You Can’t Be a Christian and Tolerate Torture

I‘ve run into a number of self-proclaimed Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) who openly proclaim they favor torture of detainees in the “war on terror.” I’ve always thought that’s a strange thing for a person whose Savior was tortured to death to say.

Arguments in favor of torture are particularly troubling for Christians. Here’s how pro-torture “Christians” typically start a conversation on torture: “I’m for torture. We’ve got to get information from detainees, and we aren’t going to get anything from them if we Mirandize every detainee on the battlefield and give them an ACLU lawyer and a comfortable prison cell with cable TV.”

That statement assumes that people apprehended – on the battlefield or otherwise – should be immediately tortured in order to get timely information. This means they should be tortured before being put on trial. If officials wait for a trial and then torture only those found guilty, the information won’t be timely by the time the torture is administered. That’s not only the problem, it’s the reason why many of those who have been tortured are innocent. (For a longer list of some innocents and an explanation of how innocents could be apprehended among actual terrorists, check out this book or this book.)

The whole point of giving the accused a trial is to sort the guilty from the innocent. While the effectiveness of torture is highly doubtful (American experts claimed it doesn’t work but were ignored by the Bush administration), there’s no denying that torture must include accidental torture of innocents if it is to be done in a timely manner. You simply can’t wait for a trial before the torture commences.

Torture of detainees has gone hand-in-hand with indefinite detention of these same detainees without trial under the Bush administration. Our Constitution’s Fifth Amendment requires that anyone apprehended be put on trial: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces….” In other words, everyone apprehended or detained by the U.S. government must either be charged under the criminal justice system and given a jury trial or tried under the military justice system (and therefore be accorded Geneva Convention military protections). That’s the unequivocal requirement of our Constitution, but the Bush administration didn’t follow the Constitution. The guilty detainees were never sorted from the innocent. Therefore, it’s now common knowledge that innocent people were detained and tortured along with the guilty. The Obama administration appears ready to continue this legacy, so long as it is not carried out at Guantanamo.

I also sometimes hear this particularly troubling argument among self-professed Christians: “The U.S. Constitution does not apply to foreigners. They are not entitled to the same rights as Americans.”

The first part of this statement is correct, because the Constitution’s Bill of Rights doesn’t apply to American citizens either. It applies to the government. The Bill of Rights was written to restrict the government. That’s why the Fifth Amendment says “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime.” The amendment makes no reference to citizens or non-citizens, but restricts the government from imprisoning any “person” without due process. The Eighth Amendment bans “cruel and unusual punishments” by the government, and it also makes no distinction between citizens and foreigners.

But the second part of the statement above that I often hear is particularly hypocritical for Christians. It’s an explicit repudiation of the Christian and American worldview that our “Creator” gave all men rights that are “inalienable.” The un-Christian advocate of torture sees rights only as alienable gifts and help for criminals who will be able to use them against society, though it’s hard to see how terrorist Timothy McVeigh was helped by having a trial. The Christian worldview is that all innocent people were protected by honoring McVeigh’s right to trial, as the right to trial prevents the execution of innocents. And here the Christian worldview coincides with the explicit wording of the Bill of Rights: Everyone, citizen and foreigner alike, enjoys the same inalienable rights.

How do some so-called Christians justify their very unchristian position in support of torture? “These people don’t respect human rights. They behead not only enemy soldiers, but also the civilians they capture.”

And if we do the same thing to innocent detainees that will make it right, they seem to imply. Here’s an alternative counter-argument I hear: “We can not afford to give full rights to detainees. That’s suicide.”

Our Founding Fathers and laws state otherwise. Moreover, the principles of Christianity the faithful claim to uphold also say the opposite. Do they really think it’s okay to occasionally torture an innocent detainee in order to save thousands? Occasionally, I do get a virtual “yes” to that question; it goes something like this: “I think it’s unfortunate if an innocent person is detained, but that’s the price we have to pay in the modern world for our safety. Yes, torturing one to save thousands is the tough choice we have to make.”

Ironically, Pontius Pilate might also have reasoned that he would save thousands who would have otherwise died in a violent rebellion by crucifying one innocent. Whenever I mention this, I always hear the following response: “You are really stretching things if you are comparing these scum-bag terrorists to Jesus Christ.”

And finally we’ve cut to the quick of why a Christian can’t possibly support torture. A Christian is required to believe that Christ is in our fellow man, especially including the prisoner. Recall the words of Matthew 25:34-46:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’

“And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’

“Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’

“He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’

“And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

If they really believe Christ is not in the prisoner, then they don’t believe the words of Christ himself. If self-professed Christians really believe it’s “suicide” to honor the Christ in the prisoner, can they really be believers? If they think that the Christian worldview is impractical, isn’t that a clear example of lack of faith?

The final, desperate counter-argument I sometimes hear is the theoretical “ticking time-bomb” scenario in favor of torture: “What if your wife or children were kidnapped, put in an underground chamber with only one hour left of air and you had the kidnapper before you. Would you not then torture to get the information in time?”

But this scenario is a chimera. It has never happened and probably never will outside of the fictional world of action movies and the television series 24. If the torture proponents had a real-world example, they would use it. But instances of innocents being tortured are legion, including multiple examples of detainees who were tortured to death. Here, the dishonesty in these “Christians” reveals itself. They refuse to acknowledge the reality that would continually re-create the torture/death of Christ among innocents, taking refuge instead in a fictional, anti-Christian worldview.

Americans – and especially Christians – need to recognize that torture by our own government is a far graver threat to liberty than a small number of wackos out in the world blowing themselves up in car bombs (and thereby taking themselves out of the gene pool). Terrorism is a manageable outside threat, but torture by our own government is a direct attack on the U.S. Constitution and the very fiber of liberty and our way of life.

There’s a confluence of interests among Christians and lovers of liberty on the issue of torture.The denial of our inalienable rights to trial and due process goes hand-in-hand with the injustice of torture. No foreign terrorist could impose such a sea-change in the nature of our government from without.