don’t support the use of torture but I also think those that it has “worked” on occassion (which doesn’t mean it should be used).  I think the torture done a decade ago was shameful.  But I am hesitant to go the next step that Zahnd does because if we start to decide that someone who holds a certain view is no longer a follower of Jesus, there are consquences that have to back that up.
Maybe it is the literal nature of my autistic brain, but I tend to believe that words have consequences.  If we say something, especially if we say something like Zahnd does, then it can be just left there.  If you are saying that someone who supports torture is not a Christian, then we have to ask some hard questions.  If this is the line that if crossed you are no longer a Christian, are you allowed to come to church?  Should such a person be expelled from the fellowship?  Should we do as evangelist Charles Finney did (he banned slaveholders from communion) and bar these folks from the communion table.
It’s one thing to say that if one supports torture that you wonder about their faith.  It is quite another to say that someone has created a mortal sin, one worthy enough of no longer being in fellowship.
I get where Zahnd is coming from.  I do wonder about the faith of those who might support torture.  But before I start excommunicating people, I want to understand why they support this practice.  How do they think it lines up with Scripture.
But I also wonder where grace fits in.  Or are these folk too far gone to save?  And what about other unsavory practices like the use of drones to kill suspected terrorists?
What I’m getting at here is that if you are going to point a gun at folks, you damn well better be ready to pull the trigger. Don’t sit here and talk tough but then fail back your words with action, because that is basically saying you don’t really mean what you say.
Maybe there are cases where you have to draw the line.  But I want to at least hesitate before I pull the trigger, because this is not a simple thing.  Not a simple thing at all.
Note: The cartoon is by Brazilian artist Carlos Latoff and is called, “It’s not torture when U.S. forces are doing it…”

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