Should Christians ever condone torture?
ACCORDING to the standard dictionary definition, torture is simply the act of deliberately inflicting pain by one person on another person. There are many ways in which this can be done: beatings, electric shocks, waterboarding, etc. But this simple dictionary definition of torture must be subjected to more detailed analysis.
Most writers would agree that there are at least five basic features of torture. (1) At least two persons must be involved in torture to distinguish it from self-abuse and mutilation. (2) One person has control over the others in torture. This distinguishes torture from combat, for instance, in which the combatants fight for control. (3) The pain that is inflicted in torture must be extreme, purposeful, systematic and harsh. In other words, the pain inflicted cannot be accidental. (4) Torture dehumanises the victim with some very specific goals in mind: obtaining a confession or information, punishment, or even conversion. (5) The act of torture may be directed either immediately at the victim, or the victim may simply be the means to obtain information from a third party.
Torture has a very long and dark history stretching back thousands of years. Greek and Roman law not only allowed slaves to be tortured, but citizens as well, especially for treason. In the American colonies, those who were suspected of practising witchcraft were tortured. In recent history, torture continued to be practised in Nazi Germany, the Gulags in Soviet Union under Stalin, Cambodia and many other countries, including the United States.
Unfortunately, as any student of the history of the Church would know, Christians have used torture to force heretics to repent or convert to orthodoxy. In the Reformation era, Protestant reformers like Zwingli have used torture and physical abuse to persecute the Anabaptists or “re-baptisers”.
Can torture ever be justified? Those who answer this question in the affirmative often offer complex reasons for the justification of this practice. From the religious perspective, as we have seen above, torture is justified because it has the potential to cause a heretic to repent and therefore receive salvation. From the perspective of politics, for example, it is often argued that torture is justified if it could save the lives of citizens by obtaining vital information.
There is much debate on the use of interrogational torture to extract information from “high-value detainees” connected to terrorist networks like Al Qaeda. Many continue to support the practice even though the evidence suggests that information obtained by this means is highly unreliable. Those who support such acts fail to see that terroristic torture is fundamentally fighting terrorism by terrorism (because torture is basically a form of terrorism).
The Christian concept of human beings as the bearer of the image of God (imago dei) overwhelmingly opposes the practice of torture, regardless of the latter’s motivations and goals. According to Christian belief, every human being is part of God’s good creation, endowed with inalienable dignity and worth. Christians are called to take seriously and respect the personhood of every man, woman and child because they are in some ways bearers of the image of their Creator.
Torture is an act that dehumanises its victims, robbing them of their basic dignity, and reducing them to “nonpersons”. Torture is the tyrannical subjugation and sadistic degradation of the human being. Christians can never endorse such cruel violations of human persons created in God’s image.
The Christian appeal to the concept of the image of God also points to another important feature concerning human beings. A number of Christian theologians, including Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, came to understand the image of God in relational terms. Just as the triune God is being-in-communion, so human beings created in his image are relational creatures. In other words, the doctrine of the image of God points to the fact that human beings are created to be in communion with one another. Torture is therefore demonic in that it disrupts and destroys this communion and fellowship in a radical way.
Torture perverts the relationship between the torturer and the tortured and that of the tortured and the torturer. And in doing so, torture degrades the human being and the human community in a way that is destructive to the neighbour and self. Torture therefore ultimately blasphemes the God who created human beings in His own image and likeness.
Torture undermines both the victim and the torturer alike. The victims of torture are humiliated and subjected to intense suffering to the point that they are robbed of all dignity. But it is not just the intensity of the suffering that makes torture evil. As William Cavanaugh writes in his book, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, it is the “realisation that this is being done to me by another human being. It is the perversion and destruction of the very idea of human relationship”.
Torture not only brings out the deep urge to humiliate and hurt that resides in the breast of fallen human beings, it also justifies this expression of violence. That is why once chosen, torture cannot be contained, and quickly becomes the preferred method. As Princeton theologian George Hunsinger puts it, “Torture, once chosen, both proliferates and corrupts. Proliferation is its dimension of breadth, and corruption its dimension of depth.”
The Christian opposition to torture must therefore be categorical and unqualified.
TORTURE DEHUMANISES VICTIMS
‘Torture is an act that dehumanises its victims, robbing them of their basic dignity, and reducing them to “nonpersons” … Christians can never endorse such cruel violations of human persons created in God’s image.’
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.