Torture & Allegiance: Part 3, A Christian Response?

It is a noteworthy fact that torture is at the heart of the Christian story. And it centers on issues of sovereignty. By refusing to renounce his claim of kingship, an act of both blasphemy and treason, Jesus of Nazareth was tortured and executed by the religious and political powers. Further, the followers of Jesus willingly submit to torture and execution to live and die by their claim that their ultimate allegiance is not to any earthly king, prince, kingdom or nation.

My interest in Kahn's analysis in Sacred Violence rests on his notion that torture exists in the space of sovereignty. As noted in Part 1, liberals contest this location, claiming that torture is illegal, that its proper location is in the space of law. Since liberals and conservatives cannot agree upon the location of torture the political discussions are stymied. The fundamental assumptions are disjointed.

But what struck me about Kahn's analysis is that where the politicians and pundits might be stymied the thoughtful Christian has some wiggle room. Specifically, a part of the problem with the political debates about torture (e.g., Cheney vs. Obama) is that each party claims the same sovereign. Both have given their highest allegiance to the United States of America.

If Kahn is correct that torture is best located in the space of sovereignty it strikes me that Christians don't have to argue in the categories deployed by liberals and conservatives. That is, the categories of the Enlightenment need not apply to Christian discourse. Liberals and conservatives may disagree on the location of torture but they don't disagree about their sovereign allegiances. This makes the conversation difficult for them. Christians, by contrast, can sidestep this entire debate. That is, for the Christian the location of torture is largely irrelevant because the Christian doesn't hold the Untied States to be the ultimate sovereign. Jesus was tortured about just this issue: A refusal to recognize Caesar as king. (If he had done so with Pilate he would have gone free. John 18-19.)

The point, for me at least, is that I don't think liberal Christians are best served by arguing that torture is illegal (although it may well be). Further, I don't think that liberal Christians are best served by arguing that torture is immoral. At least if that argument is governed by Enlightenment warrants for morality. Because I think Kahn is correct: Those arguments tend to lead to an impasse. I think the Christian response to torture is best argued by an appeal to allegiances.

And, surprisingly, this analysis reveals something of the power of the Christian worldview. That is, I don't think atheists like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris can contribute much to the torture debates beyond what is currently being said. Enlightenment categories are a bit impotent here. Just watch TV. But the Christian appeal to the cross breaks the debate open in a fresh and novel way.

In short, the debate about torture is fundamentally, if Kahn is to be believed, a religious debate. It's not a legal or moral debate.

I entitled these posts Torture & Allegiance because I think Kahn is correct, torture exists in the space of sovereignty. Thus, arguments about illegality or morality tend to get stuck when people share the same allegiances. But Christians don't share those same allegiances. So the conversation is more fluid for them. Christians are playing a different game than the one the pundits are playing. That is, I don't think Christians should side with Limbaugh or Olbermann on this. A Christian response should be cutting across the debates on TV and on the political blogs. This is not to say that a Christian can't put on the hat of a citizen and wade into these waters. It is just to say that a distinctly Christian response to torture begins and ends in a very different place. It will begin and end with the torture of Jesus.

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32 thoughts on “Torture & Allegiance: Part 3, A Christian Response?”

  1. Richard,

    Allegiance indeed. Perfect focus.

    It seems to me that my comment on your previous post is more germaine to this post, so here it is again (edited and with additional thoughts). . . .

    It seems to me that much of what Kahn is doing leads to Girard's notion of divinely authorized violence sacralizing the "social contract" and bringing or maintaining social peace. [The heart of the matter:] . . . innocence, guilt, and the use of violence to maintain order.

    Similarly, Mark Danner's remarks in his "New York Review of Books" article, "The Red Cross Torture Report" gives sacralized violence its contemporary political context: "There is a reason that the myth of the 'ticking bomb' and the daring, ruthless US agent who will do anything to stop its detonation--anything including torture, a step that proves his commitment and his seriousness--is sacralized in popular culture, and not only in television dramas like '24' but in 'Dirty Harry' and the other movies that are its ancestors. The story of the ticking bomb and the torturing hero who defuses it offers a calming message to combat pervasive anxiety and fear--that no matter what horrible threats loom, there are those who will make use of untrammeled government power to protect the country. It also appeals to uglier and equally powerful emotions: the desire for retribution, the urge to punish and avenge, the felt need in the face of vulnerability to assert power."

    After the fashion of Jack Bauer and Dirty Harry, Dick Cheney prejudges (in Girard's language, he), scapegoats the detainees at Abu Grab: "These are evil people. And we're not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek. If it hadn't been for what we did--with respect to the . . . enhanced interrogation techniques [nice Orwellian euphemism for torture] for high value detainees. . .--then we would have been attacked again."

    A medievalism indeed: "Neca eos omnes. Deus suos agnoset."

    (These remarks were attributed to Pope Innocent III who when asked what to do about determining those loyal to the Church from the heretical Cathars.

    Translation: "Kill them all. God knows His own." Modified version: "Kill them all. God will sort them out.")

    Now this is not about liberal or conservative but about giving divine blessing to violence in order to eliminate evil. Both liberal and conservative are willing to engage in this kind of thinking. Kahn's categories, for the Christian, represent how we Americans and others, Christian or otherwise, are actually stuck in debating penal atonement theory, a theory which makes God complicit in the torture and death of Jesus.

    Sadly and sometimes unwittingly, like Dick Cheney, all of us whether politically liberal or conservative will resort in thought or deed to scapegoating, torture, and violence. It is part of the water we swim in. It is why Jack Bauer and Dirty Harry speak to the American imagination. It is why Jesus said that the path is like a slim mountain trail:
    "The way is hard and narrow and few there be that find it."

    God help us all.

  2. Amen and amen.

    On my reading list for this summer is William Cavanaugh's Torture and Eucharist, an exploration of the awful endemic torture conducted under Pinochet in Chile and the Catholic Church's response. If I remember correctly, at some point the Church responded -- in that Catholic nation -- by excommunicating torturers; that is, by refusing to offer the Eucharist to those who tortured their fellow Christians in allegiance to the state.

    It seems that book, and the Catholic Church's witness -- alongside, once again, MacIntyre's analysis of morality and tradition in After Virtue -- would shed remarkable light on this conversation. Bravo, Beck!

  3. In moral development, universalizers are the ones that challenge the powers that be, because they have internalized "universiality", which is incoherent in this world. Because of their commitment to the universal they do disrupt the social order, in their questions, lifestyle and behavior. But, neither the political power nor the spiritual power maintain the allegience of these. They are their own person and have developed their own values. It is the "ideal" in particularity.

    Their ultimate convictions will play out in their commitments, as they understand the complexity and paradox of life.

  4. Richard,

    Sorry to break silence (again) here, but I've been thinking about what, if anything, must be sacrificed to be authentically Christian? What should be accounted in "counting the cost?" The answer that I believe best fits the passion narrative is, "One must sacrifice the ever-present temptation that I will seek to get others to make sacrifices for me--or one's favored idol." Sacrifice is sacrificed, in that sense, albeit not in the sense of what is freely offered in love.

    It's too big a subject to go into here, but suffice it to say that my offering last spring would have been much better if I'd put this important piece in place--and I might not have suffered the wrath of George to boot.

    Just in case the relevance to this post isn't as clear as it should be, a person who sacrifices the right to (others') sacrifice will be very reluctant to sanctify torture...


  5. Hey Tracy,

    Sorry for the "wrath." It's a hangover [grin] from celebrating St. George's day yesterday.

    Sacrifice sacrifice. The inflection is all important, and the way you put it says it better than all my words. The story of St. George slaying the dragon may ultimately be about sacrificing sacrifice.


  6. Coop, it's obvious that Dick Cheney is your favorite whipping boy. It's convenient, of course: you don't have to make decisions for which a plausible case can be made that dozens, perhaps hundreds, and perhaps thousands of lives hang in the balance. If it were as simple as you appear to believe, one supposes that Obama would not be having any second thoughts at all about dispensing with the entire Bush/Cheney machinery. But he is having second thoughts on some significant aspects of it, now that he has a fuller understanding of the scenarios he faces, the intelligence (such as it is) that has been compiled, and the new level of responsibility that he has now that he is no longer organizing communities but stewarding national security.

    And of course a political liberal loves the endpoint of Richard's analysis because it coincides with the liberal's predetermined, politically oriented "morality" endpoint; even if Richard locates the argument in a different "space," the outcome is conveniently the same as the political liberal's conclusion. So, quite predictably, Richard's "sovereignty" analysis allows the religious analysis to be co-opted by the political agenda. And Coop, you are now the poster child for that.

    To be clear: qb is not defending some abstract notion of torture. He is simply arguing for a bit more candor, a bit less smugness, and a bit more circumspection about the responsibilities entailed by the presidency. Liberals loved to castigate conservative presidents for introducing religious considerations into their judgments about this or that domestic policy; but now the shoe is decidedly on the other foot as liberals seek to bolster their political case with distinctively religious arguments. It is a delectable irony.



  7. George,

    I'm insanely jealous. I want a St. Tracy's day to celebrate the slaying of a dragon! Does anyone know where there is one--you know, a dragon that needs slaying?


    The Christian message purports to be universal. So we shouldn't be surprised--those of us who are Christian--if it applies to both sides...


  8. qb,

    Whether I am smug or not or you are disingenuous or not is immaterial.

    Did you read what I wrote? I never once suggested that statecraft is easy. The issue of torture and scapegoating the innocent and the guilty, while intersecting politics and national security, also transcends politics. Which is why I spoke of Cheney, Jack Bauer, Dirty Harry, and Innocent III as synechdoches for the human condition.

    And why would you assume that I wish to keep "religious considerations" from informing politics? I cannot, nor can liberals as much as they would like.


  9. "Liberals and conservatives may disagree on the location of torture but they don't disagree about their sovereign allegiances".

    I see similarities with the church's inter-denominational debate concerning the location of sovereignty and law in regards to God's judgement. It could be argued that regardless of where one resides within the doctrinal continuum, ultimately all sides in this debate pledge their allegiance to Christ.

    I might understand that allegiance to God/Christ is best proven by one facing the prospect of torture and death (martyrdom). During such an extremely morbid act , both the tortur-er and tortur-ee declare who, what, or where their respective allegiances lie. Reading much of Scripture, it appears that God/Christ expects no less than allegiance unto death (if necessary) from all of His followers.

    Assuming eternal torment (torture) soteriology is true, what does God accomplish by continuously torturing those whose allegiance was expressed to anything other than Him??? Eternal torture is thus the final resolution for those who fail to pledge HIS sovereignty (whatever that might mean).

    Would it be going too far to ask if torture might be a divinely sanctioned/designed tool used to prove and reveal where one's ultimate allegiance(s) lie?

    Gary Y.

  10. Hm. This is fascinating. Do you (Richard or any of the commenters) know of anyone who has changed their mind about this?

    I found this interesting post, comparing the entrenched beliefs [of both sides] with Marian Keech and the UFO cult of 1954.

  11. Daniel,

    What do you mean by "anyone who has changed their mind about this"? What is "this" -- torture, sovereignty and law, etc.?

  12. Hi Brad,

    Sorry for the underdeveloped thought. What I was wondering about had to do with the article I linked (as well as Richard's post): i.e., whether the newly divulged facts or someone realizing their Christian allegiance supersedes their national allegiance had changed their perspective on the US government's [former] interrogation/torture program.

  13. Hello Everyone,
    I've been reading the comments all day and thinking about them but haven't had time to respond given my day at work (and family life tonight). For now, some quick observations about the nature of this post:

    1. As many will note, I don't actually say what the Christian position on torture should be. The inference may seem clear, but you'd be making that inference, not me. That is, if the crucifixion of Jesus points toward a "liberal" stance on the issue of torture then so be it. My argument is simply that any Christian conversation about torture should both begin and end with the cross. That, to me, seems beyond dispute. For Christians at least.

    2. The goal of this post is simply to say that Christians will, by being Christians, bring different warrants to the torture debates. That is, a Christian response to torture should look different. It shouldn't look liberal or conservative. A Christian response to torture might, in the end, wind up in a liberal or conservative position but the warrants should look very different. (And, to be honest, I don't see how a Christian could be consistently liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican.) More specifically, the role of US sovereignty in these debates, I'm suggesting, is attenuated, by definition, in the Christian stance. I say "by definition" in that I define "Christian" as anyone holding faith in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as their highest political allegiance.

  14. The Catholic Church had one of the most infamous instatutionalized torture plans going - the inquisition. And for those who believe in hell, God is the ultimate torturer. Maybe the liberal/conservative divide still works, even within Christianity. The liberal Christians (like me) will be against torture and the conservative Chrisitans will find a reason to justify it.

  15. Richard,
    You disconnect "reality", that is real world living in a political realm, where we have to "play out our convictions" either Democratically or Republican. That is if you believe that we should be a part of the "world" and Christian doesn't mean some sectarian Anabaptist stance...

    Surely, you don't believe that Christian can only have the definition you propose? I guess I'm not a Christian, but I don't like labels anyway, as they always seem to be misunderstood, because of the "baggage" we bring to the "word" "Christian".

    I weary of the whole discussion,as it concerns "christian' as it becomes a judgment call based on certain specified convictions that are universalized, when they should never be...this is the "torture" that the Church is guilty of..

    If all truth is God's, then why is there any "fear" about learning, using one's brain, striving to understand?

    As to the "cross", that, too, becomes a way to "torture" those who need "pruning", "correction", "discipline", etc. in the name of "growth", "development",and "fruit". And this "torture" is called "Christian Love and Concern"!

  16. Richard and the group:
    Just asking ... do we (Christians) all agree that there is no place in a modern Democracy for 'torture'?

  17. Richard and the group:
    Perhaps apologies are required ... I did post a question and now I am just wondering, perhaps it was not appropriate ... no hurt to anyone intended. No actual on line reply is required.

  18. Frank,
    It's fine to ask a direct question. I tend to go for indirection, mainly for pragmatic grounds, to facilitate reflection rather than debate.

    First, I would be loathe to characterize any response to any issue as "Christian." As many have noted above, Christians have endorsed wildly immoral activities as "Christian." The point being, I have no doubt a Christian could spin torture as being a faithful response to the gospel.

    But in my opinion, I don't see how a response centered upon the cross could endorse torture. I'm willing to see a counter-example, but I think it would be a pretty difficult argument to make. And, again, if the cross gets in the way of defending torture, well, that's not my fault. You (not you Frank, the cross-is-consistent-with-torture interlocutor) signed up for the Christian faith and that ride begins and ends at Calvary.

    I do think torture can be defended. But only by making the US the ultimate sovereign, the highest moral good, the final allegiance. That is the gist of what these posts are about. I'm aware of the very powerful arguments for torture (the ticking time bomb) and am not unaffected by them. That is why I put them on equal footing with the liberal arguments in Part 1, treating those arguments respectfully. But in the end those arguments (and the liberal arguments) are not Christian responses. They are political responses (made shrill by the baggage people have about about the Bush/Cheney years, either attacking or defending them). Which is fine, but I'm after the distinctly Christian stance.

  19. On a different but related note. I empathize with my conservative/Republican Christian friends. I would not want to be in the place, as a Christian, of defending torture. And yet, you also feel the need to defend your guy from being savaged by the Radical Left. So I see the tensions and understand how the emotions are running high.

  20. To pick up on some of your comments:

    I appreciate the additional analyses from George, Brad, Angie, qb and Tracy. And Cheers all around for St. George's day. Next year in Ireland!

    Let me call attention to Gary and Crystal's comments about torture and hell. As I've written these posts I've been struck by how one could read the Bible through the lens of torture. And the hell passages are hard. Does God torture? Does God threaten torture to get "confession"?

    Daniel asked the question, Do we know of any cases where people have changed their minds on this issue? I don't. But as a psychologist I'm convinced that people don't actually change their minds all that much. People generally swim in a sea of self-evident truths looking for confirmatory data. That is, changing one's mind is like changing identity or personality. It's a heroic act. And heros are rare.

  21. All of you have got me thinking about universals/particulars, and perfect/imperfect scenarios, when it comes to faith and the real world. I think what we believe about universals/particulars, as it concerns the world, individuals, the Church, etc. does affect one's stance towards how one understands the perfect/imperfect world (is it perfectable, as in "God's Kingdom"), or not, and where do we draw those lines and what is the universal standars whereby we come to the definition of "perfect"?

    Is the individual perfectable? on waht basis is perfection defined, and how is it measured...

    There could be a chart made about this with different "colors" of faith played out in how it is 'put together" or understood...

  22. If you're saying that within the Christian community, Christian liberals have some powerful ammunition to use when arguing against torture, I think you're right.

    But I think Kahn's categories are wrong. It's not that conservatives speak "sovereignty" while liberals speak "legality". It's that conservatives misunderstand the ideals of a liberal democracy, and therefore they misunderstand what it means to be loyal to the United States of America.

  23. Daniel and Richard,

    Regarding whether anyone has changed his or her mind about this, I can speak for myself, at least, and say that I have. I won't get into all the nitty gritties (never actually spelled that out before...), but in the summer of 2006 I spent a few months doing mission work in Uganda and Rwanda, and while there read a couple deeply influential books. The combination of my experiences, the books, and the missionaries radically changed my opinion on a host of issues, and one of them was torture.

    And I should add, that before going, I was good friends with a number of hardline liberals and pacifists (etc., etc.) with whom I had debates cheerful as well as heated. I was very staunch and rational in my beliefs about violence, war, and torture as an American Christian -- but those beliefs were changed radically. My wife says I came back a different person.

    So! There is one example.

    (P.S. The books were Douglas John Hall's God & Human Suffering and Lee Camp's Mere Discipleship.)

  24. I think I agree with John Crichton of Farscape - the weather changes, but people just go on making the same mistakes. :)

    I haven't really changesd my beliefs about war, torture, or any other social/political issue since I was a teen - even converting from atheism to Catholicism hasn't changed me from being a liberal.

  25. Richard,

    I've read your series on universalism, and some of what you've written on hell, but this post has seemed to stimulate profound thoughts about the relationship between a Christian understanding of torture centered on the cross, and any coherent doctrine of hell that is no less cruciform. I wonder if you have any resources to point us toward, and/or if a series exploring the matter would be in order. (Yes, that is a formal series request.)

    I guess I'm wondering if, even as a universalist, you can imagine a coherent Christian doctrine of hell that does not diminish the Christian witness against torture through a theology of the cross. That is, is "hell" anything substantively different than endless, cross-like torture akin to an eternal Abu Ghraib? If so, how do we imagine it and what might be its theological grounding?


  26. Richard,

    I'm coming to understand/agree that "people don't actually change their minds all that much". I guess that leads me to wonder, what's the point? What good does it do to insist that for Christians, a discussion of torture begins at the cross - if Christians aren't willing to change their minds?

    (I'm just really disgusted/depressed by interacting with a bunch of Christians bending themselves backwards to theologically support Christians accepting the government torturing people.)

  27. Richard and the group:
    A bit of reflexivity:
    I recall the first and immediate thoughts that entered my head when I originally saw the series of posts on torture emerge. The order is not important, thoughts the immediate ones at least don’t usually come like that, in ordered sequence. One has a thought or series of thoughts and then attempts to order and discipline them. (meta-cognitively) In any event the thoughts I refer to, include Mr Donald Rumsfeld poetic contribution on the Unknown. He once famously said …

    ‘As we know,
    There are known knowns.
    There are things we know we know.
    We also know
    There are known unknowns.
    That is to say
    We know there are some things
    We do not know.
    But there are also unknown unknowns,
    The ones we don't know
    We don't know.’

    The next thought came via a reading of Fedor Dostoevsky where he once famously said … sometimes ‘knowing is not enough’. Next came the thought that Rumsfeld’s poetic contribution was very similar to the shape of the ‘cycle of learning’ all be it incomplete. Finally I started to recall aspects of Douglas Hofstadter’s book ‘I am a strange loop’. That is it.

    Later I made a few ‘post’ comments on the topic and finally I asked a question. I suppose the point of this post is to ask one further question. So once again … just asking … ‘after reading a series of excellent articles, after considering some excellent posts, how does one know that learning (change) has taken place’. I know that Richard ‘knows’, I know that Richard has ‘learned’ because he has affirmed so.

  28. Frank
    It is true that the "possilbility" of learning is never complete. But, one must have an attitude toward life and issues that are "open-ended", that in unprejuidiced to benefit from any learning experience, formal or otherwise.

    So, if one has an open attitude toward life, enough confidence of "self" and a hunger to know then there will be an optimistic, and hopeful heart that embraces change, challenge and even, conflict (maybe that is more personality speicific)...

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