On the Church and Society
March 31, 2007
The board of directors of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) endorsed on March 11 what the group called "a landmark document on human rights and torture." That's a bit strong. After all, a Christian group embracing human rights and condemning torture is not exactly earth shattering.
But then again, the document - titled "An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in An Age of Terror" - is notable for its narrow consideration and pacifistic implications. Indeed, in its absolutism, it turns out to be morally obtuse.
All Christians should acknowledge that torture is inhumane, evil and holds the potential to corrupt. But is the NAE document correct in asserting that torture is never justified?
In laying the groundwork, the NAE declaration observes: "The sanctity of life is the conviction that all human beings, in any and every state of consciousness or self-awareness, of any and every race, color, ethnicity, level of intelligence, religion, language, nationality, gender, character, behavior, physical ability/disability, potential, class, social status, etc., of any and every particular quality of relationship to the viewing subject, are to be perceived as sacred, as persons of equal and immeasurable worth and of inviolable dignity. Therefore they must be treated with the reverence and respect commensurate with this elevated moral status. This begins with a commitment to the preservation of their lives and protection of their basic rights. Understood in all of its fullness, it includes a commitment to the flourishing of every person's life."
That is a powerful statement for life on one level. But it also raises all kinds of questions on another. That is, what does this mean in terms of waging war, doing police work, doling out justice (including the death penalty) and fighting terrorists? After all, do not the actions of individuals and governments hold implications for how those individuals and governments are to be treated under certain circumstances? The most obvious example from the twentieth century would be Hitler and the Nazis.
A bit later in the NAE document, it is stated: "Human life is expressed through physicality, and the well-being of persons is tied to their physical existence. Therefore, humans must have the right to security of person. This includes the right not to have one's life taken unjustly (equivalent to the right to life), the right not to have one's body mutilated, and the right not to be abused, maimed, tortured, molested, or starved (sometimes called the right to bodily integrity or the right to remain whole)."
This points to the same questions mentioned above. However, the word "unjustly" comes into play now. That is, "the right not to have one's life taken unjustly." Are there cases where a life can be taken justly? Well, the NAE statement does not say so either way.
But it does go on to proclaim boldly: "Even when a person has done wrong, poses a threat, or has information necessary to prevent a terrorist attack, he or she is still a human being made in God's image, still a person of immeasurable worth. The crime we abhor, but we must distinguish the error from the person in error. A person might do inhuman acts, but is never inhuman. This distinction is excruciatingly difficult to make, which is all the more reason why we must be vigilant in doing so." Later, in the conclusion, it is added: "When torture is employed by a state, that act communicates to the world and to one's own people that human lives are not sacred, that they are not reflections of the Creator, that they are expendable, exploitable, and disposable, and that their intrinsic value can be overridden by utilitarian arguments that trump that value. These are claims that no one who confesses Christ as Lord can accept."
Christians should understand that we are all made in God's image; that every person, no matter the stage of physical, mental or even moral development, is fully human; and that one should hate the sin and love the sinner. Indeed, we are even supposed to pray for our enemies! At the same time, though, the state has a very real responsibility to protect its citizens and dole out justice.
Consider that the Christian Just War Theory, which is rooted in Holy Scripture, dictates that war must be in self-defense, to secure peace, to establish justice, to remedy injustice, to protect the innocent, or to defend human rights, while also being a last resort and waged under a formal declaration. As for conducting war, two principles must govern. First is proportionality, i.e., that war should the lesser of two evils, and the use of force should be in proportion to the evil and what is needed to secure peace and improve conditions. Second is discrimination, i.e., war should be against enemy combatants and military targets, with civilians and other noncombatants protected.
So what about torture and a just war? Does torture in the very rare and limited cases of extracting information from the ticking time bomb or the top level terrorist who has information about various terrorist campaigns fit in with war conducted under the Just War Theory? The case can be made that in limited, grave circumstances where mass murder seriously looms, aggressive interrogation tactics - yes, some form of torture - is proportional in terms of being the lesser of two evils, in proportion to the evil at hand, and the means to further peace. As for discrimination, two key requirements would be satisfied - war is being waged clearly against an enemy combatant, and since the work of terrorists is to specifically murder noncombatants, the purpose is to protect civilians and noncombatants.
Let's understand what the NAE is arguing through an example. A nuclear, chemical or biological weapon attack is imminent. U.S. authorities have captured a terrorist who quite likely has information regarding this attack, but he isn't talking. Are coercive measures - that is, some kind of torture - justified to get that information and save dozens, hundreds, or perhaps thousands of innocent lives? Would such action be morally justified?
The NAE clearly says no. Don't infringe upon the terrorist's human rights, and therefore, allow his act of war on innocent, noncombatants to proceed. That answer is reprehensible under any moral calculus, including the Christian Just War Theory.
The NAE statement declares that "when torture is employed by a state, that act communicates to the world and to one's own people that human lives are not sacred." Under most circumstances, that statement would be correct. However, this is not a moral absolute. There are those rare, grim times when torture actually becomes a moral imperative for a government. In fact, refraining from its use in that most rare of circumstances would tell the world and one's own people that human lives are not sacred.
Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, is the editor and publisher of the "On the Church & Society Report." This column is based on an article from the latest issue of the "On the Church & Society Report," which also features "Following the Money at the NCC," "The Pope on the Eucharist," and "Religious Freedom and the Department of Justice." To receive a free four-issue trial of "On the Church & Society Report," send an e-mail request to ChurchandSociety@aol.com.