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by Keith Pavlischek


Human Rights and Justice in an Age of Terror

An evangelical critique of An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture.

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Because the authors make no attempt to address the issue of torture with any degree of specificity or rigor, I am compelled to engage the Declaration on the "broader issues," particularly the political theology upon which that broader set of conclusions are grounded. But I suspect that, in any case, Professor Gushee and I would reach quite similar conclusions on the range of interrogation techniques that should be termed "torture," and hence be banned without exception. And I suspect there would be little daylight between our respective criticisms of the abuses at Abu Ghraib. (For the record, I believe that far more military heads should have rolled and military careers been summarily terminated for gross failure of leadership and command discipline, regardless of direct culpability for the abusive treatment.) I am more concerned with the political theology and the moral reasoning upon which the conclusions of the Declaration are grounded. In particular, I will investigate the success of Professor Gushee's and the drafters' attempt "to write an intellectually substantive, biblically rooted, theologically rich, definitively Christian treatment of U.S. detainee policy and practice in the war on terror." I will argue that, despite their praiseworthy intentions, the authors failed to "move beyond the kinds of brief declarations and slogans that often circulate on torture and other controversial moral issues and instead tried to offer a serious analysis of a crucial set of moral concerns." (61) And secondly, I will explore the charge of the Declaration's critics that it is a pacifist or quasi-pacifist document. These are matters on which we as Christians can in good conscience disagree, and my response is offered in that spirit.

Overview of the Declaration

The Declaration opens with a section devoted to a biblical defense of the "sanctity of human life," which flows into the next section's defense of "human rights," defined as those rights that "can not be cancelled or overridden," among the most important of which are the "security of persons." The argument then takes a slight detour in the next section with a survey of "Christian History and Human Rights." In his commentary, Professor Gushee describes this as a "thrust in a intra-Christian argument on the concept of human rights." The document then includes a section on "Ethical Implications for Human Rights," with sub-sections on individual responsibility, the role of the church, and the role of the state.

While I will shortly comment on some significant omissions in the section on the "role of the state," suffice it to say that apart from a sentence saying, "In the light of the sinfulness of humanity there is a need for the protection and restraint of laws," we get nothing close to an exposition of what that might entail nor any serious exposition on when or under what conditions or in response to what type of behavior the state might deprive individuals of basic human rights such as life, liberty, or property. That is to say, the "rights language" insisted upon in the document is almost entirely the rights of individual immunity. The rights and obligations of legitimate political authority to protect and defend the commonweal are seriously underdeveloped. This is an odd omission for a document staking out a position on issues related to detainee policy in "an age of terror."  Following the "Ethical Implications" section, the document then proceeds to a section on "Legal Structures regarding Human Rights" with a breezy survey of international and U.S. law and concludes with the specific recommendations in the final section "Human Rights in an Age of Terror."

The most fundamental problem with the Declaration is that it seeks a wide consensus not only on a set of controversial policy conclusions broader than those related to the issue of torture but also at the level of political theology, upon which the more particular conclusions are grounded. Were the sought-after consensus restricted to the narrow issue of torture or perhaps a few carefully defined issues related to the broader issue of detainee policy, these difficulties might not be so problematic. But the Declaration seeks to justify these broader legal and public policy conclusions with a moral-theological-political argument and an awful lot of biblical proof-texting. Here it is worth noting that one will search in vain for a careful reflection on Romans 13 or other classical biblical texts directly related to the normative role of civil government, the obligations of civil authority to protect its citizens, or those relevant to retributive justice or punishment. As a result, at the precise point where the moral argument needs to be bolstered—the moral obligations of public legal authority in an age of terror—the document has nothing to say that is persuasive. In the very sections where one might expect clarity from evangelical theologians, we are given ambiguity. And where we would expect some degree of theological rigor we get superficiality.

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