Exegesis on Torture

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While fearing that this continued discussion may start to seem, well, tortuous, I want to respond to some mail that asked for an exegetical defense of my claim that Christians should oppose torture.  Let me give a brief one, which honestly sets forth the biblical ideas represented in my view. First, the sixth commandment enshrines the principle of the sanctity of life: "You shall not murder" (Ex. 20:13).  This commandment also enshrines the principle of punishment by death as the penalty for wrongfully taking a human life.  We see this in the application of this commandment throughout the Mosaic economy.  We also see it in God's earlier covenant with Noah: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image" (Gen. 9:6).  Therefore, every single human being today bears God's image, even after the fall (a subject of surprising confusion today).  Therefore, his life is not to be taken, except in judicial punishment for murder, or other capital crimes.  By extending this principle in the way that Jesus models for us, we must also not cause harm to human beings, except for legimitate causes, as they are outlined in the Bible (see below).

Second, we need to consider Paul's teaching that God has given the secular magistrate the sword in order to establish justice on the earth (Rom. 13:4).  This not only validates war, but it also validates the duty of citizens to serve in their armed forces when so called.  Some people seem to think that by giving the secular ruler the sword, this justifies torture.  I do not believe so; in fact, I think it condemns it.  The secular government is to use the sword both to thwart evil (Rom. 13:3) and also to execute retributive justice (Rom. 13:4).  But the prisoner of war does not warrant the sword on either account.  By definition, the POW is not able to pose a danger.  Furthermore, as a general rule there is no reason to believe that he has sinned.  It is his duty to serve under his secular magistrate, and it is widely accepted that simply to be an enemy is neither a sin nor a crime.  If a particular POW has committed a war crime, then he should be tried for it, the maximum punishment being not torture but death.  Moreover, let us not confuse torture with corporal punishment (such as spanking one's childen or the use of the cane in places like Singapore).  This is a category mistake.  Corporate punishment is meted out a) in punishment for a crime, and b) in order to discipline and correct.  These are not the purpose or intent of torture.  Is a certain POW has committed a crime, he should be tried and punished according to the crime, perhaps receiving the penalty of death.  But this simply is not germaine to a discussion of torture.

Now, some will object that the terrorists at Guantanamo are not prisoners of war.  But the Bush administration has declared them to be just that.  That is why they are under military control at Guantanamo.  This is the very legal distinction the Bush administration argued in court (quite rightly in my view) in order to avoid civil trials for these people.  As such, the purposes for which God has granted the secular ruler the sword do not apply in the case of POW's.

Lastly, I cannot think of a single instance in the Bible where torture is sanctioned and approved on the part of God's people.  Capital punishment is, and so is wholesale slaughter as part of holy war.  It is our normal practice, when we do not have specific biblical warrant for an action (such as torture), to look for biblical precedents.  I cannot think of a single precedent for torture among God's people, even during the era of theocratic holy war in Israel.

Lastly, while I am well aware of the fact that the Sermon on the Mount should not be taken to describe the Bible's expectation of secular policy, surely the two are not completely divorced.  Surely, therefore, we should want to see our public policy shaped by the values articulated for God's kingdom by Jesus and the apostles.  Therefore, so far as our public duty permits, we should do good to those who despitefully use us, etc., knowing that "blessed are the peacemakers" is true not merely of individuals.

I argue that under a biblical definition -- and especially in light of the 6th commandment -- the proper aim of war is to preserve and promote life and to secure a stable peace.  Torture violates both these principles.  Torturers act with cruelty towards those who are at their mercy and promote the deepest and longest lasting hatred.  Prior generations of Christians knew this without the need for long argumentation, and it was their love for life and peace that shaped the traditional attitude of our government towards torture.

Posted September 21, 2006 @ 12:41 PM by Rick Phillips
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