The Common Good

Torture: What Part of 'Do Not Repay Evil for Evil' Don't You Understand?

There is much to be disturbed about in the recent revelation of the Bush administration torture memos. But one aspect of this conversation I find profoundly troubling is the comment by the current Director of National Intelligence, Dennis C. Blair:

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Those methods, read on a bright, sunny, safe day in April 2009, appear graphic and disturbing ... But we will absolutely defend those who relied on these memos.

The implication that definitions of right and wrong depend on the climate -- meteorological or political -- is one that should make Christians who believe in bibilical standards of morality shudder.

This reminds me of a conversation I had shortly after 9/11 among a group of politically diverse Christians. One person expressed how over the years he had come to believe more in nonviolence as the obvious interpretation of Jesus' teachings -- but now that the terrorists had struck, he was reconsidering.

What disturbed me was not that he might have an interpretation of "blessed are the peacemakers," "love your enemies," and "turn the other cheek" that was different from my pacifism. I'm used to that. Many Christians of good faith interpret these teachings differently. What disturbed me was that he was changing his mind because he now felt threatened. Perhaps, as a white male American citizen he had never felt such vulnerability before.

In hindsight, I'd like to have asked him whether Martin Luther King should have reconsidered nonviolence when KKK terrorists blew up black churches. I'd ask him whether Gandhi should have reconsidered nonviolence when the British massacred peaceful protesters. Or Tutu, when the South African government jailed, tortured, and murdered his countrymen.

Followers of Jesus need to know right from wrong both on the bright, safe, sunny days of peace as well as when they're in the valley of the shadow of death. And our trust is in God for our security, not waterboarding. As scripture teaches in Romans 12:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

If we do otherwise, we become the evil we deplore. Or at the very least, we delegate it to the CIA.

When it comes to questions of right and wrong, "either/or" thinking can sometimes be dangerous, and our life's circumstances always cause our values and ethics to evolve over time as we learn and grow with new information and experiences. However, the notion that standards of moral behavior can be cast aside when we're in danger is not one that I find support for either in scripture -- my standard for such questions -- or in international commitments to human rights, the world's legal standard.

Though I understand the political calculus, I am disappointed that in regard to this issue President Obama has said "nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past." When it comes to truth commissions, I believe in a "No Torturer Left Behind" policy, including those who approved the techniques. The "just following orders" defense just doesn't cut it when it comes to war crimes. Just ask the Japanese soldiers we prosecuted for waterboarding during World War II.

But ultimately, I do have confidence that it is God's standard of justice that the perpetrators of these crimes -- whether terrorism or torture -- will ultimately face.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the Web Editor for Sojourners and a freelance photojournalist whose work can be seen at www.ryanrodrickbeiler.com.

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