Culture At Large

Is torture a sin or not?


Although the ghastly images from Abu Ghraib have faded from the media, the issue of how the U.S. treats its prisoners in the global war on terror is back in the news again. Leading Republican lawmakers and the White House have hammered out a compromise bill, up for a vote this week, on treatment of detainees and military commissions to try the accused. The political discussion has a surreally dispassionate and amoral tone to it, with people discussing minute distinctions between "severe" and "serious" pain or "cruelty" and "minor abuse" (see some of the language in this story), that lacks the moral clarity prominent Christian voices could lend to the dialogue.

The controversial and troubling part of the bill, as I understand it, is the vague nature of what harsh interrogation techniques are permitted. When I use the word "torture," I recognize this is a loaded term. More precisely, what we ought to be asking is whether, for instance, "waterboarding" a prisoner (simulated drowning) is a sin, or whether inflicting hypothermia on someone is morally permitted (according to this interview with Sen. John McCain, these techniques may be forbidden by the law, but are not specifically prohibited and therefore open to interpretation by the president). Yet the questions that our politicians and pundits are asking speak primarily to whether physically hurting prisoners will work or not: does cruel treatment keep Americans safer? does it put our soldiers at greater risk of being tortured themselves? From a Christian view, however, I think it's critical to discuss the moral dimension before the utilitarian. Before we ask whether it works, we need to be certain that it is morally right. Yet the loudest voices speaking out on the moral issues of torture and abuse are not coming from a specifically Christian perspective.

I don't have anything new to say on the topic (having written about it in the past here and here), but a number of bloggers are writing Christian responses to torture, including: Michael Westmoreland-White at Levellers, Orcinus, Reformation 21 blog (including a second post on the biblical basis for opposing torture), a pastor who emailed Andrew Sullivan's blog, and Pastordan at Street Prophets. And do check out the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Social Trends, Justice