Because life is a series of edits

When Ethics Teachers Email (Or, On Torture and the Authority of Government)

In Thought on January 14, 2009 at 2:41 pm

With President-elect Obama due to take office in a few days, there's been a renewed surge of attention paid to his campaign promise of closing the prison at Guantanomo Bay. As a result, the topic of torture has come up again and, since the question of how we treat terrorists and the like dovetails (somewhat) with the current discussion I'm having with my Ethics students about the Sixth Commandment and murder, it's probably time I write out what I think.

Despite my secret aspirations to be Jack Bauer, I recognize that, biblically speaking, physical torture is wrong. While I do think there are some acceptable psychological forms (sleep deprivation, etc.) of "breaking" someone for the sake of securing lifesaving information, what most of us find ourselves cheering for on 24 is, well, not really something for which we should be cheering. True, Jack always gets his man in the show, but that's not the way it works in real life; it's just not that easy, and rarely is it right. (A corollary question that 24 is initially pursuing is what does it mean to submit (as Romans 13 urges) to a government that seems increasingly unjust?)

Though I've done some initial study in these areas so as to teach them, I admire and teach with a very wise and well-read fellow Ethics teacher, Larry Hughes. So, while my students were watching Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, which is based on the Leopold and Loeb case of 1924, I emailed Larry (whose students were watching the same film) for his thoughts. Here's a little of the conversation:

Me: I just read The Ethics of Smuggling by Brother Andrew. Some interesting ideas and rationalizations, but many came off a little arrogant (probably just the writing). You got any clarifying thoughts on when it's right to NOT submit to governing authorities (this question also got asked today with regard to Romans 13 and capital punishment)?

Another question: how do you think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's attempt to assassinate Hitler compared with Paul and Peter submitting to Nero? Having trouble reconciling that in my mind. And what about torture?

Larry: Profound book entitled Torture: A Collection, essays edited by Sanford Levinson. Don’t know if you could get a copy from the extensive library system of St. Louis or perhaps even the seminary library might have it. With torture, they discuss the difference between terroristic torture and interrogational torture, an interesting and valid distinction as the argument develops.

On Bonhoeffer, the "ultimate question for a responsible man is not how he is to extricate himself…but how the coming generation is to live" (from Letters and Papers from Prison). The key question for Bonhoeffer is not "What is the right thing for me to do?" but rather "What is to come?" In his circumstance, that meant what would the future hold unless action was taken to stop it? It would hold a world in which Nazism maintained its power and extended its sway and its genocidal politics.

Bonhoeffer denounces the "fanatical devotee of truth" who "can make no allowance for human weakness" and who "betrays the community in which he lives." This version of "truth" demands "its victims' even as the truth-teller remains 'proud' and 'pure.'" (Bonhoeffer, Ethics, pp. 361-363)."

Me: Appreciate the thoughts here. Still not sure how I reconcile Bonhoeffer with Paul in Romans 13. Why didn’t Bonhoeffer submit himself to the Nazis as Paul did to the Romans? Not making the connection (it’s probably me).

Larry: The argument as I understand it (and as I have made it myself, too), is that government is responsible, as Paul says, "For he [that is, government] is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid." It seems here that Paul’s argument is that government’s first duty is to promote the good, and secondarily, "to bring wrath…on the wrongdoer." At least that’s how I read it about government’s role (C.S. Lewis said that a government can be judged good according to the number of nights it helps create for a man to enjoy a pint and a game of darts with his neighbors – I think that’s a good example).

Once government ceases to be an agent of good primarily (knowing that no government can be totally good), then it abrogates its role as designated by God and the right of revolution is real and even morally necessary. In this complex and messy world, we have to guard against two things: 1) too quickly assuming the evil of the government and hastening to revolution, and 2) too quickly assuming the good of the government and being apathetic and willing to accept a majority influence of evil. It does require thinking. And this is the short version."

Me: This is probably what I didn’t like about Brother Andrew’s book. He makes the same argument, but he does so very assumingly and arrogantly. I get what you’re saying here and like the tension; it’s just so hard to teach.

Larry: Yeah, arrogance will kill an argument every time. Also, on Paul, his submission to Rome was (as I read it) in part a ploy on his part in the courtroom to throw off the opposition, as he asserted his natural citizenship as a Roman, so I don’t see it as just a submission on his part. Paul had his plans (think of Spain), but God has his plans, too. They didn’t necessarily overlap and yet, Romans 8:28 is the larger canvas for the story.

It also seems to me that Rome, though a conquering country, had established the Pax Romana (peace of Rome). During that time, Jesus was free to travel, preach, etc., carrying out his mission without any real interference until the end.

There’s a lot to talk about here.

Indeed there is. Anyone else care to join the conversation?

  1. When I took Christian Ethics at CTS, with David Jones, our emphasis for the year was just war theory (this would have been Fall of 2002, about a year after 9/11). My semester research paper was on torture. I think the thesis that I argued was that perhaps in a vacuum torture could be justified in certain circumstances, but in the real world there would always be too many contingencies and unknowns to ever allow one to be confident that it would be a righteous action.
    Regarding submission to government, we have to remember (and I think this was acknowledged in your exchange) that there is a difference between an imperfect, or even a faulty, government, and one that is given to promote and protect evil instead of good. Given that premise, even extremely faulty governmental systems, such as fascism or communism, may still “deserve” our submission if they are fulfilling their basic responsibilities of protecting/promoting good and punishing evil.
    With that said, God’s people always have the right, even the responsibility, to work toward helping justice and righteousness to flourish in their societies. That was the idea behind the American Civil Rights movement. It would probably have been unjustifiable for Black citizens of the U.S. to engage in outright rebellion, or seek to overthrow the existing governmental structures. However, it was right and faithful for them to seek to change unjust laws and practices by using the apparatus of government already in place–the courts, the right to assemble peaceably, exercising the right to vote, the freedom and power of speech and political persuasion, etc. Such activities do not evidence lack of submission to the government, but rather they show how submission can lead to the refinement and improvement of government, helping it live up to its own principles.
    Finally, on the comparison between Nero and Hitler, it can easily be acknowledged that both men were evil and criminal. But the difference is that Nero was an evil man who happened to be the head of a government that was still fulfilling its roles (even if not well). Hitler, on the other hand, was an evil man who was also the head and driving force of a government that had completely abdicated and perverted its God-given role. There was no possibility citizens of Germany could have utilized the existing structure of their government to either remove Hitler or alter his policies. And, in many cases, the mere act of obeying the law of the land would have required many citizens to break the law of God, which is obviously an unacceptable compromise. Thus, a plan of assassination of Hitler was not so much an attempt at “murder” but an act of war, of rebellion, with the intent of loving one’s neighbors.
    Sorry to be so long-winded. That’s so unlike me!

  2. I don’t know…but I have long considered this question, and Craig you are correct, 24 is in large part the reason. It makes you face really tough questions. Are there any instances in which the protection and deliverance of thousands—maybe millions—justifies the torture of one? And what exactly constitutes “torture?” Is there a “line” you have to cross?
    I am not so sure it is as simple as saying “no” or “yes.” When things like this come up I am often reminded of Dan Allendar’s book Leading with a Limp, in which he outlines some challenges to making decisions. One I come up against again and again is complexity: the issues are so complex that we over-simplify them and become “rigid,” saying a simple yea or nay in response. But what is often needed is a case-by-case decision, which is much more difficult.
    I don’t really know the answer to this question, though I have my leanings, of course! I will save all my Romans 13 comments for another time…

  3. i typed a very long comment reflecting on this discussion but typepad wouldn’t allow me to post it for some reason.
    oh well.

  4. Travis, not sure why you can’t post, but email it to me and I’ll put it up for you. I’m sure it would be worth reading.
    Curious: how did you post what you posted?

  5. uh… i deleted the comment and don’t have the time now to rewrite it all. just pretend that it was very profound and thought provoking.
    yeah, i don’t know what i did differently to be able to post now.

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