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by David P. Gushee

Consensus Against Torture

A response to Keith Pavlischek.

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.

This is all that really needs to be said. The world (literally) is waiting to see whether American evangelicals will make the right choice.

But for those who want some history on the background of our declaration, and more thorough engagement with the criticisms offered by Pavlischek, read on.


EDAT was born at the invitation of the interfaith anti-torture coalition called the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (www.nrcat.org), which was conceived by theologian George Hunsinger of Princeton Seminary and began work in early 2006. NRCAT came looking in the summer of 2006 for evangelical partners to broaden their coalition and deepen its effectiveness. This is just the latest example in my experience of mainline and secular groups with various causes coming to us as evangelicals in a search for coalition partners. It signals the relative strength of evangelicals (at 60 million Americans) over against the mainline (at 20 million). It is indeed the evangelical moment. The question is whether we are ready for the spiritual, intellectual, and moral responsibilities that go with our numerical strength. It is a fearsome task to now function as the pivotal constituency in the public life of the most powerful nation in the world. No matter every day's newspaper contains endless pondering over our political convictions.

As I had already written a cover story about torture at the request of the editors of Christianity Today, I was a part of the group asked to be involved. Others in the original core group were Rick Cizik, Ron Sider, and Glen Stassen. We agreed to work on a broad human rights declaration that would include clear denunciation of torture. We eventually settled on the name Evangelicals for Human Rights (EHR) for our nascent effort. I ended up becoming the leader of the drafting process and eventually of the organization that has come to exist as a result.

Our drafting process lasted throughout the fall of 2006 and into the early winter of 2007. Working with considerable research help from my brilliant staffer, Mary Head, I provided the first draft. It was worked over in multiple drafts by the various members of the drafting committee, whose names can be found on our website. Contrary to Pavlischek's suggestion, my dear friend Ron Sider (the only pacifist on our drafting committee) had very little impact on constructing the argument of the declaration.

I was the one who decided to structure the argument using a sanctity-of-life rather than just-war approach. This is partly because I was working on a book (and continue working on a book) for Eerdmans in which I am attempting a thoroughgoing exploration of the moral norm we now call "sanctity of life" or "sacredness of human life." It is my hunch that properly understood, this norm is a) true to the best of biblical and western thought, b) sturdy enough to serve as a foundation for the protection of human dignity wherever it is threatened, c) an important bridge to/from Roman Catholic thought, and d) intuitively appealing to the moral sensibility of evangelical Christians.

Our declaration has been excoriated by Pavlischek and others because it took this path rather than the just-war path. I will grant that there were a few voices in our drafting process who thought that the statement would have benefited from more treatment of the theme of justice, though none of us anticipated that the apparently canonical status of just-war theory would be such a point of contention in the response to the statement.

Pavlischek will know that the influence of Dr. Glen Stassen, my own mentor in Christian ethics and a fellow drafter of EDAT, has played some role in the relatively limited and non-canonical use of just-war theory in my own writing. I do believe that Stassen's just-peacemaking theory has helped illuminate the limits of just-war thinking and the need for serious supplementation.

But for a number of years I have on my own been increasingly struck by the politicization of the theory and its dubious usefulness as a tool of moral discernment. In the run-up to the Iraq War, I wrote an article for Christian Century in which I argued that there is a split within just-war theory between those who find that it justifies almost every U.S. war and those who can almost never find justification for a war in its categories. If pressed, I claim for myself a "strict" use of just-war theory which emphasizes the need for careful Christian/citizen scrutiny of the claims of government officials, and a default position of opposition to war unless clearly persuaded otherwise. I believe that most conservative Catholic and evangelical Christians employ what amounts to a "permissive" rather than strict just-war theory, rooted in an inappropriately authoritarian reading of the Bible and too great a tendency to trust the claims of government officials arguing for war—a tendency which surfaced most regrettably once again in the run-up to the Iraq War. And overall I tend to think that just-war thinking involves a kind of quasi-legal casuistry that as an evangelical ethicist I find unsatisfying wherever it is employed.

All of this is to say that I did not craft the declaration based on just-war theory because, a) It is a postbiblical theory that really should not be given such quasi-canonical status, b) it is a politicized theory that is in crisis in American Christian ethics and public theology, and c) it can have a tendency to encourage a hair-splitting moral casuistry rather than a more reflective kind of engagement that gets to deeper questions of national character and the nature of Christian moral obligation.

I think that so many notable evangelical Christians signed our declaration precisely because it was rooted in a commitment to the sanctity of every human life. They resonated at a heart level (and yes, the heart does matter in Christian ethics) with the basic idea that it is wrong for any defenseless, disarmed human being (whoever he may be, whatever he may have done, whether he is classified as an "unlawful enemy combatant" or a "lawful enemy combatant") to be cruelly and wantonly victimized by those who have total power over him.

Perhaps our declaration painted a mental picture for readers of a human being, made in God's image and sacred in God's sight, being mentally and physically tortured by … well, by us. Maybe they resonated with the idea that in this time of national fear and anger, "the least of these" whom Jesus spoke of might be found among the thousands of people we have imprisoned in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, Iraq, and God only knows where else. The declaration was saying that even suspected terrorists are sacred in God's sight. Maybe this just feels like a Gospel truth to a lot of evangelicals. Maybe it is a Gospel truth.

Early in his essay, Pavlischek notes that the title of the document doesn't seem to match its content. It is called "An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture," but it actually covers a broader range of issues. I can shed some light on how that happened.

When our drafting committee was finished with the document, it carried the title, "Human Rights in an Age of Terror: An Evangelical Declaration." And this is precisely what it was. In what became a quite lengthy document, we ended up with a broad focus and a desire to do several things: to undertake the biblical/theological work necessary to deepen the concept of the sanctity of life; to help evangelicals broaden their understanding of the sanctity of life so that it would include the treatment of suspected terrorists; to defend and deepen evangelical understanding of human rights and anchor it firmly in Christian rather than Enlightenment thought; and then to zero in on notable violations of human rights (and international and U.S. law) in the U.S. war on terror.

In February 2007 we submitted the declaration to the 40-member board of the National Association of Evangelicals in preparation for their March meeting. All we really wanted was for them to promise to study the declaration and encourage their constituencies to do the same. Instead, they went far beyond our hopes and adopted the declaration on the spot. In the process, they changed the title to "An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Terror." I think they did this to make it unmistakably clear that their group, representing 45,000 churches and 30 million American evangelical Christians, was saying a clear no to torture. Losing my preferred title and gaining the backing of the NAE board was a tradeoff well worth making, and I have never changed the title back to its original version.


A handful of nagging issues remain, most of which were raised just after the release of the document and have now surfaced again in Pavlischek's critique. I would like to close this essay by reflecting on two of these issues and to indicate how we are dealing with them at EHR as our work moves forward.

The first of these is the issue of why the declaration does not begin with a definition of torture. One reason should be a bit clearer now—the declaration was not originally written as a declaration against torture but instead as a declaration for the sanctity of life and human rights in all situations—including interrogations in the war on terror.  And we took great care to define both the sacredness of life and human rights quite carefully.

Of course, the deeper issue is that torture, like obscenity, is both extremely difficult to define and yet somehow intuitively apparent. The very act of attempting to define it involves the definer in a series of very important choices that are significant both at the level of moral theory and human character.

It is striking that most international conventions and treaties that deal with torture never offer a tight definition of the term, rarely more than a phrase like "severe pain or suffering intentionally inflicted" by a state official on a disarmed, imprisoned person. This must tell us something other than that the drafters of all of these international conventions and treaties were ludicrously incompetent.

The general pattern in these declarations is to define a circumstance in which persons are detained and disarmed, usually in combat. The question is then how such persons may be treated. Stated negatively, they are not to be treated cruelly, not to have their bodies mutilated, not to have their human dignity outraged, not to be humiliated and degraded. Stated positively, they are to be treated in a humane and dignified manner. One might say that these strictures operate at the moral principle level; they do not offer detailed rules, but do offer broad parameters or standards of behavior that most civilized people recognize as sufficient to guide conduct. Certainly they have been deemed sufficient by all of the national signatories of all of the many treaties and conventions that take this form.

But the critic wants more. The critic wants to know what particular acts are ruled out by these broad principles. One might say that the critic wants moral rules, not just moral principles. He wants rules specific enough to clarify which particular acts may not be performed. He wants precise definitions of what interrogation techniques constitute cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and then precise definitions of which particular techniques go beyond that to constitute torture.

Both Western and Christian moral tradition ought to lead us immediately to ask why the move beyond principles to rules is now suddenly required. An appropriate hermeneutic of suspicion related to human sinfulness ought immediately to surface. Because we know that generally when we human beings want to know exactly what acts are ruled out by a broad moral principle, we are up to no good.

If, for example, we are serving in a marital counseling role, and we find one of the partners asking what exact acts are ruled out by the promise of fidelity made on the wedding day, neither the other spouse nor we are likely to feel terribly encouraged by the question. And if, for example, our teenage child should happen to ask us what precise acts constitute a violation of the principle of abstinence from sex before marriage, we will likewise be more than a bit concerned. Our question will be, "Why might you want to know?"

And so when our country ends up engaged in an awkward national conversation over what exact acts are ruled out by the moral and legal prohibition of torture, we have a very big problem. That the question is being asked signals how badly we have gone astray as a people. 

Of course, for practical reasons our government must do all that it can to specify what acts, in particular what kinds of interrogation techniques, fall within our nation's laws that already ban torture. Interrogators must have this guidance so that, among other things, they are not prosecuted later for torture for acts they believed to be within the law.

In EDAT, we essentially concede this point, accepting and enumerating the limits imposed by the U.S. Army Field Manual (EDAT, 6.11). Among the acts that are now banned by the Field Manual which we specifically mention in our declaration are waterboarding, beatings, sexual humiliation, food and water deprivation, mock executions, burnings, and electric shock. Among acts not banned in the Field Manual are the use of stress positions and sleep deprivation. These omissions are disturbing, but for working purposes EHR and other anti-torture groups accept that this is the best set of limits we can get right now and simply ask that the standards contained in the Field Manual apply to the CIA and everyone else.

So, what is our exact definition of the "torture" that we are "against"? It is the same "torture" that is banned without specific rule-oriented or act-oriented definitions by numerous international treaties and conventions which the United States has signed, as well as in the 1992 edition of the U.S. Army Field Manual which simply banned "acts of violence or intimidation, including physical or mental torture … as a means of or aid to interrogation" (quoted in 6.11).

And if you are looking for specific rules or acts that this general anti-torture principle precludes, we are "against" acts banned by the United States Army Field Manual as of its 2006 revision, which specifically include waterboarding, beatings, sexual humiliation, food and water deprivation, mock executions, burnings, and electric shock.

If you want more specificity than that, you are on your own, and God bless you.

There is one further criticism levied against EDAT that I now accept, at least in part. That is the claim made by Pavlischek and others that the statement does not adequately address national security concerns and does not adequately treat the Romans 13 mandate to protect the innocent from those who would harm them.

These themes were briefly mentioned in our declaration, but our statement needed to be clearer on these points. I think I understand why it was not. It's because what fundamentally motivated the statement was Christian moral concern over the drift into torture by our nation. We were not at the time prepared to offer a comprehensive analysis of the national security worries that had, at least in part, motivated the drift into torture.

In my office at Mercer University I have displayed one of those desperately sad pictures of the Twin Towers aglow with light against the night sky.

I lived in New York City for two years. I went up in those towers to the very top floors. I will never forget how awesome those buildings were, both in looking up from the ground level and looking down from the highest floors. Every time I go back to New York City I go to Ground Zero and grieve the astonishing and incredible evil of that day. Every time I look at the picture on my wall of the Twin Towers I imagine what it must have been like to be in one of those airplanes.

I grew up in northern Virginia in the 1960s and 1970s. My father worked for the United States government, as did the fathers and mothers of many of my friends. A number of them worked in the Pentagon. I know that men and women very much like my own father were murdered in Washington on September 11, and that those who work in those buildings today are still targeted for murder.

It is indeed the obligation of the government to prevent another September 11.

But it is also the obligation of the government to do so without torturing people.

I fear that evangelicals have a theology that is very clear about the first of these claims, because of the way Romans 13 has been read in classic Protestantism. But we are not as clear about the second claim, probably because we read Romans 13 in an absolutist, top-down, government-knows-best manner. We understand that government is mandated by God to deter evil and keep order; we sometimes forget the tendency of government to drift into evil and turn order into tyranny. But this reality is just as much a part of the biblical witness.

A comprehensive Christian treatment of the issues raised by detention policy in the war on terror must balance the theme of government-as-needed-protector over against the theme of government-as-feared-tyranny; or perhaps, government-as-preventer-of-evil to government-as-purveyor-of-evil. And the delicate way in which we balance these themes will be deeply affected by our reading of the signs of the times, of what is going on around us and what we see to be the need of the hour.

I believe it was Henry Kissinger who said after he left office that most government decisions involve 51 percent vs. 49 percent judgment calls, in which conflicting imperatives create agonizing choices. I accept that the question of how to treat detainees has a 51/49 dimension to it. When human rights activists fail to acknowledge clearly the staggering and genuinely agonizing burdens that face government officials who are constitutionally obligated to protect us from those who would murder us in our airplanes or our offices, they undermine their own cause.

This is one reason why it is important for evangelicals involved in human rights issues to listen not just to the human rights activists but also to tough-minded military people like Keith Pavlischek. We did some of this, but not enough of it as we drafted EDAT. But this is changing now as our work continues.

Even better is when we listen to military people who—precisely out of their experiences of combat and intelligence work and military law—end up becoming advocates for human rights themselves. Many such men and women, such as retired Admiral John Hutson, can be found right in the middle of the fight against torture.

Torture must not be euphemized, rationalized, or evaded. We have tortured. Current government policy permits continued torture. As Christians, we face a choice. Either we say a clear no, or we are auxiliaries to torture. However we make the argument.

David P. Gushee is President of Evangelicals for Human Rights and Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University.

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