Why I am reluctant to call myself a Christian


The reason I am not Christian is because of Christians.

I came across that quote years ago, attributed to Gandhi. I can’t demonstrate that Gandhi actually said it, because I don’t know the original source. But the attribution makes sense:  Gandhi was profoundly influenced by Christ’s example of non-violent resistance, yet he never converted to Christianity.

I’m thinking about that quote this week because I am so deeply discouraged by my fellow Christians. I’ve also been thinking of Bruce Cockburn, who once professed at a concert:

I’m a Christian, but I’m not one of those Christians.

Cockburn made that statement during the Reagan/Bush 41 era. Presumably he’s still making the same apology; neo-conservative Christians haven’t improved any in the past 16 years.

Why am I about ready to disown my Christian brothers and sisters? Because white evangelicals are the most pro-torture of any demographic group in the USA.

That’s the conclusion I draw, based on a new survey carried out by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. According to white evangelical Protestants, the use of torture against suspected terrorists is often (18%) or sometimes (44%) justified. That’s a combined 62% who support torture.

Note the following three points about the survey:

  • It referred explicitly to “torture” (not something mealy-mouthed like “enhanced interrogation techniques” ).
  • It asked about the torture of “suspected terrorists”, not “terrorists” — there’s a big difference.
  • In this survey, “sometimes justified” is a clear expression of support for torture. It’s the middle option between “often justified” and “rarely justified”.

By way of contrast, consider people who attend religious services seldom or never. Respondents in that category indicated that the use of torture is rarely (27%) or never (26%) justified.

It makes me sick that 62% of white evangelical Protestants support torture, compared to only 42% of non church-goers. (5% answered “Don’t know”, or declined to answer the question.)

Last March, I asked the question, “Whose side of the torture issue is Jesus on?” I posted three artists’ interpretation of the crucifixion —

Christ crucified triptych

— and then I answered the question:  “He’s on the side of the tortured.”

The argument is incontrovertible. I have no patience for Christians who rationalize torture:  they are siding with the Pharisees and the Romans.

They are siding against Jesus. After all, Jesus was a suspected insurrectionist.

Around the time of that post, I was engaged in a fierce debate with several Christian scholars. I use the term advisedly:  they were highly educated pastors and professors; some of them had published weighty theology books.

And yet they defended the U.S. government’s practice of torturing suspected terrorists. I was so demoralized by my interaction with them that I abandoned my theology blog.

I understand that Christ isn’t responsible for everything that’s done in his name. But we’ve been using that excuse for decades, for everything from the Inquisition and the Crusades to priests who sexually abuse boys. If I was willing to do so, I could just add torture to that list.

In the same way, a lot of conservatives are now saying that George W. Bush wasn’t actually a conservative. (Not because of Bush’s record on torture, which conservatives continue to defend, but because of Bush’s fiscal profligacy.) By distinguishing between Bush and conservatism, conservatives can reject the former and continue to embrace the latter.

There’s a problem with that rationale, as Josh Marshall points out:

Political philosophies aren’t based in pundits or really good books. They’re a matter of political movements — parties, records in office, political institutions, all of which exist in the fallen world of constrained options.

In other words, conservatives can’t construct a castle in the air and label it “conservatism”. Well — they can, but they shouldn’t expect anyone to find it persuasive. The model is constructed in an imaginary world where politicians aren’t constrained by hard choices between this and that mutually exclusive option.

Conservatism is what conservatism does, in the real world. Likewise, at some point we have to conclude that Christianity is what Christianity does.

I know that Christians do a lot of good in the world. I’m inclined to blame the worst sins on Church leaders, rather than layfolk. But it’s yer ordinary white evangelical layfolk who expressed support for the torture of suspected terrorists.

I’m reluctant to be associated with believers like those. Thus I find my thoughts turning to that Cockburn quote:  “I’m a Christian, but I’m not one of those Christians.”

That’s how I feel on a good day. On a bad day, I think Gandhi made the right decision.


24 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. aaron
    May 03, 2009 @ 19:08:40

    Not being religious myself, I can’t fully empathize with this feeling you have with respect to Christianity. At the same time, I’ve found myself in a similar state, after the Iraqi invasion and traveling outside of the U.S. — “I’m from the United States, but I’m not one of those Americans.” And there was a time when Kathy and I considered leaving the U.S., after Bush was re-elected — if my countrymen could re-elect such a person, then maybe I shouldn’t be an American.

    In some ways it’s easier to abandon one’s religion than one’s country — the former takes but a decision while the latter takes bureaucracy plus moving. But of course, your faith is such a major part of who you are. I can’t imagine your not being Christian, simply because others who consider themselves such believe (and do) such awful things. As you know, there are many branches of Protestantism, and there are some that share your beliefs with respect to the appropriateness of torture (as well as other issues), e.g., Quakerism (as my wife will proudly attest). Just because the pro-torture branches presume to speak for all of Protestantism doesn’t mean that they do.

  2. bridgett
    May 04, 2009 @ 10:02:23

    Just a hunch about evangelical protestants: I would blame the leaders anyway because I haven’t met many evangelicals who aren’t completely enraptured by their preacher. There is also the cognitive dissonance regarding anti-abortion pro-torture evangelicals that makes me think it’s all about the church leaders–they have a political angle they’re taking, and that party must be right in all cases across the board. Evangelicals, again, in my experience, do not do well with shades of gray. It must be all correct or all evil.

    And Aaron is right: the traditional peace churches (like the Quakers) have been on the correct side of every human rights issue, in my opinion, since their founding. Anti-slavery, pro-women’s rights, anti-war, anti-torture, and so on.

    There was a time when Catholicism had made me so hopeless and bitter that the Friends looked like the way to go–I wound up staying Catholic, for many stubborn reasons I’ve mentioned before in many places (I still sometimes wish I’d made the leap), but there are Christians who are still Christian. I have found, though, in my limited experience, that the true Christians have a healthy dose of skepticism about everything from hierarchy to virgin birth. They transcend the magical thinking and really live the way, truth, and life of Christ’s message.

  3. billarends
    May 04, 2009 @ 10:48:36

    When I read the first part of your article the first thing that came to mind was the Forest Gump slogan “Stupid is as Stupid does.” I was please to see your reword later that “Christianity is what Christianity does.” That said, the definition of a Christian does not change, only how we perceive one does. Consider the following:

    James 2:14-17 (New International Version)
    14. What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15. Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17. In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

    How does this relate to the topic? Simple, if we abandon our beliefs and do not act on them, do we truly believe them, or is our faith dead?

    Biblically there is no support for torture rather it is said:

    Proverbs 25:21-21 says;
    21 If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
    if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.

    22 In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
    and the LORD will reward you.

    Is this not contrary to torture? If a Christian can call himself a Christian and support torture how alive is his faith? Christ calls us to be in the world but not of it. Our mindset should be based on words such as that above, not the hatred that leads us to toture our enemies.

    I like Bruce Cockburn’s point “I’m a Christian, but I’m not one of those Christians.” mainly because as you can see while I would never question someone’s claim to be Christian it is not my place to do so, I do harbour internally the belief that there are many out there that would claim to be Christian but there is no evidence that they are. They may claim to be Christians but how useful is a dead faith?

    I like your corelation to the current nest of so called Christians to Pharasees. I suspect we are back to that same situation that existed at the time of Christ.

    Like Aaron I believe ” Just because the pro-torture branches presume to speak for all of Protestantism doesn’t mean that they do.”

  4. nebcanuck
    May 04, 2009 @ 13:38:26

    A friend of mine once spoke of missionaries to the Middle East who he knew, who had abandoned the title “Christian” because of the association with the West. To them, the term Christian had a particularly strong link with pornographer, apparently, to the extent that the impression they were given when they heard that someone was a Christian was that the person was possibly a salesperson of pornography.

    The friend and I got into a friendly debate over the validity of the decision to reject the term “Christian”. To him, it was valid that the missionaries would ask “what do you mean by Christian?” when someone asked them whether they were one, and if the response was primarily negative then they would simply reply “then no, I am not a Christian”. Instead, they would use “follower of Jesus” or somesuch, in order to reaffirm the link between Christ and themselves — similar to the thoughts of Gandhi or Cockburn.

    From my perspective, that’s a hard decision, although I came to agree that it’s not a terrible one. Christians have carried the title right from the early Church through history, and to reject the title outright is difficult for me to emotionally accept. After all, is it not better to renew the meaning of a word through your own actions than to allow other people to continue soiling it? Should Bibles be changed by Jesus followers to alter the term “Christian”, so that people reading it don’t draw connections between “Christians” today and the early Church? It seems to me that there is power in a title.

    But by the same token, to insist that strongly on keeping the term would verge on term-worship. Clearly following Christ and being able to witness to people is more important than retaining a title. So the question then becomes: In our culture, is the term as far-gone as the survey suggests? I know people I encounter don’t yet connect “Christian” with “torturer”. And I consider it a blessing that I thus don’t have to choose between the name and the witness, yet.

    I would also respond to one comment:

    But of course, your faith is such a major part of who you are. I can’t imagine your not being Christian, simply because others who consider themselves such believe (and do) such awful things.

    I think it’s important to point this out, although most reading probably know it already. But Christianity is not simply about connecting a faith with your identity. If the only reason it’s difficult to give up on Christianity is because you were raised with it and are emotionally connected with it, then it’s not worth much anyways.

    The truth is, I can’t give up on being a “Jesus follower”, because Christ is Truth. To reject that would be no simpler than trying to state that I am not typing this message on a laptop computer. It’s not an issue of attachment to the faith, it’s an issue of Truth.

    However, I could conceivably attempt to change the term connected to the laptop, and say that I was writing this on an electronic information processing unit. It would be awkward, and not enjoyable to attempt to convince others to do the same, but if I needed to I could do it. But I could never understand the process as anything different than what it is, and that’s the same with Christianity. I would hope that Dad (Stephen) is not arguing that he would abandon the actual faith, so much as the term Christian, which is important to understand the distinction being made throughout the post.

  5. Brian
    May 04, 2009 @ 13:46:55

    As Christians, isn’t it wonderful that we have the freedom to think and say these things ? My faith and understanding of the world is evolving and I can only hope that if I was in a position of political influence, that my vision would be clear and my voice articulate. It’s not unusual for Church (and other faith hierarchies) to close ranks when it comes to war. I remember visiting an Anglican Church in Ireland where the sculptures and tributes spoke more to the cause and remembrance of war than to the Christian message. I found the church to be spiritually cold. That said, we have an individual faith that expresses itself corporately through society and our institutions. We must as individuals advocate for what our faith and conscience suggest through whatever means is available to us including the voting polls.

  6. Stephen
    May 04, 2009 @ 15:05:55

    • Aaron:
    Thank you for leaving such a supportive comment. It is very thoughtful of you, given that you do not practice a faith of your own. The issues aren’t so simple for me, though — more on that below.

    • Bridgett:
    Your point is well taken about church leaders. Many people (and not just religious people) want to be told what to think and how to behave. But I also think it’s an issue of the church conforming to the surrounding culture: in this case, Americans thinking in terms of narrow, national self-interest, instead of thinking Christianly. Further thoughts below.

    • Bill:
    You’re right in what you affirm — the Bible does not countenance torture. But it doesn’t really respond to the issue that I have, which is that the church is too often on the wrong side of major ethical controversies, regardless of scripture and the example of Christ.

    • Benjamin:
    It’s hard for me to say this, but the issue I’m addressing here does trouble my faith — not just my embrace of the label, Christian.

    According to 2Cor. 5:17, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old is gone; the new (person) has come!

    If the Gospel is true, Christians have been spiritually regenerated — reborn. Christians no longer judge according to the flesh.

    I’m not such an idealist that I think Christians will never hold an erroneous belief, or suffer moral confusion. But admitting that Christians remain imperfect is not the same thing as saying that we will lack moral discernment on an issue as black and white as torture. Or the church winking at child abuse, or initiating a children’s crusade. Moral failure on that scale suggests that the dogma of spiritual regeneration is false.

    Bill suggested one possible solution: accept that a lot of church-goers (62%?) are not saved and therefore unregenerate.

    I also think there’s merit to the suggestion of Aaron and Bridgett: maybe there are some Christian institutions (e.g. the Quakers) which have not fallen into grave moral error.

    I’m still inclined to side with Cockburn rather than Gandhi, and remain a Christian (albeit an apologetic one). But this post is intended to be very sombre in tone. Moral failure on such a massive scale calls the Gospel itself into question, in my view.

    • Brian:
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s true that Christians must be considered as individuals, apart from the church as an institution. But 62%? That’s a lot of individuals who seem to be walking in unregenerate darkness.

    • Brian
      May 04, 2009 @ 21:26:01

      I’d like to reply to Bridgett’s comment. A good and wise friend has suggested that ‘the American right’ has supported/excused the war in Iraq, torture and other atrocities (e.g. environmental degradation) out of a sense of ‘corporate guilt’. To admit fault with one’s leadership (especially if it professes to represent ‘Christian’ views) would be to admit a problem with how those views manifest themselves through the pragmatism of government decisions. Thank God we technically have a separation between church and state. Scripture answers the question “Can a soldier get to heaven ?” We can only pray that our leaders make the best decision they can given the difficult circumstances they face.

      • Stephen
        May 05, 2009 @ 08:55:56

        I think praying for our leaders is an excellent idea. But doesn’t it matter whether Christians pray in support of torture, or in opposition to torture?

  7. nebcanuck
    May 04, 2009 @ 16:25:34

    If the Gospel is true, Christians have been spiritually regenerated — reborn. Christians no longer judge according to the flesh.


    Bill suggested one possible solution: accept that a lot of church-goers (62%?) are not saved and therefore unregenerate.

    I don’t want to oversimplify the issue. But I’d say there’s the answer right there.

    The early Church never foresaw an age when Christians were a majority. Much less did they foresee an age when the term “Christian” was a brand name which could be plastered all over a person to make it seem like they were Vogue with God. But that’s what we see in the Southern United States.

    Now, to reach the figure of 62% based solely on torture opinion would be, of course, wrong. Although I agree wholeheartedly with the fact that no Christian could support torture if they considered it thoroughly, I would equally argue that the problem here is that poor teaching has likely led a portion of these people to believe that the Bible is purely utilitarian. Does this nullify their faith? No more than a Christian persisting in a drug culture, or failing to love their wife sacrificially, or being a cleptomaniac would. The best description of salvation I can think of is in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, where he points out that people start in a different spot, and thus it is where a person is compared to where they would be without Christ which determines whether they are truly a Christ follower. And that’s hard for us as humans to determine.

    Essentially, we have to see people brought up in a violently conservative culture as being at a disadvantaged starting point, similar to a person brought up in a drug-filled home. Perhaps they will never entirely shake that violent lack of empathy for human beings which they were taught when they were younger. But if one sees the breaking of that spirit, and the person grows to show signs of a Christian empathy, then they are probably experiencing Christ in their life. On the other hand, if they go about their life justifying their beliefs by misquoting scriptures and ignoring the rival claims, then they likely are pretenders.

    So is 62% too high a number? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I don’t think we could base it on one single characteristic, either way. But the fact remains that Christianity is a popular religion to “possess” in the States, and so there’s bound to be a large portion of people who aren’t truly following the teachings. That, combined with the relative comfort and stagnancy of our culture for the last hundred years, and I would say that half of the Christians could easily be pretenders.

    What I do know is that I am daily immersed in the lives of people who are witnessing the spiritual regeneration offered by Christ. In my various opportunities here in Peterborough, I have met a verity of people, some who have been completely turned around by a personal encounter with God. Christianity is not a utilitarian faith. I will not ascribe to the belief that if the majority are living a lie, then it somehow undermines the faith. Rather, I’ve experienced change in my life, and seen it in others, and I have no doubt of the Truth of Christ as a result. The gospel isn’t threatened by torture-ascribing bigots any more than it was threatened by the small scale of Jesus’ initial ministry, or the violence that the Roman Empire unleashed when the Church began to form, because ultimately it doesn’t depend on these things, it depends solely on God.

  8. billarends
    May 04, 2009 @ 16:25:59

    The problem is as you note That “the church is too often on the wrong side of major ethical controversies, regardless of scripture and the example of Christ. ” The answer I am suggesting is not only are a large percentage of Christians taking on the name eroniously but that Being a Christian is seperate from the percieved Church . The scriptural passages show there is a gap between the what calls itself the church today and the beliefs one finds in the bible. The true church (the body of true believers) obviously could not support someting as unethical as torture. Therefore is there a solid connection between Christianity and the Church not meaning the body of true believers but the social entity we call the church. Your right the fact that “a lot of church-goers (62%?) are not saved and therefore unregenerate. ” tends to make the image of Christianity very negative, so we tend to want to shake off the label. I don’t think this is needed I think we need to work harder to shake of the connection between the percieved church and our Christianity.

  9. billarends
    May 04, 2009 @ 16:55:38

    Sorry nebcanuck our posts crossed. so if what I said did not address what you said thus is the reason.

    I tend to agree but still hold that we need to reconsider what we define as the Church. I am not sure about your comment that “The gospel isn’t threatened by torture-ascribing bigots” I too feel among some of my Christian friends that spiritual regeneration offered by Christ, at work, but I also see the work of hatred and emotions contrary to Christianity. I see everyday Christians that say things like “I hope Osama Bin Laden burns in hell” or “there is a special place in hell for X’s.” when we all know that our job is to save people from such a fate (even though I suspect we don’t agree to what hell actually is). I don’t think that that 62% are pretending to be Christians, but rather they make the claim having NO IDEA AT ALL what it is to be a Christian and that angers me as you can tell. I know people will disagree with me but I don’t see how it is possible that a person who is not a pacifist could be a Christian. I could be wrong, but I think we all too often read to defend our belefs and emotion, and not to learn the heart of Christ. Stephen’s pictures of Christ’s suffer graphically show that no Christian should support torture.

    To address my point that people erroniously take on the moniker of Christian though, there are many people in institutions that beleive they are Napoleon or Queen Elizabeth. They actually feel they are these people. Like these I suspect that the 62% (just for a name)are likely spiritually deluded as much as spiritually regenerated. Now that I look back at several congregations I was a member of and felt what I thought was the spirit of Christ, now with what I think of as mature beliefs I can’t see how it was possible that true spiritual regeneration was actually happening in the life of many in the congregation.

    I have heard many words of wisdom from pulpits and many words of nonsense. I once heard a paster say it was fine to love money so long as you were doing good with that money, which of course was said just before they took the offering. Christians are everywhere, but unfortunately hard to find in some churches.

  10. aaron
    May 04, 2009 @ 16:55:52

    Stephen, I didn’t mean to suggest that the answers are simple, and my apologies if I did.

    Sleeping on it for a night, I came up with a couple of other responses. In particular, one option before you is to fight for what you know is right, i.e., instead of finding solutions outside the church (such as leaving Christianity or finding another sect), work to change it from within. Of course, that’s a hard and often lonely task, but knowing your passion, I could readily see you engaging those who support torture.

    Also, I think it’s worth noting that the 62% figure you’re citing is highly misleading. First, it excludes blacks, which makes sense if you’re trying to examine demographics, but not if you’re trying to understand the views of those who have that religious belief, as you are. Second, the poll separated out evangelicals from “mainline protestants,” which opposed torture 53-46. Third, of course, is that the figure is of Americans, not of Evangelicals the world over. Fourth, attitudes change, and can change back. I did a google search, and I came across a January 2008 article stating that in a poll of American Evangelicals, ending torture (68%) was one of the five most important issues for them — http://www.christianpost.com/Society/Polls_reports/2008/01/evangelicals-defy-stereotypes-more-liberal-on-issues-24/index.html. And fifth, a single poll can generate lots of reaction, but shouldn’t be taken as reliable unless it’s extremely extensive. While I have a lot of respect for Pew, a sample of 174 is hardly reliable.

  11. Stephen
    May 05, 2009 @ 10:09:24

    Let me begin by responding to Aaron, whose questions challenge the premises of my argument.

    It’s true that the survey sample size was small. I don’t think the 62% figure can be understood to be precise. It’s more of a ballpark figure.

    And I appreciate the link you provided, which reminds me that at least some evangelicals are having second thoughts about torture. (“Reminds me”, because I remember being encouraged by the anti-torture statement that the article refers to, when it was first announced.)

    But the Pew survey isn’t the only such survey I’ve read about, which shows evangelical (and, to a lesser extent, Roman Catholic) support for torture. Jewish Atheist has linked to at least one such study in the past.

    It’s also based on the reality that white evangelicals were Bush’s staunchest supporters. Not just because of torture, I’m sure. But torture is part of a package of support for getting tough on “moral reprobates”: the war on drugs, the death sentence, criminalization of abortion, opposition to even civil protections for same sex couples, and war in Iraq, Iran, and maybe elsewhere. I would put support for gun rights in the same general category.

    Torture is consistent with the other elements of the package. And I find the package, as such, disturbing. I’m sympathetic re abortion and opposition to drugs, and I understand why same sex marriage is regarded as moral issue. But in all three cases I think current policy is doing more harm than good. And the package as such is all about hostility toward the “other” and using the coercive powers of the state to enforce a uniform morality. I don’t think the approach is consistent with the spirit of Christ.

    Re the survey’s exclusion of blacks: this is evidence that white evangelicals are captive to culture, not “captive” to Christ (as evangelicals sometimes put it). Blacks have a different culture, with divergent mores.

    That’s precisely the issue for me. “Regenerate” implies you’re not captive to your culture, but you’re responding to a different stimulus (the Holy Spirit). If white evangelicals are captive to culture, it gives rise to the issues I described above. Where is regeneration and rebirth? Where is the new creation, the new person, if Christians are clones of the surrounding culture? Where is the mind of Christ, and judging not according to the flesh?

  12. Stephen
    May 05, 2009 @ 11:29:31

    Bill and Benjamin:
    I think we’re all seeing the same data, but interpreting it differently.

    I’m unwilling to conclude that 62% (or 50%, or whatever) of church-goers are not actually Christians. To me, that’s too convenient an out: like the Calvinist argument that Christians can never lose their salvation so, whenever anyone backslides, they conclude that s/he was never a true Christian to begin with.

    I agree, speaking as a former pastor, that an awful lot of Christians don’t show much evidence of spiritual life. The Christians Benjamin is describing, who do reform their lives and otherwise demonstrate that they’re in Christ, are exceptional.

    I conclude that those Christians are more determined, more motivated, than others. But that suggests they are succeeding on the basis of their own will and concerted effort.

    I know the Bible expects Christians to do their part (“work out your salvation with fear and trembling …”), but God is supposed to meet us half way (“… for it is God who works in you both to will and to do his good pleasure”).

    Of course Christians would prefer to find fault with their fellow chuch-goers if the alternative is to find fault with God. But I’m just saying: a failure of moral discernment on such a fundamental, unambiguous issue causes me to doubt the efficacy of the Gospel.

    As I said: same data, different interpretation.

  13. John Hobbins
    May 23, 2009 @ 21:51:51


    Sorry that I am late to the party. Since you stopped blogging regularly on matters theological, I lost track a bit. Good to see you jump back into the fray.

    Three comments:

    (1) There are many different things that are sometimes defined as torture, and sometimes are not. It is not a black-and-white issue. Few issues where war is involved, which by definition involves the use of violence to defend against violence, are. Across the board, in war the issue of what kind of violence and within what limits, is permissible, is controversial, something about which reasonable people are known to disagree. Furthermore,

    (2) From a classical Christian point of view, the use of aggressive interrogation techniques, (1) death-inducing, (2) life-threatening, and (3) non-life-threatening, to name three categories, are *examples only* of acts of grave moral transgression of the kind committed in war on a regular basis.

    War in general, the killing and maiming that goes on in the process, not just cases of (1)-(3) above, involves sinning in the absolute sense on a massive scale. The only possible stance of a believer under arms in war is to kill or maim the enemy knowing full well that the act per se is evil and requires forgiveness.

    (3) That being the case, it’s not exactly obvious why examples of (3) above are never permissible, whereas, as things stand now in international law, a long list of war acts the prosecution of which are known to cause great human suffering and the certitude of loss of life and limb, including collateral damage of perfectly innocent people, are nonetheless permissible.

    I am not making this up. That of which I speak is going on right now, for example, by means of negotiated cooperation between the US + allies and a democratically elected government in Iraq, and by means of a NATO-led effort in cooperation with a democratically elected government in Afghanistan.

    To put it very harshly, we know with absolute certitude that the Obama administration and allies, by staying the course in these stabilization efforts, along the way will be directly responsible for the collateral loss of innocent life, for some 8 year girl getting her arms and legs blown off.

    We predestine the occurrence of those events. The only thing we don’t know for sure (since we lack full omniscience): which 8 year old girl it will be.

    War is hell. The only reason why someone ought to engage in it – and this applies to waterboarding as well, is that *not to do so*, and the possible consequences of not doing so, seem even more inhumane.

  14. Stephen
    May 24, 2009 @ 10:46:23

    • John:
    Thanks for dropping by with a comment. If nothing else, you illustrate my point (i.e., there are Christian scholars who support torture).

    You lose credibility immediately because of your first point. It is unbecoming for an educated person to split hairs about what is and isn’t torture. Consider this account of stress positions:

    MPs uncuffed Omar [Khadr]’s arms, pulled them behind his back, and recuffed them to his legs, straining them badly at their sockets. At the junction of his arms and legs he was again bolted to the floor and left alone.

    The degree of pain a human body experiences in this from of “stress positioning” can quickly lead to delirium, and ultimately to unconsciousness. Before that happened, the MPs returned, forced Omar onto his knees, and cuffed his wrists and ankles together behind his back. This made his body into a kind of bow, his torso convex and rigid, right at the limit of its flexibility. The force of his cuffed wrists straining upward against his cuffed ankles drove his kneecaps into the concrete floor. The guards left.

    An hour or two later they came back, checked the tautness of the chains between his hands and feet, and pushed him over onto his stomach. Transfixed in his bonds, Omar toppled like a figurine. Again they left. Many hours had passed since Omar had been taken from his cell.

    I repeat, for emphasis, “The degree of pain a human body experiences in this from of “stress positioning” can quickly lead to delirium, and ultimately to unconsciousness.” It is intellectually dishonest to argue that moral people — supposedly regenerate people — might legitimately disagree over whether or not such treatment rises to the level of torture.

    Furthermore, it’s a rather Pharisaical trick to focus attention on each individual item in the list of approved “enhanced interrogation techniques”, in order to consider them in isolation from one another. What we have here is a program: a program of progressively more severe abuse, designed to break a person’s will so that they will say anything to get the abuse to stop.

    It’s the program as a whole which must be considered. Days extending into weeks and perhaps months: one act of cruelty following another, each act a little more barbaric than the one preceding it, until a person is left physically and psychologically broken, in utter despair.

    Yes, it is torture. And you lose enormous credibility by trying to justify the conduct as anything less.

    On your later point: it is true that civilians die in war. It is true that any time someone drops a bomb or fires a missile, s/he is likely to kill innocent bystanders as well as the intended target.

    For that reason, I have arrived at a conviction that Christians should always make the case against war, instead of cheerleading it. Even if we suspect war might be justified in a particular, desperate instance, plenty of other people will step forward to make that case. Why shouldn’t Christians take our stand as conscientious objectors — arguing for peace on behalf of the “Prince of Peace”?

    “Blessed are the peacemakers,” as a Man who perfectly bore the image of God once put it.

    I’m disinterested in the “classical Christian point of view”. I take my stand with the argument of my original post: Jesus was a victim of torture, not a perpetrator of torture. If classical Christians couldn’t see clearly on that point, that’s no excuse for us to follow them into error.

  15. Stephen
    May 24, 2009 @ 10:54:49

    p.s. Re this point:

    War is hell. The only reason why someone ought to engage in it […] is that *not to do so*, and the possible consequences of not doing so, seem even more inhumane.

    As I said above, your argument is highly Pharisaical:

    So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the Council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”

    But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”

    Caiaphas prophesied, of course. But it’s also a great example of Johannine irony. Caiaphas meant exactly what you say above: “We’re justified in arranging for this man to be crucified because the alternative is so awful.”

    Thus every torturer applies balm to his conscience.

  16. John Hobbins
    May 24, 2009 @ 20:16:42


    It is wise, I think, to abstain from the kind of moral clarity you take refuge in. That moral clarity protects you from having to make the kind of decisions one wishes would never have to be made. You leave those decisions to others, but they do have to be made.

    You exempt yourself from the moral responsibility of weighing the pros and cons of the use of violence, what species, and within what limits; you burden others with that task. You cast aspersions on them (Pharisees one and all) along the way. You wish to convince fellow-Christians to leave the ethics of the use of violence (an oxymoron, clearly, in your book) to these same “hair-splitters.”

    Are you surprised that few Christians believe as you do? You shouldn’t be. Your facile understanding of the politics of war – cheerleaders on one side, intransigent opponents on the other – is the figment of a moral imagination infected with Manichean dualism. If it takes an uneducated mind to grasp this, I count myself fortunate to be uneducated.

    You recoil at the thought of making decisions which involve justifying a calibrated use of violence. But elected officials, police chiefs, army officers, and intelligence agents do not have that luxury.

    You are a rich man, Stephen. A friend of mine, an FBI agent, specializes in discovering ways to foil those who bomb public places. After serving in efforts of that kind domestically, he volunteered to do the same in Iraq. He saw the same images of men, women, and children blown up in funeral processions and vegetable markets that you and I did. Alongside of intelligence agents who sought to extract useful information from individuals caught in the act and other detainees, he sought ways to stay one step ahead of the mass murderers. He is not a rich man like you, Stephen. He is poor in the moral purity you treasure. I stand with him, not you.

    US Presidents Clinton, Bush, and now Obama, all self-identifying Christians, a vast array of figures within their administrations and in Congress tasked with specific “hair-splitting” responsibilities, have reserved the right to make decisions of the kind you reject making on principle. Excluding mere politicians, who by definition say whatever you want them to say, it is rare to find someone of their number spouting verities of the kind you hold dear. They allow for exceptions: you do not. They are inconsistent. You are consistent. I stand with them, not with you.

    Across the world, police chiefs responsible for the welfare of citizens in gang-infested metropolises authorize the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on a case-by-case basis, legally or extra-legally, as the situation requires. I stand with them, not with you.

    I stand with them, precisely because I am a “Christian scholar,” not with a pundit like you.

    The faith-structure I work from accommodates within itself not only the passages you cite, but the entire Old and New Testaments.

    The people I stand with do not always exercise their offices wisely, with sufficient prudence, or with the necessary balance of justice and mercy. Far from it. Some of them deserve to be prosecuted for their heinous acts. Not by you, a pundit, but in a military tribunal or a civil court as the case requires. And some of them have. I stand with them, the guilty included, not you.

    It appears that you as a Christian feel that someone else, a non-Christian, should make the dirty calculations for you, because peacemakers, in your book, should not sully their consciences with the calculus of violence.

    It is Memorial Day weekend in the United States. I am not about to dishonor the dead and wounded by adopting your purist stance. The dead and wounded did not, nor do the living who honor their memory.

    Your conscience is clean, Stephen. Mine is not. Still, I do not envy you.

  17. Brian
    May 24, 2009 @ 20:56:17

    On Dylan’s new album – Together Through Life – he has a track entitled ‘It’s All Good’. He refers to women leaving their men – again something that doesn’t fit neatly into the direct teachings of scripture. It seems to reflect a ‘yin and yang’ view of creation – yes we fail and we fall but somehow God’s redemptive love encompasses all of this. Thank you John for speaking to the issue of pragmatism in a world where ‘the enemy’ does not abide by the Marquess of Queensberry’s rules.

  18. Stephen
    May 25, 2009 @ 07:53:58

    • John:
    Let me begin by pointing out that I made three arguments. You’ve responded to the middle argument, but not the first and third.

    You accuse me of moral clarity — of moral smugness, I suppose. Allow me to quote from the UN Convention on Torture, which was signed by that well-known liberal bleeding heart, Ronald Reagan:

    Article 1.
    1. For the purposes of this Convention, torture means 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.

    Also this:

    Article 2
    2. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

    The declaration is clear and unequivocal, and the United States is signatory to it. Accuse me of moral clarity if you will, but I’m honoured to display the same degree of moral clarity as Ronald Reagan in this instance.

    Now, for the arguments to which you did not respond. First, I said that you lost credibility when you equivocated over what is and isn’t torture. I quoted a specific account — “The MPs returned, forced Omar onto his knees, and cuffed his wrists and ankles together behind his back. This made his body into a kind of bow, his torso convex and rigid, right at the limit of its flexibility.”

    Isn’t it clear ( clear, as in moral clarity ) that the technique described amounts to torture?

    I would make a similar argument in the case of extreme temperatures. I once read an account of Navy Seals plunging a detainee into ice water. They monitored his core body temperature by means of a rectal thermometer. They reduced his core body temperature until he was on the verge of death. Then the warmed him up. Then they put him back in the ice water and began the process again.

    Isn’t it clear that such techniques rise to the level of torture?

    I argued, further, that you have to consider the whole program, and not cherry-pick individual techniques. I think torture opponents have fallen into a trap here, with their fixation on waterboarding. The real issue is a program of progressively escalating cruelty carried out over weeks or even months until a detainee is reduced to utter misery and despair. Even, in a case like Jose Padilla’s, permanent psychological damage.

    You’re offended that I accuse you of splitting hairs. But I think you know these techniques rise to the level of torture. I think you lack the integrity to take a clear stand — to argue, explicitly, that sometimes torture is justified. You lack the integrity to call torture, torture, because you don’t want to acknowledge that your government is guilty of committing war crimes. “My country, right or wrong.”

    And so you equivocate, and engage in sophistry and casuistry. And you accuse me of possessing too much moral clarity. But I see the issue differently. The issue to me is, you actually believe that torture is justified in present circumstances. But you refuse to argue explicitly on those grounds. Instead, you equivocate with this “maybe it’s torture, and maybe it isn’t” argument.

    Let me turn to the next question, then: is torture ever justified?

    It’s nice that you stand with your government — President Bush, against Presidents Obama and Reagan — and with American soldiers and police officers. But is there no point at which you would draw the line? Does a Christian scholar have no point of moral clarity — a point at which a certain kind of dirty deed simply cannot be justified?

    I ask because your pro torture argument seems to imply that Presidents, soldiers, and police officers can do anything whatsoever that they deem necessary for the sake of national security.

    You cited the “classical Christian point of view”. Let me cite the Roman Catholic construct of intrinsic evil.

    As I understand it, torture is an intrinsic evil which cannot be justified by an appeal to the context in which the deed is committed. As the UN Convention on Torture puts it, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

    I ask you: is there no point at which a Christian conscience rebels, and says, “This is just plain wrong”?

    Finally: I’m sure you were offended by my appeal to Caiaphas. But you also didn’t respond to the argument. Isn’t your justification formally parallel to Caiaphas’s justification of Christ’s crucifixion?

    I don’t make that argument accidentally. I believe that anyone who supports torture puts himself on the side of the Sanhedrin and the Romans who crucified Jesus. You illustrated my point very nicely with the justification you supplied.

    • Brian:
    No, the enemy doesn’t play by “the Marquess of Queensberry’s rules”. That’s one of the pro-torture talking points. You have absorbed it, just as you were intended to.

    I ask you the same question I put to John: is there no point at which a Christian conscience must rebel? The enemy doesn’t play by Marquess of Queensbury rules — so it’s OK for us to commit torture.

    What isn’t it OK for us to do, in that case?

  19. billarends
    May 25, 2009 @ 14:12:43

    Being pragmatic is lowering your standards to accept a normally unacceptable out come. the whole Idea of desperate time leading to desperate means is nonsense. A man who can abandon his ideals for expedience has none. Just because the enemy does not play by the rules is no excuse.

    Proverbs 25:20-22 is quite clear on torturing your enemies, it should never happen. On the contrary we are called to be kind to them. It is clear there are no grey areas. If you interpret it differently it would seem obvious that you are looking for justification of the unjustifiable.

    Proverbs 25:20-22

    20 Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on soda, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.

    21 If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.

    22 In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.

  20. billarends
    May 25, 2009 @ 14:17:24

    I strongly believe that anyone that can condone torture has a part in thier soul that Jesus hasn’t touched, an evil sore that will inevitably eat away at the love of God.

  21. John Hobbins
    May 26, 2009 @ 17:07:43


    I am happy to go back and forth on this with you. I appreciate your candor and am not taken aback by your slashing style. I will return the favor.

    I agree with the concept of intrinsic evil. (1) It is an intrinsic evil to torture anyone under any circumstances, even if that torture is non-life-threatening and serves to save the lives of other people. (2) It is an intrinsic evil to kill someone under any circumstances, even if that killing serves to head off potentially greater killing by the party killed. (3) It is an intrinsic evil to maim anyone under any circumstances, even if that maiming serves to head off potentially greater maiming by the party maimed.

    The US government and many other governments reserve the right to carry out these intrinsic evils when not to do so would be prejudicial to the security of the state. The Obama administration continues to reserve those rights, including the right to use interrogation techniques that are out of the question at the moment, but could be authorized again if a grave enough threat to national security warranted it.

    Domestic and international law stipulate conditions that have to be met before such evils are perpetrated. GCIV also allows exceptions to its own “no exceptions rule”:

    “Where in the territory of a Party to the conflict, the latter is satisfied that an individual protected person is definitely suspected of or engaged in activities hostile to the security of the State, such individual person shall not be entitled to claim such rights and privileges under the present Convention as would … be prejudicial to the security of such State … In each case, such persons shall nevertheless be treated with humanity” (GCIV Article 5)

    According to legal experts, under such conditions, “treat with humanity” allows the infliction of pain and suffering so long as it is not life-threatening or severe enough to have permanent negative consequences on the interrogated person’s health. “Permanent negative consequences” is not defined as one might think. After all, mere detention for a period of months or years almost necessarily has “permanent negative consequences” on a detainee’s health. Yet such is allowed under US and international law.

    You ask my opinion about specific instances. Since neither you nor I know nearly enough about the Omar Khadry case to make an informed judgment, in reality all instances we might discuss are hypothetical. We don’t know to what extent the reports that have come out are factual. Independent verification has not been forthcoming.

    But sure, a teenage boy captured along with other members of al-Qaeda, a boy however whom we have no reason to believe has information which, if we had it, might save the lives of many people, should not be subjected to anything other than detention until hostilities cease, and since those hostilities have not ceased despite the passing of years and years, monitored re-integration into the boy’s society of origin might be appropriate.

    On the other hand, if the mastermind of an event like 9/11 is captured, and we have reason to believe that he has information which, if we had it, might save the lives of many people, I might very well authorize, if it were my responsibility to decide the question, the use of interrogation techniques, including water-boarding, that are not and should not be contemplated in the manual.

    Without mentioning specific techniques that might be used in such extraordinary circumstances, John McCain takes the same position. A person of far less moral stature, Barack Obama: ditto. I repeat: John McCain, who knows about torture in a way you and I cannot fathom, is able to imagine scenarios in which “you do what you have to do.”

    Your black-and-white rhetoric notwithstanding, it is absolutely typical that reasonable people differ about the limits within which a calibrated use of violence is to be employed, as exercised by the state, or by civilians (the right of self-defense).

    It may be unbecoming to you as “an educated person” to weight the pros and cons of how much violence, and of what species, is allowed during interrogation by the Army, the CIA, and similar organizations, and under what circumstances the normal rules can be set aside. You may also be too educated to decide whether you are allowed to defend your wife and children by pulling a gun and shooting an armed intruder in your home.

    But it is “hair-splitters” who write interrogation manuals for the “apparatus of repression” which backs up the rule of law. It is commissions of lawyers, police officers, and citizens who set down guidelines for police officers to follow in the case of an armed standoff, and it is police chiefs who make decisions in extraordinary circumstances which are not necessarily by the book. Still other Pharisees decide the limits of the right of self-defense of an ordinary civilian. I stand with such Pharisees, sometimes with the school of Hillel, sometimes with that of Shammai. But I cannot stand with those like you who are holier-than-thou.

    To be sure, legally specified conditions are not always met before recourse to the perpetration of intrinsic evil. The evils are still perpetrated if there is sufficient consensus for doing so. On the other hand, consensus and justice do not always correlate, so it’s important to distinguish.

    Three examples.

    (A) Beginning with the Clinton administration, in the war against terror, cases in which interrogation techniques not allowed under US law were thought necessary have sometimes been sub-contracted by the CIA to “third parties.” The policy is referred to as extraordinary rendition. The Bush and now the Obama administrations opted to preserve this counter-terrorism tool. I have grave misgivings about the policy, though I understand it from the point of view of sheer expediency. The “torture-by-proxy” approach is a lot like your “war-by-proxy” philosophy. On this approach, so long as it is not us, lily-white Christians, who do the dirty work – of justifying a war, inflicting severe pain and suffering on a detainee, whatever it might be – nothing morally wrong has been allowed.

    I hold to the opposite view. It is immoral to pass off the responsibility of perpetrating intrinsic evils thought to be required by the circumstances onto third parties.

    To delegate the task of perpetrating the evil compounds the evil perpetrated. It does *not* lessen it. This is my chief objection to your approach. I see you as a consummate buck-passer. Someone like you should resign from having bucks to pass, take a vow of poverty, chastity, and non-violence, and withdraw from society. How do you respond to my objection?

    (B) During the Clinton administration, after the failure of diplomatic efforts, an alliance was put together to bomb Serbia into submission. Plenty of killing and maiming went on. Collateral damage galore.

    The reason the bombing proposal was not taken to the UN Security Council is that it would have been vetoed by Russia. It’s a typical case of “you do what you have to do,” of taking an extra-legal expedient. I believe the US and NATO were justified in working outside of international law in this case, though I regret as much as anyone the loss of innocent life that resulted. Do you believe that the US and NATO must always work within the bounds of international law, or do you agree with the common position of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, to wit, that the right to operate outside of those boundaries in the national interest must be preserved?

    (C) One of the targets of the bombing of Serbia was the Chinese embassy, with significant loss of “civilian” life and limb [(2) and (3)]. Officially, the embassy bombing was an accident. The accident, however, was a turning point in that war, since the Chinese were providing the Serbs with what they needed to give NATO a run for its money.

    I do not know the reasons why the decision was taken for the accident to happen. Just as in the cases of waterboarding, the stated reasons remain classified. My default position is that those US law charges with the responsibility to decide to something as despicable as bombing an embassy or waterboarding a detainee are innocent until proven guilty.

    On the other hand, the perpetration of evil is always sin, and the bombing of an embassy and waterboarding are intrinsic and grave evils. So, I recognize the guilt of my own country in doing these things. I also think it appropriate to ask forgiveness from God whenever we kill, even if it is animal for food. I have nothing but tears to offer the wives and children and mothers of the Chinese who lost their lives in the bombing, and I realize it is not enough. I have no tears to offer the mastermind of 9/11.

    Since you were kind enough to point out where I am not credible in your eyes, I will return the favor.

    You reduce yourself to a political hack when you use the torture issue to take a swipe at Republicans. All of the things which caused unspeakable human suffering administrations headed by Democrats have done, I take it, really happened due to the intervention of Dick Cheney from an undisclosed location.

    Your rhetoric is blatantly partisan. If you really cared about the torture issue, you would leave partisan politics out of it.

    I have already pointed out that you are consistent in a way that does not stand the smell test of someone who has duties as a police chief, a military commander, or an intelligence-gathering interrogator. Now I will point out that you are inconsistent in a way that does not stand the smell test of someone who has followed US politics for any length of time.

    Operations like “Charlie’s secret war,” or the Escuela de las Américas, a US Dept of Defense facility that between 1946 and 2001 SOA trained tens of thousands of Latin American soldiers and policemen, are not attributable to the Bush-Hitler administration. Both of these initiatives, as everyone knows, enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support. Since the only crimes and misdemeanors committed by US officials which resulted in pain, suffering, and death you choose to “pundit” about are those that can be pinned on Republicans, I am forced to conclude that it is not the pain and suffering of others that interests you. It is the pain and suffering of others that can be used to partisan political advantage that interests you.

  22. Stephen
    May 27, 2009 @ 14:56:12

    You may be happy to go back on forth on this, but I’m not. I find it depressing that a Christian pastor would justify his government’s use of torture.

    GCIV also allows exceptions to its own “no exceptions rule”:

    Where in the territory of a Party to the conflict, the latter is satisfied that an individual protected person is definitely suspected of or engaged in activities hostile to the security of the State, such individual person shall not be entitled to claim such rights and privileges under the present Convention as would … be prejudicial to the security of such State … In each case, such persons shall nevertheless be treated with humanity” (GCIV Article 5)

    I’m sure you’re familiar with the hermeneutical principle that a clear text should guide the interpretation of a relatively unclear text. That’s what we have here, in my opinion.

    The passage I cited is perfectly clear: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

    The passage you cited is ambiguous. Given that it ends, “In each case, such persons shall nevertheless be treated with humanity,” I don’t see how the passage can be interpreted so as to authorize torture. At best, it’s ambiguous; in which case the clearer text would control the interpretation of the ambiguous text.

    Meanwhile, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times (according to a footnote in one of the OLC memos). Does that constitute humane treatment? Or is it a clear instance of torture?

    Admittedly, KSM is a very, very bad dude. If anyone is the poster boy for justifiable torture, he’d be the guy.

    Not so much, however, with Zubaydah, who was waterboarded “at least 83 times” in one month (August 2002). He was already providing information under ordinary interrogation techniques. Interrogators upped the ante under pressure from above, from someone (Cheney?) who wanted “evidence” to support a Saddam / al Qaeda connection.

    Even if said evidence was a false confession, produced under torture. That has always been the primary purpose of torture — to produce false confessions, useful for political ends.

    The treatment of Zubaydah was definitely not humane. And it was definitely not carried out in a justifiable context.

    Since neither you nor I know nearly enough about the Omar Khadry case to make an informed judgment, in reality all instances we might discuss are hypothetical.

    Bullshit. This is another instance of avoiding the preponderance of the evidence. We don’t have just one account of the abuse of one individual. We have many accounts of the abuse of many individuals.

    I used the Khadr example to illustrate that “stress positions” = torture. Don’t pretend that the account I quoted is the only available evidence, and it’s unsubstantiated.

    Your intellectual dishonesty leaves me breathless.

    I see you as a consummate buck-passer. Someone like you should resign from having bucks to pass, take a vow of poverty, chastity, and non-violence, and withdraw from society.

    My response is, my ethic is rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Where does yours come from?

    You “side with” every authority except Jesus. And yet you earn your living as a clergyman. So who’s inconsistent? I’m not buck-passing, I’m taking a stand with Jesus, against torture advocates like you.

    You reduce yourself to a political hack when you use the torture issue to take a swipe at Republicans.

    Huh? Isn’t it Dick Cheney who is on a speaking tour, defending torture and claiming that Obama has made America less safe by ending the torture regime? Isn’t Cheney supported by various right-wing talk radio hosts and bloggers? Wasn’t it Romney who said we should double the size of Guantanamo?

    If Clinton quietly engaged in extraordinary rendition, then I condemn him for it. I know that Democrats do much wrong; that Republicans don’t have a corner on that market. The line between good and evil runs down the middle of every one of us — and every political party.

    But Republicans now are explicitly a pro-torture party — it has become one of the core planks in their platform.

    I am forced to conclude that it is not the pain and suffering of others that interests you. It is the pain and suffering of others that can be used to partisan political advantage that interests you.


%d bloggers like this: