November 02, 2007

Evangelicals and Torture

Back in March 2007, a group of evangelicals published An Evangelical Declaration against Torture. It is a broad statement advocating an evangelical-biblical logic for the sanctity of life and human rights. Recently, Keith Pavlischeck has published an article in Books & Culture criticizing the declaration as misleading and missing the moral point. I won't rehearse all of the details here, but I do think this is such an important moral issue that it is worth some reflection. I was just listening to a discussion on NPR last evening about conditions in Guantanamo Bay, and even though the discussion may have been slanted toward making things sound worse than they are (the interviewee was a defense lawyer for some detainees), I'm sure that it has a good kernel of truth. And that basic truth is that the people in Guantanamo, guilty or innocent, are not treated well. I have always wanted to think that the US doesn't torture people, but I'm afraid that is decidedly a false assumption, as a seeming endless parade of evidence is showing.

I acknowledge that the issues are indeed very complicated, and that simple answers are elusive, but I think it is still worth pondering. One question is about justification for the distinction between legal and illegal combatants, such an important one in the situation in Guantanamo, for instance. The basic logic discussed in Pavlischeck's article is that if the US or any nation were to extend rights equal to legal combatants to those who are illegal, they are in a sense sanctioning that illegal behavior, and thereby undermining basic human rights by discouraging the distinction between combatants and civilians, and thus making conflicts more difficult to fight and causing more civilian deaths.

I hadn't really thought of that logic, and must admit that there is a certain sense to it. But I don't think it is a very strong argument. First, I don't think human rights are earned, and even people who do deplorable things deserve basic rights of fair treatment. Now I do want more civilians to be spared harm, and want combatants to fight as legal combatants, but I hardly think this bit of logic has made any difference to our al Quaeda or Taliban adversaries. First, do they have any idea that that is our supposed logic. And, second, do they consider themselves illegal combatants. Who gets to decide? If they consider themselves essentially legal (as I'm sure they do), then our logic backfires a bit, since then we are seen as taking at least as low a road as they do. What good does that do?

I've struggled with questions of pacifism and just war, capital punishment, and the like for years, and think they are important issues and that both sides usually have very valid points. But I'm more and more coming to the conclusion that grace, while it often goes against worldly or pragmatic logic, sheds amazing and refreshing light on the situation. I think our country would be much better off if we treated all people, including those that don't deserve it, as human beings worthy of respect, we would do a lot to further peace and reconciliation in the world, not to mention cleansing our own tortured conscience. I encourage you to look into these issues for yourself. Read the article from Books & Culture, read the Evangelical Declaration against Torture, think on these things.

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