As my manner is, I will attempt to articulate what I believe is a faithful Christian response to this situation. I believe this is especially important in light of the fact that a recent poll discovered that more than 60% of self-identified Christians believe that torture was justified and would be justified again.
What Does It Mean to Be Christian?
At its most basic level, to be Christian is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ; one who follows him and obeys his teachings as well as the teachings of the other writers of the New Testament. I cannot rightly call myself a Christian if I knowingly and willfully reject those teachings. As Christians, our allegiance to Christ supersedes our allegiance to our country, our political party, or anyone else. As Christians, we are called to be obedient to Christ even when it is difficult, unpopular, and uncomfortable.
Additionally, as Christians we are we are called to be ambassadors for Christ, official representatives entrusted to speak on his behalf. This is a serious responsibility, one we dare not take lightly. It stands to reason, therefore, that the Christian response to torture ought to conform to the teachings of Christ and other New Testament writings.
It is important to understand the cultural context in which Jesus and the apostles ministered if we want to understand their teachings. Jesus lived and ministered during a time in which ancient Judea was under the political and military control of Rome. For many devout Judeans, the Romans would have been considered to be enemies and persecutors. After the death and resurrection of Christ, some of the devout Judeans became persecutors of the followers of Christ.
What Did Jesus Teach About Torture?
Jesus never spoke directly about torture. However, when we examine what Jesus taught about the way in which he expected his followers to treat their enemies it becomes abundantly clear that he would have categorically rejected the use of torture. (Let us not forget that Jesus himself was subjected to torturous interrogation techniques at the hands of a powerful government.) Consider Jesus’ own words from the Sermon on the Mount. Take the time to read this slowly and carefully. Maybe even read it twice.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
In verse 38 Jesus is making reference to the Old Testament law, which employed an eye-for-eye punishment system. Jesus came along, however, and effectively said, “That’s not the way we are going to do things now.” Instead of repaying evil for evil and exacting punishment from those who brought harm, Jesus taught his followers that they were to love their enemies and to pray for their persecutors. If we are honest, this seems to be totally unreasonable; it runs so contrary to our natural desires for revenge and self-preservation. It’s difficult to even think about extending love toward someone who has hurt me or someone I love and it is exponentially more difficult to actually do it. Perhaps that’s why we are so quick pass over and ignore this part of Jesus’ teachings. Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of picking and choosing which of his teachings we want to follow and which ones we don’t. Either Jesus is lord of every aspect of our lives, or he isn’t lord at all. Let us never forget that we are not being asked to do anything that Jesus didn’t do first. He set the example by laying down his own life in love so that anyone, even the ones who nailed him to the cross, could find forgiveness and be restored to a right relationship with God. The apostle Paul reminds us that God loved us while we were God’s enemies (Romans 5:6-10). As recipients of that love and forgiveness, we have been called to follow that example.
The Apostle Paul Reinforces Jesus’ Teaching
Romans 12:14-21(emphasis added):
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Some have made the claim that Paul’s references to persecutors and enemies are actually references to other Christians who are causing trouble in the church. This is highly unlikely. First of all, Paul himself makes no such distinction here and his vocabulary choice suggests otherwise. The Greek word that Paul uses for “persecute” here can mean either to pursue or to persecute, and the overwhelming majority of its uses in the New Testament are in reference to believers in Jesus being persecuted by nonbelievers. This is a word that Paul uses to describe his own persecution of the Church prior to his conversion (See Acts 22:44-8; Acts 26:11-15; 1 Corinthians 15:9). Also, we know from both the book of Acts and from history that early church experienced persecution on several different fronts. Paul’s use of “enemy” here also makes it unlikely that he would be referring to other Christians. It is a word that refers to someone who hates another person, a hostile adversary. In 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 Paul even states that disobedient Christians ought not to be regarded as enemies, but admonished as brothers. Finally, the similarity between Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and Paul’s admonition here cannot be ignored. Paul’s own teaching reinforces Jesus’ teaching that followers of Jesus are to take the high road of radical love and forgiveness.
But What About The Old Testament?
Many Christian’s whom I’ve talked to about this topic have reminded me that the Old Testament often mentions the way in which God commanded his people in the Old Testament to use violence against their enemies. As Christians, however, it is inappropriate to use the Old Testament to justify modern violence because doing so is a violation of Jesus’ clear teaching on the subject. Jesus and the other New Testament writers made it abundantly clear that we are no longer bound by the Old Testament law. Jesus came and introduced a new and better way. (Additionally, I am not aware of any Old Testament passage that condones torturous interrogation.) Certainly there are many themes and concepts from the Old Testament that are continued in the New; violence towards one’s enemies is not one of them.
We have a choice to make. We can choose to be genuine Christians, that is obedient disciples of Jesus Christ and agents of God’s radical love and grace, or we can choose capitulate to culture, which promotes vengeance and self-preservation. We cannot do both. If we are going to be faithful followers of Jesus, we must oppose torture. Unfortunately, this is an issue for which there is no middle ground.