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Banning Torture

On Wednesday the U.S. Senate finally passed legislation banning waterboarding and other forms of torture (the House did so in December). That is the good news. The bad news, however, comes in several forms. First, it only passed 51-45 on a mostly partisan vote. Nearly half of our nation's senators voted against the bill to force the CIA to follow international treaties and take the moral high ground. It is particularly sad that most of the opposition came from those who claim to be the party of values. Second, President George W. Bush has promised to veto the legislation and a veto override seems unlikely. He continues to play definitional games by claiming that waterboarding is merely an "enhanced interrogation technique." Third, this comes on the heels of the CIA finally admitting that they have indeed waterboarded three individuals during the Bush administration. The news that our nation tortured people should be upsetting to all Americans, but sadly has not sparked much outrage or made this issue a primary one in political debates.

David Gushee has an excellent Associated Baptist Press column on the subject that is entitled "Torture is the bone caught in America's throat." Gushee has helped lead the way in offering a prophetic Christian challenge on the issue of torture, such as with the Evangelical Declaration Against Torture. I got a a signed copy of his latest book, The Future of Faith in American Politics, at the recent Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant. The book includes a chapter on torture and reprints the evangelical declaration. Here are a few highlights from his ABP piece:
It is clear to me that the problem of torture is like a bone caught in our national throat. We can't swallow it, but we can't quite spit it out. And so we are choking on it.

... However, the fight against torture is not over until it is really over. This will require the ongoing efforts of advocates to help cement a cultural, religious and ethical consensus against torture over the next year or more. If our nation does elect an anti-torture president, we will still need to help that person implement their intentions into law. And this will require strong support from Baptist and evangelical communities, which have not broadly engaged this issue.

That is not entirely true. Many influential voices in the national (and international) evangelical community have come out strongly against any resort to torture. Many mobilized around our 2007 "Evangelical Declaration Against Torture," which can still be signed at

Few of those hundreds of signatories are Baptists -- as of now. The stance of the official Southern Baptist Convention leadership was signaled by attacks on the declaration through Baptist Press, with no opportunity given to me or anyone else involved with the declaration to respond.

I am more surprised by the silence from moderate Baptist leaders and the centrist-progressive kinds of Baptists who gathered at the New Baptist Covenant meeting. It is my hope that their general silence on torture does not signal consent or acquiescence but simply a lack of focus amid other pressing issues.

A religious community that selected Luke 4 as its central text, that lifted up Jesus Christ our tortured Savior and Lord, and that emphasized peace, justice and mercy, cannot be sanguine about our national use of torture in the war on terror, can it?
His call for Baptists and other evangelicals to not only oppose torture but to not remain silent about the issue is one I hope will be followed (I critiqued Christian leaders who condone torture in an Ethics Daily column entitled "Tortured theology"). With the recent news about torture it almost seems as if our nation is losing its moral conscience. Perhaps that is because those who are supposed to be the conscience are too silent.


  1. Brian,

    It was evident our nation had lost its moral consciousness when abortion was made legal.

    Results of legal torture: Three scared, soaking-wet, still-alive, limbs-intact adult terrorists.

    Results of legal abortion: Millions of dead, never-born babies.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Brian,

    Help us unpack the above stated theology of Cat's Dad.

    I recognize it's all a slippery slope but Cat's Dad seems to be excusing torture while condemning abortion.

  4. Kara,

    Rather than a theological statement, I was pointing out the absurdity of thinking that tolerance for torturing terrorists signals the "onset" of decline in our nation's moral consciousness. Legalized abortion, homosexuality, pornography, etc. beat torture to the punch.

    You're correct in your conclusion that I condemn abortion.

  5. Anonymous6:28 PM

    I don't think Brian meant to say that our nation is just now losing its moral conscience as though no major issues have ever risen. I hope I'm not putting words in his mouth.

    Torture is a very relevant and contemporary issue that warrants immediate discussion and action. In no way does that lessen the importance of the abortion issue. Nor should the abortion problem lessen the importance of the torture problem.

  6. Thank you, Jeremy. I didn't interpret Brian's concluding statement to mean that torture was "the straw that broke the camel's back" in America's moral consciousness. Yes, there are other moral issues in our country.

    On the same token, Cat's Dad, your comparison of the results of legal torture and legal abortion is very loaded. Both practices are not fitting of the foundational, Christian theological understanding that all humans (including terrorists and unborn babies)are made in the image of God.

  7. Jeremy and Kara,

    You two are cutting Kaylor way too much slack. This blog is all about the importance of choosing words, because our host blogger's critique of words' meanings and the perceptions of them is staple fare.

    How else does one interpret--at first read and face value--"With the recent news about torture it almost seems as if our nation is losing its moral conscience."?

    In a sense, Kara, you're right--Kaylor doesn't say that torture broke the camel's back of our moral conscience. He says the camel's back isn't yet broken!

    I hope my comparison is loaded, for there are professing Christians pitching fits over terrorists being interrogated impolitely but legally in order to save innocent persons' lives, while at the same time decrying and undermining pro-lifers' efforts to end the legalized snuffing-out of innocent unborns' lives.

    Yes, Kara, all humans are made in the image of God. Waterboarding doesn't take a human's life. In fact, it may result in information which helps prevent terrorists from taking the lives of many innocent humans. An abortion most certainly takes a human's life.

    It appears that both of you feel abortion is wrong. I applaud you.
    Let's let Kaylor speak for himself.

  8. Thanks for the comments!

    Cat's dad (first): You are right that abortion is a horrible problem in our nation. However, you make two mistakes. First, you downplay the moral problem with torture. Second, you seem to pit these two issues against each other. If you truly believe in the sanctity of human life and are truly pro-life, then you must be against abortion AND torture.

    Kara (first): You are correct that he is excusing torture. It is this perspective that I was critiquing in this post.

    Cat's dad (second): Why can't you go all the way and condemn abortion AND torture? Let's be morally and theologically consistent.

    Jeremy: You are correct. What I am pointing to is not that evil is being allowed for the first time but that religious leaders are not speaking out as the moral conscience. With abortion there is a strong voice that declares that it is wrong. That voice is being lost on the issue of torture, which is quite troubling. You are also correct that we must not allow one issue to push the other out of the conversation.

    Kara (second): You are correct that if we believe in the sanctity of human life and that all people are created in the image of God, then we must be against abortion AND torture.

    Cat's dad (third): I am glad you are learning my main argument here. As I explained to Jeremy, my statement was about the fact that the Christian prophetic voice (which is our nation's moral conscience) is not speaking out on this issue like on abortion.

    Your condoning of torture here is part of the problem! "Impolitely"?! That is one of the worst euphemisms I have heard. And no, sir, it is not legal. International treaties, which we have signed, clearly make waterboarding and other forms of torture illegal. You cannot be completely pro-life and condone the torturing of life.

    Waterboarding is a violation of the sanctity of life (read the evangelical declaration as it explains this point). Your ends justifies the means argument (getting information to save lives) is not only inaccurate (since experts explain that torture usually provides unreliable information) but is also not a biblical ethical framework. We must always use moral means. I am appalled at your lack of love and concern toward those created in the image of God. I hope you will embrace a complete and consistent pro-life position by opposing abortion AND torture.

  9. It certainly seems easier to consider some blessed and others cursed, so what happens to them is judged accordingly. The unborn are easier to justify keeping than criminals. Not only that, methods defined as torture are much like abuse. Just because someone doesn't die doesn't make it adversity. Torture, like abuse, is quite convenient for those who practice it, and neither creates innocent lives.

  10. Brian,

    Thank you for clarifying your rather poorly worded point that religious leaders embody the moral conscience of our nation.

    Obviously, at this point, waterboarding is legal, even if not in the legalistic sense of international treaties. Otherwise, legislation to ban it would not be necessary.

    But, again, my real beef is with professing Christians, including Baptists, pitching fits over waterboarding, while at the same time decrying and undermining pro-lifers' efforts to end the legalized snuffing-out of innocent unborns' lives.

    You said experts say torture "usually" provide unreliable information. This means it, at least sometimes, provides reliable information which can contribute to innocent lives being saved, while not taking the terrorist's life. So, I am pro-life.

  11. Thanks for the comments!

    Jadon: Good point. Torture hurts not only those who are tortured but also those who do it. That was the point of my column "Tortured theology." The damage we do to our morality in order to justify torture is not worth it.

    Cat's dad: I am glad you understand my point now. Waterboarding is not legal. The CIA director has even admitted that it is not legal (even though they used it on three people). What this new legislation brings is another attempt to ban its use by requiring the CIA to follow the Army's code for interrogation. Since the CIA has waterboarded despite international treaties, this legislation is needed.

    I get your beef but you are making the opposite mistake of those your criticize. We must oppose abortion AND torture. That is the only way to be completely and consistently pro-life. Quit trying to pit the two issues against each other.

    Your ends justify the means ethic is troubling. How far are you willing to go? Would you support an abortion is it would save more lives? That is the same logic. What about the fact that you don't know if the person being tortured has valuable information or is even guilty (there is a recent case of an innocent man who was tortured because he was thought to be a terrorist). Our nation believes in innocent until proven guilty, but we are torturing people before they even get a trial. Torture is always wrong. Period!

  12. Brian,

    Never would I support an abortion-- taking the life of an innocent, unborn child--even if the fantasy hypothetical situation you suggest could come to pass.

    My position on enhanced interrogation techniques is just as pro-life. Never would I support taking the life of a captured terrorist unless and until he's proven guilty. Waterboarding doesn't kill or dis-member, and may result in sparing the lives of many.

    Since the number of individuals waterboarded during the Bush administration is three, it's obvious that the CIA rarely employs it, and only with the most-known terrorists.

  13. Cat's dad: I did not think you would. So why do you accept the ends justifies the means way of thinking on torture?

    Do not try and use the euphemistic "enhanced interrogation techniques." Let's be honest and call it what it is--torture. Being pro-life is not just about saving life but also about honoring it. That is what it means to believe in the sanctity of human life.

    Thankfully it is rare, but that does not excuse it. Let's make it never, not just rare.

  14. Brian,

    I sympathize with your position, but pro-life includes the sad reality that you can't honor a terrorist's life at the expense of not saving many innocent lives.

    And, again, he doesn't die.

    There will be a case, perhaps cases, of extreme and imminent danger when our government must resort to extreme-but-not-lethal measures to truly value innocent lives.

  15. A question for you. Doesn't your absolutist position on "torture" and the pro-life principles you espouse compel you to condemn any "justified" shootings by law enforcement officers? And what about home invasions in the dark of night? Must the officer or the citizen honor the life of someone who points the gun or knife, just in case he may not really intend to do harm to the innocent officer, citizen, or the citizen's wife and child? Shooting the suspect's hand or kneecap rather than to kill him wouldn't be pro-life, either?

    Just where do--if you do--draw the line between honoring a life and saving a life or lives?

  16. Cat's dad: I see two problems with your first new comment. First, sometimes the person will die from torture when the body is unable to withstand the pain. And if we believe life is sacred then that means we cannot kill or torture.

    Second, the so-called "ticking time bomb" scenario is so rare that it should not set the norm. Bad cases make bad laws. And it assumes that we can know if the person has any information to stop an immediate threat. But that is only something we can know after we get information out of them and thus we cannot know for sure before torturing (and it assumes they will tell us anything that is accurate or worthwhile). This situation also requires us to torture before a trial or guilty verdict, which is very troubling.

    I understand the desire to save lives and hope that we can do that, but let us find ways to do that without violating the very principles we hope to defend.

    As to your second new comment, that is a great question. For me the big difference comes in that the person being tortured is defenseless. They are bound and unarmed. That makes their situation drastically different from the armed persons in your examples.

  17. Brian,

    Summarizing where we've landed after this exchange on waterboarding:

    You say, "Thankfully it is rare, but that does not excuse it. Let's make it never, not just rare."


    "Second, the so-called 'ticking time bomb' scenario is so rare that it should not set the norm. Bad cases make bad laws."

    I say let's keep it rare. "There will be a case, perhaps cases, of extreme and imminent danger when our government must resort to extreme-but-not-lethal measures to truly value innocent lives." Those in the CIA battling to save your life and mine shouldn't be in violation of the law as a result of doing so.

  18. Your last line could open the door to a lot of problems. So as long as they think they are saving our lives they can do whatever they want? Even murder of innocent people? Do you see the problem with opening the door here? We need to draw a clear and solid line that says life is always sacred and thus commit to not torturing. Anything else leads us down a path that we do not want to go down.

  19. Brian,

    No, not whatever they want. I said non-lethal. That certainly doesn't include "murdering innocent people." Rather, that's what we'd be acting to prevent--the murdering of innocent people.

    We need to draw a clear and solid line that says life is always sacred and thus commit to preserving it by preventing murder. Ultimately, we must revere life by preserving lives, not principles.

  20. Cat's Dad:

    Isn't this much like a woman castrating a guy she's with (instead of using contraception) to prevent abortion and save lives? It seems effective, but it seems one-sided and counter-productive.

    This is one reason I question your logic here. It's easy to desire using the fullest extent and more on those we oppose, believing it to be a crude but reasonable effort. It just seems like abuse is often confused for adversity in this case.

  21. Jadon,

    I think the woman in your hypothetical, if she wanted to prevent abortions, could do one of two things, independent of those she slept with or was assaulted by:

    1) decide she would never abort.
    2) have a medical procedure performed by a qualified surgeon which would end her conception days.

    I'm sure we and the CIA would like to have similar options independent of plotting terrorists to save innocent lives from those murderous plots.

  22. Anonymous9:41 AM

    Cat's Dad:

    I think we could move past this whole issue if you would agree that this is an accurate assessment of your thoughts:

    Jesus' command to "love your enemies" does not apply in this case.

    Jesus' command to "turn the other cheek" does not apply in the case.

    Jesus' wisdom that "all who live by the sword will die by the sword" does not matter here.

    Jesus' command to "do unto others as you would have them do to you" does not apply here.

    Living like the "Prince of Peace" does not apply when it comes to torture.

  23. Jeremy,

    I chuckle whenever I see church-state separationists selectively decide to mix the two to support their agenda. I'm only guessing you're a staunch believer in church-state separation, so this may not apply to you.

    These folks personally abhor evil and sin such as aborting the innocent unborn, yet insist the government mustn't legislate morality. Nor should we Christians desire to impose our moral, faith-based convictions on those Americans who don't hold them. To hear them, one would conclude that a woman's right to choose to end her unborn's innocent life must be the most-protected of our liberties.

    Then, the same folks pitch a fit when--in the midst of imminent threat to innocent American lives--three well-known terrorists are waterboarded, insisting that the government be legislated to be hyper "pro-life"--honoring it, not just preserving it--when it comes to the lives of terrorist enemies.

    The height of hypocrisy.

    As these folks often proclaim, the USA is not, nor was it founded with the intention of being, a Christian nation! If these church-state separationists are to be consistent in upholding their mantra, then Jesus' words don't apply to this case! Remember, our government isn't that of a Christian nation.

    The teachings of Jesus you cite apply to me, you, and every individual Christian, just as does God's initial commandment "Thou shalt not kill." But God's later instruction to the nation Israel to annihilate its enemies didn't contradict or violate his command to not kill, did it?

    Finally, remember, we're not talking about killing anyone--only preventing the murder of our innocent citizens.

  24. Anonymous3:02 PM

    Cat's Dad:

    First of all you have no idea how I feel about church-state issues. I don't think I've addressed it on my blog at all. If you are simply speaking to my identity as a Baptist (since we are historically committed to church-state separation and religious liberty) and are against the principle totally - then you are entitled to your opinion.

    I would even submit that many church-state separationists misinterpret the principle entirely. Many people think that faith and politics are equal to church and state. This is NOT the case with me or most who adhere to the idea. At no time have I tried to separate my faith beliefs from how I feel about government or legislation. That is an unfair conclusion on your part.

    And you don't even know how I feel about the abortion issue! I'm pro-life buddy! I've gone back and forth about how I feel the government should legislate this issue, and recently I have been finding myself a strong supporter of anti-abortion measures. You know what I could do? I could take your stance and talk about how crazy conservatives are not pushing for universal healthchare. We have lots of innocent children dying in that way too! Isn't that just as important?! Of course it is, but I don't go on to blogs and bring it up every time ANOTHER topic regarding sanctity of life is being discussed. I commend you for your passionate biblically-based stance against abortion, but it's not the only sanctity of life issue out there!

    You're darn right in accusing me of not thinking our nation is a Christian nation. When I look back to things like slavery and segregation its hard to believe that the USA is ordained by Christ. Nor is that sentiment even historically accurate. My allegiance is to the Kingdom of God, not a secular government or institution here on earth.

    Your last point is one that would take much more discussion than I'm sure Brian would allow in a comments section, but you clearly interpret the Bible differently from me. I interpret the Bible under the lordship of Jesus Christ. I would submit to you that the Old Testament writers may have misunderstood parts of God's revelation to them. After all, Jesus often times calls into question OT perspective of law (e.g., and eye for an eye). With that being said, I still assume that you believe Jesus' teachings don't apply in regards to torture. By the way, only 1 of the verses I cited even mentions death. I don't think Jesus ever tries to justify killing - but correct me if I'm wrong.

    Let me conclude by saying that you may think torture solely prevents worse things from happening. But as you look to the other side of the world where suicide bombs are killing masses of people and where Americans are also being put through Hell, remember this pro-torture stance. Some who are already prone to violence may gain extra motivationwhen seeing their comrades treated inhumanely.

  25. Jeremy,

    Forgive me for offending you. I don't read your blog. I tried to preface my response by saying I was making an assumption regarding your position, and that who I would describe might not apply to you. But nonetheless, I shouldn't offend.

    If you will read carefully my original comment, you will find that my focus has been on the disproportionate-to-contradictory response of believers to these rare instances of waterboarding terrorists relative to their passive objections to, or downright support for, legalized abortion.

    This was in response to Kaylor's ambiguous quote in this post:
    "With the recent news about torture it almost seems as if our nation is losing its moral conscience."

    If you read Revelation, you can conclude that Jesus didn't rule out the reality or necessity of righteous war. Just as God's instruction to the nation Israel didn't contradict his commandment to not kill, neither do the battles in Revelation contradict what Jesus, the Prince of Peace and Mighty Warrior, says in the instances you cite.

    I strongly reject your assertion that Old Testament writers may have misunderstood parts of God's revelation to them. To which writers and what parts are you referring? That sounds like the speculative critical analysis of the most liberal neo-orthodox.

  26. Wow, the comments keep coming on this post! How sad that a call to stop torturing is so controversial for some Christians.

    Cat's dad (1st new one): I agree that we must draw a clear line that life is sacred. And that means no torture! We cannot let the ends justify the means and there is no way to know if it would ever save lives.

    Jadon: I think you hit upon something important here. Those who condone torture act like it's not a big deal. I bet they would think otherwise if they were tortured.

    Jeremy (1st new one): Excellent point of reminding us about the teachings of Jesus! Clearly, torture is not moral.

    Cat's dad (3rd new one): Two big problems here. First, you are fighting a straw man that does not exist on this post. I am strongly pro-life. That means being against abortion AND torture! Your attempt to pit abortion against torture is wrong. Please join me in being completely pro-life by speaking out against both. Second, you keep asserting that torture will save lives, but there is no proof that has or ever will happen. That is a wild hypothetical situation that cannot justify evil actions such as torturing someone made in the image of God.

    Jeremy (2nd new one): Good job pointing out how Cat's dad once again makes assumptions and claims without facts. Also, an excellent point about how us torturing could spark more violence and death, which then takes Cat's dad's point about saving lives and puts it on the side of not torturing. That also reminds me that another problem with us torturing is that it makes it much more likely that our soldiers will be tortured. That is why we fought to get the international treaties to ban torture--because we did not want our soldiers to ever be tortured again. If we continue to condone torture we will not be able to complain or seek justice when our soldiers are tortured.

    Cat's dad (last one): What? Are you really suggesting that your complaint against those who are against torture but not abortion is about me? I am not passive about abortion or for abortion, and if you actually read my responses on this post you would have learned that I am against abortion AND torture. I have also clearly explained the sentence that you have tried to twist. The problem here is that unlike abortion--where Christians have been strongly speaking out against it--most Christians are silent on torture. Since we are the nation's moral conscience, when we lose our voice our nation loses that conscience. And for crying out loud would you stop your ridiculous attempt to pit abortion against torture. It is not an either/or but a both/and situation. Join me in being completely and consistently pro-life by being against abortion AND torture.

  27. Anonymous7:35 AM

    Cat's Dad:

    No worries - you did not offend. It's very easy to associate people with certain beliefs based on where we see them on the political spectrum or theological spectrum. I have done this several times.

    I'm going to have to disagree with you about the response of those who oppose torture and abortion. I think most of my acquaintances have an equal disdain for both - but perhaps that is just my world.

    And I would say that we clearly disagree on biblical interpretation from Genesis to Revelation. I would say that I read Revelation much differently than you. And I read the Old Testament through a very Christian lens. It seems to me that if Christ is the medium through which we interpret and if we live under the lordship of His teachings, then some passages in the OT will have to be reinterpreted. For instance, when Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." Certainly this implies that interpretation MUST be different after the incarnation of Christ. The underlying principle of justice was present in the Law, violent action was clearly not God's intent, at least according to Christ.

  28. Brian,

    I'll get us off this endless loop. I've made my case that, in rare cases, waterboarding is consistent with the pro-life position, and that we cannot always honor a terrorist's life at the expense of losing many innocent lives.

    You're not convinced, though I think you recognize that you're in the minority of Christians--even Christian leaders. Otherwise, you wouldn't have made the original statement.

    To clarify, I have read all of your responses, and never intended to infer that you were pro-choice.

    Perhaps I was not clear in some of my comments for you to get that impression, just as you were unclear in your original post, which led to my first comment.

    See you on a future thread.

  29. Thanks for the comments.

    Jeremy: I also believe that pro-life Christians opposing torture also oppose abortion.

    Cat's dad: I understand your position, but I think it is based on a faulty premise--that torture will save lives. The evidence is not there and the ends cannot justify the means.


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