Would Jesus condone torture if it yielded information that might prevent a terrorist attack? Anyone who has studied the life and teachings of Jesus closely, really thought about the red-letter parts of the New Testament, would answer, no.
The only way to get from turn the other cheek, go the second mile, and love your enemy to torture is by means of some weird Orwellian doublespeak. Jesus taught and practiced non-violent resistance and instructed his followers to do the same.
Which makes a new poll commissioned by Mercer University in Atlanta and the Web-based news resource Faith in Public Life all the more interesting. According to the poll, conducted by Public Religion Research, 57 percent of white evangelicals living in the South believe torture is “often or sometimes” acceptable.
On one level these numbers seem incomprehensible. How is it possible that here in the Bible belt Jesus is so misunderstood, or worse, ignored. How is it possible in a region where most believers regard the Bible as the word of God that those same believers embrace torture as an acceptable practice?
I understand that the Old Testament is filled with references to bloody battles and conquests, many of which were orchestrated by God. But in the New Testament the tone shifts. Jesus seeks to lead us away from violence as a way of dealing with our neighbors. The new law is love ”for friend and foe.
Unfortunately, that may be where the problem lies. The Mercer/Faith in Public Life poll seems to indicate a direct correlation between those who approve torture and those who do not rely on scriptural or Christian tradition for their views. In other words, these white evangelicals who support torture make that decision based on their life experiences and common sense.
We hear it all the time in what is known as the “nightmare scenario.” It is presented something like this: “If there is a terrorist out there with a nuclear bomb, don’t you think that torturing one person would be worth saving the lives of millions.”
Common sense, right?
But what happens when the nightmare scenario does not exist and we are just torturing captives for whatever information we might get from them. And what does it mean if we torture people who have no information?
The poll also indicates that when believers are reminded of the Golden Rule, the numbers supporting torture do come down a little. They understand the wisdom of treating prisoners the way we would want our own captives treated. But even here common sense is at work more than any commitment to Christian teaching.
I fully understand that we live in a world where there are people who want to hurt us, and are probably actively seeking ways to do that right now. But if we allow the value system of our enemies to shape us, if we become what we fear and hate, in a real sense our enemy will have defeated us. It is far better for us to allow the higher ideals of our faith to shape our character and direct our responses to evil.
This does not mean that we lie down and let evil run over us. Jesus never taught such passivity. But it also does not mean we resort to evil to overcome evil.
Jesus taught that evil is best overcome by doing what is good. And torture is never good.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.