A president and three professors of Southern Baptist seminaries recently participated in an online symposium on developing a Christian response to the use of torture.
Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and two professors defend torture in certain situations, while one professor argues against all torture. Each essay draws upon Augustine and “Just War” principles to justify their positions.
The symposium introduces the essays by explaining, “The ‘truth’ about torture is an issue being widely addressed throughout the country, yet our sense is that the Christian intellectual community has been relatively silent on this important issue.”
Using a recent Charles Krauthammer column, “The Truth About Torture” from The Weekly Standard, as a launching point, the participants were asked to address the following questions: “What is the truth about torture from a Christian worldview? Is torture ever allowed? And if so, under what conditions and circumstances?”
Mohler argues “that there could exist circumstances in which such uses of torture might be made necessary.” Mohler offers support for the ban of torture proposed by Sen. John McCain, because “the use of torture should be prohibited as a matter of state policy–period.”
However, he adds that “under extreme circumstances” it “may be transcended by other moral claims.”
Drawing upon Augustine, Mohler suggests that while a soldier killing another might be a sin, “a failure or refusal to kill can at times be a sin worse in both intention and effect than a decision to kill in order to save lives.”
Additionally, Mohler acknowledges that torture will likely give America “dirty hands,” but appears more concerned about failed laws than actions: “Nevertheless, we have no choice but to fight this foe and to wage war on those who would use mass murder and terror to sever the fragile bonds of human society. Yet, in fighting this war it is inevitable that we will look down and find dirty hands, even in doing what we would all agree is a lamentable necessity. What we must not do is compound the problem of dirty hands by adopting dirty rules.”
Daniel Heimbach, professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, supports the use of torture as long as it is exercised within the bounds of “just war” principles: “only to correct injustice,” “only if stakes on our side are more worthy than stakes on theirs,” “only if good reason to believe the one interrogated actually knows important information,” “only if information needed is worth more than what it costs to obtain,” “only with regret,” and “never breaking promises.”
Heimbach also argues, “And, if we use Krauthammer’s view of ‘torture’ as applying coercion per se, then, after setting proper boundaries for moral use, we should without apology defend obligation to exercise justified coercion within proper restraints, and should not confuse moral categories by declaring good evil or declaring evil good.”
Kenneth Magnuson, associate professor of Christian ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argues, “[Torture] is a tragic necessity (because evil has made it so), but a necessity nonetheless.”
Magnuson points out, however, that the church must not use torture—to elicit a confession or fight heresy—because “only the Governing authority that has such a right, and only in order to obtain justice and for the security of the nation.”
He also contends it is those being tortured who are actually to be morally blamed: “In a case where a suspect is held who is known to have information concerning the intended killing of innocent people, that person bears the guilt of the offense that is planned.”
While Mark Liederbach, associate professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, also argues from the perspective of “Just War,” he is against the use of torture. He contends that the terrorist is just as much one’s neighbor as those who are the likely victims of an attack.
Liederbach contends: “In the treatment of prisoners, including terrorists, it is important to be shaped by the potent words of Christ. Therefore, both the targets of violence and the form of violence are subject to the category of discrimination. Arguing that terrorists are legitimate war targets does not therefore mean that it is morally appropriate to ‘string them up by their thumbs’ or ‘put them on a spit and roast them over a fire.’ In fact, the exact opposite would be true.”
He writes, “While the just warrior may be tempted to engage in an ethic of utility where ‘the ends justify the means,’ a biblical ethics do not allow such reasoning to rule the day.” And he adds, “Two wrongs do not make a right.”
Finally, Liederbach points to John 11:49-50 where Caiaphas justified killing Jesus to save the “whole nation.”
Liederbach concludes: “The argument may sound good, but we must be careful lest we forget that this ‘Caiaphas ethic’ is far more dangerous than it appears. Indeed, it can even be used to justify the murder of God.”
Other participants in the symposium are Darrell Cole of Drew University, John Jefferson Davis of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Richard John Neuhaus of First Things, and Robert Vischer of the University of St. Thomas.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.