Torture Re-Visited

A Christian View of Means, Ends, and ‘the Greater Good’

Early in this new year, I want to re-visit a topic that dominated the news and lit our website on fire at the end of last year. That topic is torture.


John Stonestreet

Last month, my BreakPoint colleague Eric Metaxas ignited a firestorm with his commentary on the United States’ use of torture against suspected terrorists.

We heard from countless listeners and readers, many of whom took issue with Eric’s insistence that Christians must denounce and oppose the use of torture.

Now that a month has gone by and emotions have cooled somewhat, I would like to revisit the subject. Not to re-ignite the flames, of course, or even to examine the issue itself—at least not directly.

What I want to talk about is the trends I noticed in the comments.

Let me start by saying that many of the responses made some very good points. For example, the United States’ critics and adversaries—both at home and especially abroad—used the reports as rhetorical weapons against the United States.

For example, the New York Times ran a headline “Russia Denounces US Over Torture Report.” Pot meet kettle.

But the hypocrisy of Russia doesn’t change that the report exists; and that we are aware of what it says; and that we have to deal with what we’ve heard.

And as Christians, we must deal with it in a way that is consistent with a Christian worldview. Unfortunately, that’s not always what we saw in the comments we received. In the most extreme example, one listener was so incensed he threatened Eric with physical harm. That to me is just remarkable. While I doubt that anyone would actually harm Eric if they had the opportunity, that anger should give us pause.

After all, our ultimate allegiance is to the one who told us to turn the other cheek and that calling our brother a “fool” could make us liable to fiery Gehenna.

Also troubling was the utilitarian and consequentialist, i.e., “the ends justify the means,” framework employed by many of Eric’s critics. For them, the criteria by which the CIA’s actions should be judged is whether they provided good information or prevented future attacks.

Now whether or not the methods “worked” is still in dispute. What’s not in dispute is that, for the Christian, the ends cannot justify the means. We cannot, to borrow a phrase from Paul, “do evil so that good may come.”

One Christian writer has dubbed consequentialism “the most popular moral heresy in the world.” As he noted, “It undergirds both liberal arguments for abortion and conservative arguments for torture.”

In both cases, a violation of the dignity and worth that comes from being created in the image of God is justified by an appeal to some “greater good,” whether it’s personal autonomy or national security—both of which are indeed very good.

Other critics noted that our enemies are more evil, and had Eric only seen this kind of evil, he would change his tune. But what level of evil is justified by seeing evil? Acts, and those that commit them, must be judged on their own merits, not in comparison with others.

There’s no question that it’s very difficult to be citizens of two kingdoms; but Christians are. As Chuck Colson liked to say, being citizens of the Kingdom of God should make us better citizens of the kingdom of man. Out of love for our neighbor, we respect the law and we remind Caesar that there are places he cannot legitimately go.

Transgressing against human dignity is one of those places. When Jesus held up that coin and said to render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, he prefaced it by asking “whose image is on this?” Well, God’s image is on us. So human dignity belongs to God, not the government.

Now even if you disagree with us, let’s disagree in a way that acknowledges the deep ethical considerations at stake—and reasons in a way that does justice to what we as Christians profess to be true.

Further Reading and Information

Torture Re-Visited: A Christian View of Means, Ends, and ‘the Greater Good’
To continue the conversation on this topic, post your thoughts in the comments section below.


The Torture Report: Violating Human Dignity
Eric Metaxas | | December 15, 2014

Why We Tortured, Why We Shouldn’t
Ross Douthat | New York Times | December 10, 2014

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