A Moral Calculus for Torture

Warning: Undefined variable $silent in /home/learhvzn/public_html/thussaidthelord.com/wp-content/plugins/footnotes-for-wordpress/wp-footnotes.php on line 156

Warning: Undefined variable $silent in /home/learhvzn/public_html/thussaidthelord.com/wp-content/plugins/footnotes-for-wordpress/wp-footnotes.php on line 156

Warning: Undefined variable $silent in /home/learhvzn/public_html/thussaidthelord.com/wp-content/plugins/footnotes-for-wordpress/wp-footnotes.php on line 156

Brian Zahnd, the author of this article, “You Cannot Be Christian and Support Torture“, offers a naive and surprisingly shallow view of the moral issues involved in deciding whether torture is ever justifiable, much less moral — beginning with the observation that he never defines what it means to torture. He cites no theological reflection of those who have thought deeply on this topic and who would profoundly disagree. He narrows the definition of love by limiting its application only to the terrorist being tortured. His reflection selfishly ignores the equal requirement to show love and compassion for the potential victims of the terrorist who knows where the bomb is and when it’s to be detonated. His absolutist argument is of no use to those responsible for finding the bomb before its detonation and the subsequent mass murder of thousands.

This author is a morally unserious man with a child’s view of the tough, heart-rending choices faced by those people responsible for the safety of others. In the end, his article is nothing more than moral preening.

However, if you are serious about the moral issues involved in torture a good place to start would be here – an article I wrote some years ago called “A Moral Calculus for Torture: the case for Defensive Interrogatory Coercion:”

Biblical Support

The question is simply this:

Do the Judeo-Christian biblical traditions impose on a nation state a moral obligation to use treatment that causes discomfort and even pain to seek to compel an enemy to do what is morally right? In the ticking time bomb scenerio, for example, the question can be made more specific, i.e., can a state seek to force the terrorist to divulge the location of the bomb before it detonates and murders an untold number of innocent people.

Psalm 82:4-5 teaches that God expects us to deliver from the wicked those that cannot fend for themselves either because they are too weak to defend themselves or simply unaware of the danger. Accordingly, God established nation states with governing authority to protect its citizens from evil

Romans 13 describes the reciprocal obligations of the nation’s governing authority and its citizens. Specifically, the governing authority is to be exercised in the defense of its citizens[1]. In turn, its citizens are to obey its laws. In this regard, 13:4 is especially important because St. Paul makes no distinction between citizens and foreigners who would jeopardize or threaten a nation’s citizens and therefore bring the state’s authority into view.

  • 13:1 A nation’s citizens are subject to the nation’s governing authority because that authority is granted by God.
  • 13:4 The state is not to exercise its authority for its own interests, but in the interests of its citizens.
  • 13:8 Those who fulfill the laws [of their nations] are those who love (ἀγαπῶν[2]) their neighbor.
  • 13:10 The proper exercise of love does no harm to one’s neighbor.

ASIDE: What is meant by neighbor (πλησίον)[3]:

According to Luke 10:25:37) any other person irrespective of race, religion, or nation, but with whom we live or happen to meet is considered “neighbor”. See also, Matthew 19:19 and 22:30; Mark 12:31; Romans 15:2; Galatians 5:14; Ephesians 4:25 and James 2:8

This chapter in Romans justify a nations obligation to defend its citizens from both domestic and foreign agents who wage war against it. However, verse 13:10 warrants an additional comment. To not prevent a terrorist-caused tragedy because of the commandment to show love to one’s enemies objectively harms your neighbor. If you represent the governing authority and allow your citizen/neighbors to be massacred because you do not want to hurt the feelings of the murderer, you have effectively furthered evil in no small way.


  1. [1]Defense is broadly defined in scripture. Specifically, to defend another person means not only to protect a citizen from external aggression, but also to protect its citizens from lawlessness caused by other citizens.
  2. [2]Refers not to emotional love, but sacrificial love. A love whose actions put the love of neighbor above that of oneself.
  3. [3]From Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the NT, ref 4283.
This entry was posted in Ethics, Justice, Law, Political, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to A Moral Calculus for Torture

  1. Philip says:

    I found your post from reading Brian’s. I’d be curious how one makes the choice as to whom they love? The terrorist or the person who the terrorist is trying to hurt?

    You’ve created a situation in which the agent must not love one of them. How do they choose? There is no argument that torture is loving to the one being tortured. You make the argument that to not torture is to not loves those who would be harmed so I’m stuck at the who we choose to not love? My readings of the scripture (bias and personal interpretation included) don’t show in the teachings and call of Jesus a “if X then don’t love” option.

    I wonder if the answer is that Christian’s should actively avoid roles that place themselves as the agent who makes the choice.

  2. Michael says:

    I very much appreciate your comment, Philip. However, and regrettably, I cannot address your question explicitly because you make the assumption that you and I agree on the definition of what it means to torture (or be tortured). This was one of the major problems I had with the original article by Brian Zahnd.

    I hope you’ll offer your definition of torture that we might continue the conversation. In the meantime, blessings to you.


    • Philip says:

      I think the idea that we need a common definition is unnecessary. I realize that your definition in your paper draws a line that “torture refers to acts that carry no permanent after effects” I’m fine to go with that definition. And I have no interest in the semantic discussion of how you could know that what your doing won’t leave a lasting psychological effect.

      Using your definition all of my curiosities from above still stand. While it may not leave permanent after effects the acts are by nature unpleasant to put it mildly. How is that loving towards the person being tortured? How do we choose whom we love?

      You’ve talked about the immanent threat issue. What if the only way to get that information is to cause lasting harm?

      I suppose those are my two questions now. 1) you are the agent acting in this situation, how do you pick whom to not love ie/torture (with your definition of acceptable torture)

      2) what do you do if lasting harm is the only option?

      It seems to me that you’ve simply moved the line a little further but see some implicit reality that Jesus is not in favour of treating people in certain ways. To draw that line at lasting harm vs. simply harm I think is to miss some core teachings of Christ.

  3. Michael says:

    >Using your definition all of my curiosities from above still stand.

    >While [engaging in coercive interrogation] may not leave permanent
    >after effects, the act [of such interrogations] are by nature unpleasant
    >to put it mildly.
    Exactly right!

    >How is that loving towards the person being tortured?
    It is not! But then neither is capital punishment an act of love, nor is killing in self-defense. God recognizes that His moral values as applied to human conduct are not absolute. We are regularly called to apply wisdom (a gift from God) and the virtue of prudence to the moral and ethical dilemmas of life.

    >How do we choose whom we love?
    We must love everyone, no matter who they are. This is precisely why one of the tenets of Just War Theory (largely developed and extended by Christian theologians like Augustine and Aquinas) require that a nation may engage in war if, and only if, all Just War Requirements are met, including the 8th one, i.e., undertaken with great reluctance and sorrow at the harm that will come as a result (e.g., we are not to “delight in war” (psalm 68:30).

    >You have talked about the immanent threat issue. What if the only way to
    >get that information is to cause lasting harm?
    Lasting harm to whom? The victims of the bombing or the terrorist or both?

    >Hypothetical: you are the agent acting in this situation, how do you pick whom
    >to not love i.e., torture (with your definition of acceptable torture)
    Among other biblical warrants, I would be especially guided by Leviticus 19:17-18 which tells us that when we choose not to confront evil on behalf of our brother we share in the guilt of the evil-doer. In fact, v. 18 teaches that to intervene in order to protect/defend your brother is an act of love.

    >what do you do if lasting harm is the only option?
    As Luther (after St. Paul) reminded us; if no other choice is available sin boldly.

    >To draw that line at lasting harm vs. simply harm I think is to miss some core teachings of Christ.
    And what would those teaching be?

    • Philip says:

      I think there are two things at play here which may lead to a continued disconnect.

      The first is in the way that we would approach the bible. While the verses you sight make good sense, they need to be interpreted in the light of the life Christ lead. We follow Jesus not the bible. The bible shows us the person of Jesus, of whom we are disciples. With that understanding yes, we are to confront evil as you have noted, but with an other centred love ethic. The teachings of Jesus call us to a greater depth of love and a higher standard than what was in Leviticus. The bible is read through the lens of the person of Jesus. So when you note that it’s not loving to torture, use capital punishment or kill in self defense, then we as followers of Christ as called to live that same way. Jesus didn’t defend himself when he could have but rather rebuke Peter when he cut off the guards ear.

      What I see in your interpretation, which may not be true, is that the teachings of Jesus can be superseded. My understanding is that they cannot. Jesus said love your enemy so you much always love your enemy. The addition of reluctance and sorrow doesn’t allow us to then act unloving. We must give of ourselves and if necessary our lives, just as Jesus did.

      The second thing that is at play here I think is the difference between the state and the church. While the state is called to the sword the church is called to love. So while Just War may be the possible process for a state to protect itself, the church should not take part. The church is called to love not to take up the sword.

      So perhaps part of the issue is Christians functioning as part of the state. In doing so they place themselves in a situation where they must choose which kingdom they will follow. The kingdom of this world, no matter how well intentioned and careful the process, of the Kingdom of God, the other centric love ethic.

      this to me seems to be the core of the discussion. Because I see a Christian as one who is actively trying to follow the teachings and life of Christ, there is never a justification for violence with the Christian as the agent of that violence. So all the other parts about Just War grounds, the amount and permanence of harm, none of that matters. It’s to me a choice of following the teachings and life of Christ or not. The kingdom of God is not of this world and calls us to live counter to this world.

      P.S. I won’t have internet for about a week starting tomorrow around noon so if I don’t respond it’s the internet rather than a lack of interest.

      • Michael says:

        OK, we’re getting to the nub of it. Here’s what you wrote:

        In doing so they [Christians] place themselves in a situation
        where they must choose which kingdom they will follow.

        The question before you still remains: which “kingdom” would you follow in the ticking time bomb scenerio. Would you (1) Waterboard the terrorist who you know for certain can reveal the time and place of the detonation OR, (2) and standby while everyone within 3 miles of the bomb is obliterated – men, women, children?

        • Philip says:

          I suppose I see the scenario as rigged. The scenario presumes a number of acts that would be most accounts not fall under what a person holding a view or perspective that I’m presenting would take. They would never be in the situation you present. A few examples; what pacifist has the equipment for water boarding? how did I capture this person? How have I restrained and subdued a violent terrorist? Why am I chasing this terrorist knowing that it will require violence? If it’s my job why did a take a job that require me to act this way? There’s just a lot going on that has led to this point that requires compromise of the position many pacifists would hold.

          It’s not as if the terrorist walked into my house, brought with in ropes and straps, adhered them to a table, set up a water drip, laid down and then said “I know where a bomb is and I will tell you but you must take part in this water boarding.”

          It’s like saying “you need to shoot one of your children which do you choose?” Well how we got there is probably important and why those are the only options are probably important. To me the question seems akin to ” can God create a bolder so big He can’t lift it?” More of a word game than a real scenario because the real scenario comes with context that breaks down the end result in such a way that I wouldn’t be there.

          So my point is that you are to a large extent choosing the kingdom you will follow long before the ticking time bomb event. You choose it when you take on a role that requires you to be violent, no matter how noble the reason.

        • Philip says:

          No further thoughts?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.