Christians and Torture: Part 2, When God Sanctions Killing

After reading the Pew report (where Christians were found to be more in favor of torture than non-Christians) I asked the students to ponder the link between religion and violence. There is, obviously, an association. Islamic terrorists flew planes into buildings on 9/11 and Christian terrorists shoot abortion doctors or lynch gay people. In both cases the violence is motivated by the conviction that God sanctions the killing.

To stir the pot on this topic I had the students read a study in Psychological Science by Bushman, Ridge, Das, Key, and Busath. The study was entitled When God Sanctions Killing: Effect of Scriptural Violence on Aggression.

In the study the researchers had the subjects read a relatively obscure account of violence from the Old Testament, Judges 19-21. Prior to reading the story the first experimental manipulation occurred. Half the participants were told, accurately, that the story was from the bible. The other half of the participants were told that the story was taken from a scroll "discovered in ancient ruins near Wadi Al-Murabba‘ah during a 1984 archaeological expedition headed by Professor William Deyer." That is, half the subjects believed (correctly) that the account came the bible while the rest were lead to believe that the story was extra-biblical.

The account in Judges 19-21 begins with a Levite who takes a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah and brings her back to his home in Ephraim. Apparently unhappy in the arrangement, the woman flees back to Judah. The Levite goes to Judah to recover her. He does so and starts the journey back home. The group stops one night in the town of Gibeah in Benjamin and plans to spend the night in the city square. Eventually, however, they are taken in by a kindly old man. They go to the old man's house, are fed and refreshed, and then the following events transpire:

While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, "Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him."

The owner of the house went outside and said to them, "No, my friends, don't be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don't do this disgraceful thing. Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But to this man, don't do such a disgraceful thing."

But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.

When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, "Get up; let's go." But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home.

When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel. Everyone who saw it said, "Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Think about it! Consider it! Tell us what to do!"

Then all the Israelites from Dan to Beersheba and from the land of Gilead came out as one man and assembled before the LORD in Mizpah. The leaders of all the people of the tribes of Israel took their places in the assembly of the people of God, four hundred thousand soldiers armed with swords. (The Benjamites heard that the Israelites had gone up to Mizpah.) Then the Israelites said, "Tell us how this awful thing happened."

So the Levite, the husband of the murdered woman, said, "I and my concubine came to Gibeah in Benjamin to spend the night. During the night the men of Gibeah came after me and surrounded the house, intending to kill me. They raped my concubine, and she died. I took my concubine, cut her into pieces and sent one piece to each region of Israel's inheritance, because they committed this lewd and disgraceful act in Israel. Now, all you Israelites, speak up and give your verdict."
At this point in the text the researchers added a second experimental manipulation. For half of the participants the following lines were inserted into the story:
The assembly fasted and prayed before the LORD and asked
‘‘What shall be done about the sins of our brothers in Benjamin?’’;
and the LORD answered them, saying that no such abomination
could stand among his people. The LORD commanded Israel to
take arms against their brothers and chasten them before the LORD.
The story then continues with the Isrealites taking up arms against the Benjamites. In the ensuing battle ten of thousands are killed on both sides. Given the experimental manipulation, half of the participants read that this retaliatory violence was commanded by God.

Summarizing, the study had two manipulations which created four groups. The first division was between those who were told that the story was biblical versus those who were told it was extra-biblical. These two groups were then divided again with half of each group reading the non-modified text versus those who read the inserted text of God commanding the retaliatory violence.

After these groups read their respective texts they engaged in a laboratory task intended to measure aggression. Subjects were placed in a competitive task where they had to push a button faster than their "opponent." The loser would receive a blast of noise through headphones he/she was wearing. Further, the participants could select the decibel level of the blast they could deliver to the defeated opponent. Specifically, the subjects had control of a dial that ranged from Level 0 (no noise) to Level 10 (105 db, the volume of a smoke alarm). The measure of aggression was how often the subject selected Levels 9 and 10 to inflict upon their opponent.

The outcome of the study was intriguing. Specifically, subjects who where told that the story above came from the bible were more aggressive than those told the story came from an extra-biblical scroll. Apparently, if violence is in the bible this seems to sanction the use of violence. This trend was confirmed in that those who read that God sanctioned the violence in the story (i.e., read the inserted text) were more aggressive than those who did not read about God commanding the retaliatory violence.

In the second study of the Bushman et al. paper these effects were examined for both Christians and non-Christians. Overall, God sanctioned violence (being in the bible and commanded by God) increased aggression for both Christians and non-Christians. However, this effect was strongest for the Christians (i.e., they were more aggressive than non-Christians when God was seen to sanction violence).

To conclude, I wanted the students to digest this study as it might illuminate the trends found in the Pew report. Specifically, and this is no real surprise, religious believers become more violent when they feel that God sanctions the violence. The implication is that if Christians believe that the use of torture in the war on terror has a religious component, is sanctioned by God, then their approval of torture increases. In fact, this is what I think is going on. During the Bush administration there was a strong conflation between God and Country. Insofar as these are identified with each other (God and Country) the actions of the government are seen as sanctioned by God. This judgment is heightened by the fact that the war on terror is felt to be a holy war, a war between Islam and Christianity. To probe this tension I asked my students to consider the following. Imagine we caught a radical evangelical preacher who was at the center of a plot to blow up a government building in protest of the Obama administration. The bomb is ticking and we have to get him to confess or the bomb will detonate and kill hundreds of people. Will we, in this case, torture an American citizen and a Chrisitan to find the bomb?

And what if the bomb was not in a government building but in a mosque? Or an abortion clinic?

What then?

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5 thoughts on “Christians and Torture: Part 2, When God Sanctions Killing”

  1. I had wondered if people who sanctioned torture (by others) would be as apt to participate in practicing it. I guess this answers my question.

  2. Look how hot Kristi in the other thread got when her pro torture stance was challenged? Not only did she see no reason to avoid torture as a means to avoid the "end" of christians being (as she imagined it) forced to live under sharia law in the US but even raising the moral question was, to her, an affront.

    Bob Altemeyer, in The Authoritarians, describes a survey he gave high scoring authoritarians. He would ask them, hypothetically, whether they would be willing, at the behest of local lawful authorities,

    to spy on
    or injure

    their own neighbors if the authorities told them it was necessary to do so.

    He found that high scoring authoritarians were more willing to do that than low scoring authoritarians. But more than that he found that you could change the denomination from "neighbors suspected of terrorism" to "neighbors in the Canadian Milk Board..." and that high scoring authoritarians who were themselves members of the Canadian Milk Board would unquestioningly agree to surveil or attack members of their own community.

    We've already seen that terroristic acts committed by Christian terrorists are routinely excused by Christians--it is Christians who are holding fundraisers *right now* for the murderer of Dr. Tiller and it was Christians who supported the Atlanta Olympic Bomber while he was in hiding.

    There's simply no question that religion in general, and christianity in particular, has an affinity for excusing the evil deeds of its adherents and putting the blame on the victims as long as the victims are defined as not christian enough.


  3. Richard,

    The problem with hypotheticals is precisely that: they are hypothetical. Two observations: (1) No matter what we assume and presume about the future we cannot know with assurance the future, even, and given its poor record of eliciting truthful responses, especially with the use of torture. When any of us does that with absolute certainty, we stand in the place of God. (2) René Girard emphasizes that religion exists to defer and to enable us to deny and cover up our own violence through the use of victimary violence. He further notes that the non-violent response to socially expedient violence is the Good News of God--"when reviled, he reviled not."


  4. I wonder if similar experiments were made with non-aggressive portions of the Bible. Is the reaction symmetrical to the experiment with violent portions, or is there some significant difference ?


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