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by David P. Gushee


Consensus Against Torture

A response to Keith Pavlischek.

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I would like to begin by thanking my former colleague and old friend Keith Pavlischek for his careful engagement with our "Evangelical Declaration Against Torture" (henceforth EDAT). I learned a long time ago that in the world of ideas it is far better to be critiqued than to be ignored. Most authors would prefer a negative review to no review at all. For Pavlischek to devote such an intellectually rigorous torrent of words to EDAT must mean that the declaration matters. On this, at least, we can agree.

Actually, reading his critique I find much more that we can and do agree on. We agree that EDAT is imperfect. I am happy to grant that point, though of course I find more value in the statement than he does. Pavlischek's criticisms, and those of others, have helped evangelicals who are engaged in anti-torture work to sharpen our arguments and to broaden our conversation partners. As we continue our efforts now and in days to come under the banner of Evangelicals for Human Rights and in other venues, we are already taking account of the kinds of criticisms raised in his essay.

There is something much more important that we agree on: Pavlischek rejects torture. He says, "I suspect that … Professor Gushee and I would reach quite similar conclusions on the range of interrogation techniques that should be termed 'torture' and hence banned without exception." He attacks the abuses of Abu Ghraib. He calls for greater accountability for the military leaders who were ultimately responsible for those horrific abuses. Wonderful! He does not embrace the way EDAT is argued, but he does essentially embrace its most important conclusion, that the United States must defend itself without resort to interrogation techniques that constitute torture, even when dealing with such loathsome enemies as al Qaeda. He seems to ask in his essay for a good-faith recognition of this commitment on his part, and I grant it.

Thank you, my friend. Now I ask your help in soliciting the same clear declaration on this issue from James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Pat Robertson, Richard Land, every other visible conservative evangelical leader and every presidential candidate. Together we need to ask these national leaders to say that they abhor torture (as defined by both domestic law and international conventions and treaties, with waterboarding currently serving as a chillingly direct test case) and that they will from now on boldly declare their opposition to any use of torture by our government. We might also together ask them to reject the rendition of suspected terrorists to nations where they are sure to be tortured. We could call on them to support pending legislation that establishes the tough but limited interrogation techniques enumerated in the US Army Field Manual as the national standard for interrogations in every branch of the government, not because the Field Manual is perfect but because it is public and does indeed set some explicit limits—and not so much for the sake of the terrorists but for the sake of our own national soul.

Even readers who, like Pavlischek, disagree with the argumentation of EDAT but who join him in forcefully rejecting torture should now feel free to join political leaders like John McCain, along with evangelical leaders like David Neff, Jim Skillen, Leith Anderson, Rich Cizik, all but one member of the National Association of Evangelicals board, Bob Andringa, Joel Hunter, Cheryl Bridges Johns, Sam Rodriguez, Ron Sider, Glen Stassen, Miroslav Volf, Berten Waggener, Nick Wolterstorff, and many others who did sign our statement and in so doing clearly and publicly offered an unequivocal rejection of torture by the United States government in the war on terror.

What matters the most is not whether one believes that a just-war rather than a sanctity-of-life argument would have been the best way to construct a Christian argument against torture, or whether the intellectual cogency of the document was damaged by our effort to keep together a pacifist and just-war coalition of authors and signers, or even whether we properly delineated the distinction between lawful and unlawful enemy combatants.

What really matters is whether evangelical Christians who have committed themselves to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and have submitted their lives to the authority of Scripture will accept the moral legitimacy of our government strapping anyone made in God's image upside down on boards, putting cloth over their mouths, and pouring water down their throats and up their noses with the intention of simulating asphyxiation. Or, perhaps, sticking a knife in a prisoner's thigh, inducing hypothermia, employing sexual humiliation, beating people within an inch of their lives, or threatening them with attack dogs. The ultimate question is whether evangelical Christians have the capacity to say no to such violations of human dignity precisely because we affirm that Jesus Christ is Lord of all.

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