Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Spying, lying and torture denying

As Mr. Justice Thomas would say, something is seriously awry when Christians defend the practice of torture and celebrate Christmas at the same time. Words fail me, but that is what I found when I checked back to read the comments made at Evangelical Outpost that I linked Monday. This articulate comment appeared down the thread. I copy it here to keep in my cyber-scrapbook. Read it and be edified.

Thanks for hosting this important forum. In my view, this is a watershed issue for both the United States of America and for the Evangelical movement in America. I fear greatly that both will fail with serious repercussions. The United States will fail in upholding the very values that have made our nation a shining light of hope in this cruel and bloody world. Evangelicals will fail our duty both to Christ and to the culture in which we serve. If we do, we will not only do irreparable damage to our image, but to our actual identity. America, especially, will have lost its credibility as an agent of mercy among the nations. But, worse, the very people who clamor so loudly for America's status as a "Christian nation" may support or at least facilitate America's abandonment of the very Christian values we supposedly hold dear. Make no mistake, the sanction of torture represents a radical break with American military ideals and the tolerance of this by Evangelicals would represent a radical failure to speak prophetically to our nation. Our "culture of life" message will be reduced to hypocritical rhetoric at the very moment in our nation's history when it is in fact most imperative.

It is true that there are difficult matters here. How do we define torture? (I thought John Jefferson Davis did an outstanding job of this). How do we enact useful and relevant laws regarding it? These are difficult . But the basic question of torture should not be difficult for Christians, and Christian leaders must speak clearly to the nation about it. If our response is one of technical jargon and situational-ethics equivocation, we will lose our moral high ground (such as we still have) -- and we may deserve to lose it if we do not. This is especially true, given that Evangelicals have encouraged the idea that we stand as the power behind the Bush throne. Do we write blank checks to our culture-war allies? And if we silently consent to officially sanctioned torture, who are we to complain about "the barbarians at the gate" of our treasured Christian culture?

I am the son of a multi-generation Army officer corps family. My father and grandfather, both distinguished wartime commanders, instilled in me the belief that America must not merely win her wars but must do so in a manner that retains our great values. They believed that life was not everything, but that the way of life was more important. When I was a young combat officer, my instructors and commanders taught that we would not torture -- not merely because it is ineffective (and McCain is right about this) but also because it is ignoble. American soldiers are not brutes, we believed, but honorable defenders of human life and dignity. We did not teach the kind of situational ethics that says that our own survival justifies any behavior. We admitted that torture happens in war, but we stood against any official sanction of it and we exercised our authority to suppress the cruel employment of deadly force.

When I was teaching leadership at West Point in the early 1990's, a news report emerged of Serbian soldiers who had entered a convent and proceeded to rape and murder the nuns there. My cadets were outraged. But I informed them that they and their future soldiers would be capable of performing these very acts under the right circumstances, and that it is the duty of American officers to stand against the evil in human nature especially when enflamed by the zeal of hatred and the lust of battle. The photographs of Abu Graib bear this out. Abu Graib was not merely a failure of policy or of oversight. It was a window into what our young men and women are able -- and even eager -- to do when our depravity is enflamed by war, unless leaders set a clear moral and ethical tone and enforce it with brave dignity. As our young people grow up in an entertainment culture more and more satiated with gratituous violence, the danger of barbarity will grow dramatically worse.

When I became I Christian, I learned that the value of human life is not measured with a utilitarian yardstick. Mankind's dignity stems from the image of God that we bear. What Dr. Jefferson's article defined as "methods of interrogation that use severe force, pain, or coercion, and as such threaten to undermine the inherent dignity of the person created in the image of God" should be simply unthinkable for Christians. And we must say so clearly and forcefully.
Moreover, I learned from the Bible that human nature is corrupted by a terrible depravity. Therefore, especially when required by duty to employ deadly force, it is imperative that Christians place clear limits on permissible behavior. To equivocate on this issue is to commit a grave folly that can only have terrible results.

The official government sanction of torture -- for the first time in American history -- is a defining moment that threatens to set a new and barbarous precedent. It is not an isolated issue, but a door. Will we keep it shut, voluntarily restraining our self-interested behavior for the sake our our virtue, our national purpose in the world, and (for Christians at least) our faith in God? How terrible it is that a government so strongly supported by Evangelical Christians should facilitate the argument that the words "In God We Trust" really should be removed from our currency. For if we still are trusting in God, we will not sanction (much less demand) wartime actions that cause hell to rejoice and heaven to weep.

Richard D. Phillips is to be commended for clear thinking and his willingness to stand as a Christian witness in an arena of marginal arguments that seek to compromise Christian principles. In a patient, respectful manner he engages others in the comments in what appears to be a fruitless attempt to change their hearts and minds. At one point he was able to invoke the Golden Rule [Jesus told us that we should do to others as we would have them do to ourselves. This tells us to put ourselves in others' positions when we are making moral decisions.] which sailed past the attention of other commentators as though it were nothing more than a sneeze.

Thank you Richard Phillips for your good witness.
You stand as an example to follow. Are you by any chance this Richard D. Phillips?

...M.B.A. from the Wharton School of Business and a M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary, where he studied the Bible and its languages. He served in the United States Army for thirteen years as a combat officer, was assistant professor of leadership and organizational studies at West Point, and is a management consultant and frequent seminar speaker on the topic of leadership and organization. He currently resides in Philadelphia, where he is chief executive officer of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, a nonprofit radio and publishing organization.

I almost forgot. My post title also refers to spying and lying. I put the title together before I wrote the post, thinking of the current high-profile story emmanating from the White House, because I liked the rhythm of the words. No need to elaborate. Most of the same nominal Christians defending the practice of torture are defending all the kings men as they push the legal envelope about what they can get away with snooping into private communications. There isn't much in the Old or the New Testaments regarding topics like Echelon, Carnivore or other network sniffers, so all we have left is the hypothetical WWJD and the, uh, Golden Rule. Hello.

(Deuteronomy 30:19 is a reference I like. One of my favorite preacher lines is "If sin felt like a stick in the eye, we wouldn't do it." The temptation to do evil presents itself in many persuasive forms. End of sermonette.)


Eldjinn said...

Good blog eminently sensible, logical, and reasonable.

Anonymous said...

Dear John,

Thanks for your kind words, but even more for your comment at the top of the "torture" comments section. Yes, I am the Richard D. Phillips you mention. That's a pretty old bio now, though. I am now senior minister of First Presbyterian Church (PCA) of Coral Springs/Margate, FL. May the Lord bless you.

Rick Phillips