Christians and torture: five questions to answer before we think it's ok

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein presenting an Intelligence Committee report on the CIA's anti-terrorism tactics.Reuters

"Waterboarding is how we baptise terrorists" declared Sarah Palin, the former Republican Vice Presidential candidate, in a speech to the National Rifle Association's Stand and Fight rally in April 2014.

With the publishing of the US Senate committee's 6,700-page dossier on the CIA's use of "enhanced interrogation" techniques, it is important to think through a Christian response to the use of torture in interrogation.

Rather than engage with a soft target like Palin, here is Dr Wayne Grudem, a conservative evangelical theologian with degrees from Harvard, Westminster Theological Seminary and Cambridge, who has said that "the use of stress positions, waterboarding and other forms of enhanced interrogation techniques are a moral responsibility of a government: not to have used them would have been morally wrong, because it would have meant having the ability to stop the murder of thousands and thousands of people and not doing it" (Politics according to the Bible, p. 432).

1. When is torture "torture" and when is it "enhanced interrogation" ?

The senate report confirms that the US Government did use sleep deprivation, waterboarding, "rectal feeding" and secret interrogation bases known as 'black sites' in places such as Thailand and Poland. On top of this, we now know that the CIA made threats of sexual abuse, and murdering of the suspects' family members. So when does enhanced interrogation become torture?

A widely accepted definition of torture was formed by the 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture:

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

Convention Against Torture, Article 1.1

By this definition it is clear what the Senate report describes the CIA did was torture. Grudem appears to draw the line of what is acceptable in interrogation differently. After helpfully explaining why rape, denying of medical treatment, sadistic humiliation or forcing a prisoner to violate their religious convictions are always wrong, Grudem argues that it would also be wrong:

"To carry out any actions that would 'shock the conscience' of a US court, such as doing anything that would cause lasting physical damage to the prisoner. This would include cutting off fingers or toes, gouging out eyes, branding someone's face, or twisting and binding limbs so severely as to cause permanent disability..." (Politics According to the Bible, p. 429).

I do not think Grudem's limitation of torture is adequate practically or biblically. Practically, "shocking the conscience" of a US court is a relativistic measurement. Biblically it shows a flawed understanding of biblical anthropology: human beings are more than their physical body and to consider something unacceptable only because of its outward bodily impact is inadequate. By this definition lasting psychological damage would be deemed acceptable. Drawing the line of acceptable interrogation at the lack of "permanent physical damage" sadly may have been chosen mainly because it leaves no physical evidence.

Some have criticised the Senate committee for being open about these acts of torture for fear of terrorist reprisals to the report. In my view it is the acts of terror that the report describes that are the real problem, not the report itself.

The logo of the US Central Intelligence Agency in the lobby of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.Reuters

2. Should we never say never to torture?

Even those who justify the use of extreme pain to elicit information from terror suspects argue that it is to be used only under exceptional circumstances. For example if the location of a bomb can be elicited using pain from a suspect quickly then many lives will be saved and so it is morally justifiable. Most of the arguments used to justify the ticking time bomb scenario use some form of utilitarian logic, namely that we can calculate how to give the most amount of joy to the most amount of people. On this logic it is assumed that causing one person a lot of pain is justifiable to prevent pain being caused to the majority.

But the utilitarian argument is not an intrinsically Christian way of thinking. Under this ethical system it is acceptable to do something wrong in order that good consequences can be achieved.

When we use the argument that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one or the few, we can end up in some horrific places. Does the Christian faith offer anything to challenge ignoring the rights of the individual for the benefits of the many?

For a long time appeal to the intrinsic worth of all human life has been a standard starting point of a Christian moral ethic. All human beings are worthy of love, honour and respect because all human beings regardless of age, class, ability, nationality, gender or sexuality are made in the image of God.

CS Lewis put it very starkly in his well-known essay The Weight of Glory:

CS Lewis wrote of the dignity of every human being.

"There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal... Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses."

These words come with even more significance when we realise Lewis wrote them in 1942, in the middle of the Second World War. To claim there are no ordinary people when Coventry had been obliterated in the Blitz, hundreds of thousands had been killed on the battlefront and Hitler was on the rampage, is a brave piece of theology but as Lewis recognises, is a truly biblical anthropology. How we treat another individual is a measure of how we relate to God. The counter-argument is that by treating one individual well, such as a terrorist, you are neglecting your responsibility to care for a larger number of people also made in the image of God. This leads us back to a utilitarian argument.

My perspective is that in the end, in the eyes of God, we are not ultimately morally responsible for the actions of others. We have a responsibility to care for people who have made bad decisions or who have been affected by the bad decisions of others, but still in the end we are not individually morally responsible for someone else's decisions. We are responsible for our own actions and doing something cruel in order to prevent someone else doing something cruel is not an ethical solution. The ends do not justify the means.

3. What does torture do for us?

The extensive senate report concludes that:

"While being subjected to the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques and afterwards, multiple CIA detainees fabricated information, resulting in faulty intelligence. Detainees provided fabricated information on critical intelligence issues, including the terrorist threats which the CIA identified as its highest priorities."

No one is surprised by the fact that people lie when they are interrogated. CIA chief John Brennan argued that the intelligence received was useful and it was unknowable if the same information had been available elsewhere. While Brennan defended the actions of the CIA that had been criticised in the report, Senator Feinstien, the chair of the senate committee, was tweeting responses in real time:

Brennan: "unknowable" if we could have gotten the intel other ways. Study shows it IS knowable: CIA had info before torture.

Many people have criticised the publishing of the Senate Committee's report, arguing it will lead to unrest around the world. That unrest comes because the USA with its western allies have taken the moral high ground in an interventionist approach to global politics. The report further damages the West's reputation as the defender of democracy and justice. The biblical warning in James' epistle applies in some ways here: "Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly" (James 3:1). The West too often takes the moral high ground in global politics as there still exists a colonial mindset in our engagement with other nations.

However this is not to argue that until western countries have achieved some kind of social and moral perfection they have no role to play in assisting other nations. Through bodies such as the United Nations we ought to play our part and exercise the responsibility that our unequal possession of so much of the world's material wealth gives us. Sadly our participation in torture hugely diminishes the West's ability to work for justice and democracy around the world.

4. What does torture do to us?

Jurgen Moltmann has written against torture.

German theologian Jurgen Moltman reminds us of Dante's words written over the entrance of Hell: 'Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.' "The same words might be written over every human torture chamber. No one comes out of it whole. No one comes out of it the same. Not the person tortured, and the torturer even less" (Jesus Christ for Today's World, Fortress Press p.58).

A Christian response to torture is concerned both about what it does to the person being tortured and what it does to the person doing the torturing. Torture dehumanises both the victim and the violater.

By committing acts of torture and disregarding commonly agreed codes of practice in war such as the Geneva Convention, you change the rules of engagement for those you seek to do battle with. Interestingly Grudem argues that the rights afforded by the Geneva convention do not apply to terrorists as they are a) targeting civilians b) not fighting in uniform (Politics According to the Bible, p. 427). Even if this were the case and the understanding of all human persons being made in the image of God is not persuasive, it must nevertheless be recognised that if you torture your captives, it is more likely that your combatants will also be tortured when captured too. Escalation of violence is a natural consequence, and one which, in my opinion, Christians cannot condone.

5. Where does Jesus stand on torture?

Christianity is familiar with torture. The cross of Christ is not just a means of execution but a long-drawn-out, tortuous death designed to exhibit the imperial might of Rome and the futility of standing against it. The fact that Jesus and so many of the early Christians were scourged, beaten, pummeled, humiliated and then executed in as painful a way as possible should make Christians think twice before endorsing torture. Jesus was deemed an enemy of the state and stripped of his rights, clearly identifying with the tortured, not the torturers. There are sadly too many times in the Church's history when the Church has forgotten whose side we are on, twisting the name of the crucified son of God to justify abusing and torturing our opponents. But Jesus commanded us to love our enemies. We are to show the same duty of care to our neighbours and our enemies ( Matthew 5). Even more clearly. we are told in Romans 12:17-20 not to repay anyone evil for evil and not to take revenge.

These clear commands of scripture and my understanding of Christ who alongside those who have been tortured is a brother in their suffering radically reshape my approach to torture.

I will leave the last words again to Jurgen Moltmann, who asks Christians to take a Christ centred view of torture:

"Christ's cross stands between the countless crosses set up by the powerful and the violent throughout history, down to the present day. It stood in the concentration camps, and stands today in Latin America and in the Balkans, and among those tortured by hunger in Africa. His suffering doesn't rob the suffering of those others of its dignity. He is among them as their brother, as a sign that God shares in our suffering and takes our pain on himself."

(Jesus Christ for Today's World, Fortress Press p.65).

For further reading see An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Terror,