The Christian, Torture and Intercessory Prayer

The Christian, Torture and Intercessory Prayer

So the government authorizes, or the apparatus of the state undertakes, torture. So what? We live in a fallen world and we are not surprised that criminal activity insidiously seeps into the highest reaches of public authority and command. We are realists, we are not shaken. Of course, we may also not be shaken for other reasons which are equally theologically revealing. Exposed to the discourse of the 'war on terror', from news to TV shows and movies, it is likely that we live as citizens in fear. Our fear may be under control, but its control is technological. Surveillance, security, screening, and suspicion are the guarantors of our fragile peace. Intelligence is the coinage of our security system - data that unveil and undermine the perfidious intentions of our enemies. 

In opening our security nightmares to us, intelligence is truly apocalyptic. That revelation is to be attained, so the torture justification goes, at any cost. Only so can we secure our future. Or should we care to remove ourselves, only so can our future be secured for us. Lastly, for many of us, we are not shaken because we are precisely the 'us' that has come to expect this kind of moral failure from 'them' in the corridors of power. Torture and our Christian response to the state's complicity raises questions about our realism, our security, our representation, and our practical reasoning. How we pray will tell us much about how we respond.

Security, Realism, Torture and Christ

Of course, at the heart of Scripture's apocalypse stands not the security of the CIA, but the peace of the Lamb who was slain. The Christian response to torture in our midst must turn not first to a vision from our position of vulnerable wealth in a geopolitical age of terror, but to one in which Christ is the key.  The tactic that secures the future is not in our hands, not for lack of security technology or intelligence, but because it never has been. Christ really is able to open the scroll where all others cannot.

We are best able, maybe only able, to reckon with torture christologically. Precisely as the God who bears our humanity, even through torture to very death on a cross, Jesus Christ, in his resurrection and ascension, vindicates our humanity, as our vicarious representative. He takes upon himself our curse, and he yields not intelligence, but good news of forgiveness and redemption. Peace rather than technology and control. Torture is always wrong in light of who Christ is. 

Human life is not expendable, or degradable, or manipulable for intelligence. Human personhood, in the light of the gospel, cannot be subject to dehumanization. Christians are confident that the dehumanizing reality of sin is dealt with once and for all on the cross. Christians will not dehumanize the enemy, but rather love the enemy, because of Christ's humanizing representative authority. Love drives out fear.

Moral theology rightly reminds us that just as Christ is the image of the invisible God, so all human persons are made in the image of God. And in the least of these humans, even the enemy, we encounter Christ, doing or failing to do unto them as unto him. Treating a person's human physical, psychological and emotional integrity as so much expendable or disposable material in the procuring of intelligence is to sell Jesus into the hands of his persecutors.

Shrugging at the depravity of agents who act representatively in our name is not realism. The gospel is realism, even if its wisdom is foolishness to many.

Christ, Representation, and Prayer

Christian tradition has, sadly, plenty of instances where the inhuman torment of hell has been anticipatedly brought forward from the eschaton to shape practices of inquisition to 'secure' the standing of the church and its teaching. Just so, the church has demonstrated a lack of confidence in her Lord. The extent to which there has been extortion of confession by force is just the extent to which there has been a denial of the conviction and transformation that is the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

But today we are not talking about arcane practices of an ecclesiastical judiciary. Of course we would be up in arms if torture were going on in our church basements. But must we be so troubled by torture by our military, security and intelligence services? Can we expect these officers of the secular state to practice their profession according to the richness of Christian moral principles?

Here Christ's representative standing as our ruler in the Kingdom of God comes to the fore. He is the Lamb who is upon the throne of God. Political theology has us recognize that under Christ we still live lives ordered by government for our common good. Christ is our ruler, and his rule is mediated by the Spirit to the prophetic governance of church polity in which we are members one of another. We understand our representative rulers not as 'them' against 'us', but as 'ours', as 'us'. Democratic governance mitigates the potential ills of arbitrary authoritarian representation of rule by following that same representative logic that individual Spirit-filled Christians reckon with as they contemplate the body of the church.

Governing leadership in the church, and its response to the church's failings, represents me as one under the lordship of Christ, and authorizes my service of Christ in the church. I am a participant member in this body, bearing its shame and its glory. In a penultimate sense this is true of us as citizens of a late modern liberal democratic polity. We understand our governance as legitimately representing us, and authorizing our freedom, even as we participate civically in the shame and the glory of the civic order.

Do we then pray for the church and its leadership? If so how? To accomplish the goals of ministry, mission and pastoral care ...whatever the cost? Does the grievous context of massive unbelief justify methods of evangelism that secure confession of faith through brainwashing?

What then of our government and our national security? How do we pray, if we pray at all? Do we pray for security at all costs?

Practical Reason, Consequences, and Christ

Frustrated readers may be concerned that I have missed the point. What if the dilemma at issue is one where the intelligence is overwhelming that a person is stubbornly withholding information vital to eliminate an imminent horrific threat to innocent civilians. This is a ticking bomb scenario, so beloved of television drama. Do not theological niceties stand down at just this point? Surely here, in extremis, the end justifies the means. 

But what is the extreme that has been reached? It seems it is the situation where our own security technology has not secured us invulnerability or full control over our fears. Yet this is not so much the exception but the very logic of security all along. If fear drives our security the enemy is already less then human. The enemy is a monster. Monsters cannot be dehumanized, torture is a misapplied category.

My answer is that our confession of faith in this particular Jesus Christ does not change at extremes. The principle securing our respect for humanity is not the contingent situation and configuration of humans before us as we weigh our deliberative options. Our principle here is the person of the incarnate Son.

Should I not address the finding that torture does not yield good intelligence? Or that it channels volatile and aggressive officers into positions of responsibility for which they are unfit? Or that its use damages the moral authority of the country in the eyes of the international community? All this may be true, but I believe Christians have a primary responsibility to order our moral deliberation according to a different logic than consequences. Consequences, of course, matter, and their appropriate consideration is a valid part of practical reason.

(A principle of double effect such as to reckon on moral evil that is foreseen yet unintended as a consequence does not fit the action of torture. The evil of dehumanizing treatment is not the unfortunate side effect of intelligence interrogation. Rather, torture is used only because it is judged the only viable intended means to secure intelligence. If torture is evil, it is always wrong and therefore to be proscribed.)


Here is the problem for us as a church facing the reality of torture by the state. We are not sure we disapprove. For we are not sure that we do not actually value our security more than the humanity of the stranger who might be an enemy. Furthermore, we find that even if we have a bad taste in our mouths over these revelations, we are fairly convinced we would not have done likewise. Yet the end justifies the means in instance after instance of our self-centered lives. We are double-minded about our craven consequentialism that has 'us' identifying with our flag on the right civic occasions and then disowning the representative 'them' who do evil under its banner. Not in our name we say. I suggest that the kind of thinking that so easily, even so Christianly, deploys the 'not of this world' bumper sticker to disassociate from representative authority, is one that has lost faith with belonging in the world for others. And it is the plight of the other, the victim of torture, with which we are uncomfortably confronted.

Intercessory prayer in public worship is that collective action that serves as a moral practice. We are bound in prayer to others whose lives do not revolve around our own. We assume responsibility before God for others in a way that only makes sense as megalomania or faith in our union with Christ and the prevenient work of the Spirit in the world. Prayer for governing authorities and structures of state, security and military both assumes responsibility and recognizes representation. Sometimes these prayers seem perfunctory but without them we will see ourselves as 'us' against 'them'. Without prayer, we lose the representative humanity of the state and it government, and succumb to accepting the state as a vast technology for our security against our fear. Our fear of poverty, foreignness, disease, war and terror.

Are we then valuing security over humanity, our own included? If so, torture is not far behind.

Andy Draycott
Talbot School of Theology, Biola University

Full disclosure requires acknowledgment that the author is a UK national, and resident alien in the US. UK connivance in CIA extradition is sufficiently established to not presume national superiority. Membership of the one church of Christ is more significant here