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Tortured Morals

Moral relativism: a theory of morality holding that criteria of judgment may vary with individuals and their environments.

Situation ethics: a form of ethics according to which moral problems cannot be solved without reference to the contexts in which they arise.

In other words, morals change from time to time, place to place, context to context, situation to situation. Most Christians say they abhor moral relativism. Most political conservatives say the same. Yet right now we are seeing some conservatives, and some conservative Christians, champion moral relativism.

It is happening in a debate at the highest levels of our government – and it is jaw dropping. Some of our nation’s leaders are arguing that torturing people is a good thing to do in order to achieve our objectives.

I remember watching World War II movies as a kid. The bad guys tortured. The later Vietnam movies sent chills up your spine when they caused you to consider what it must be like to face a person willing to harm and maim you for the sake of some ideology. Implied in all of this was the knowledge – the assurance – that we were better than that.

Of course, if you’re advocating such a thing you don’t use the word “torture.” It’s too…uh, too…honest. Instead you argue for “enhanced interrogation techniques.” But whether those techniques are called “enhanced” or “aggressive,” everyone knows what we’re talking about – we’re talking about torture. And some of our leaders are standing squarely in the tradition that says the ends justify the means.

The technique that has been most discussed is water boarding. Those who argue for its use say that we should not call it torture. They don’t believe it rises to that level. (Its use is advocated by Dick Cheney. On Meet the Press he called it a “no brainer.”) Yet we did call it torture when we thought it would be used by our enemies. So it appears that it is moral if we do it, and immoral if the other guy does it. That only makes sense if your morals are relative.

Some argue that everything changed on September 11. There’s no doubt that our world changed, but did everything change? Did our values change? Did our ethics change? Is there a pre-9/11 morality and a post-9/11 morality? If you believe there is, you are a moral relativist.

One of the first voices for sanity in this debate was that of John McCain. If there ever was an expert on the subject he would be it. He survived five years of imprisonment and torture at the “Hanoi Hilton.” When you watch him speak you notice that he can’t raise his arms above his head because of damage that torture did to his body. You’ll notice his gait is different. He walks with short steps because of his injuries.

McCain has voiced his opposition to torture on two levels. First of all, it is not effective in gathering reliable information. A person undergoing torture will say anything to make it stop. But his most compelling argument is that he doesn’t want us to be like those who engage in that kind of dehumanizing activity. The New York Times quoted him as saying, “One of the things that kept us going when I was in prison in North Vietnam was that we knew that if the situation were reversed, that we would not be doing to our captors what they were doing to us.”

Martin Luther King used to say that when we act like our enemies we become like our enemies. This concept is built upon the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus taught that the way we treat enemies is definitive of who we are. Paul reiterates that you don’t overcome evil with evil.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the current debate is where evangelical Christians stand. Surveys show that a higher percentage of evangelicals than secular people think that torture is justified. I cannot imagine how a person who claims to believe in the New Testament can come to that conclusion. Paul called it a dirty lie to say that we believe that we can “do evil that good may result” (Romans 3:8).

Some worry about what happens to America ’s security if we don’t torture. I’m worried about what happens to America ’s soul if we do.

Reader Comments (7)

I find it terribly sad that there is even a debate about torture in America today. And I feel that the U.S. involvement in water boarding and the so called "interrogation acts" that are humiliating and dehumanizing seem to go against everything this nation has stood for. I think that the double standard that America has set is not only like you said hurting America's soul, but is sending a message of arrogance to the rest of the world. The platform that America has could bring great change and social advancements to the world however our barbaric and cruel acts only show the world the United States is fearful and revenging, and I think this builds resentment among other countries.

March 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick Lannen

I couldn't agree more guys. I cannot image what tortue does to the heart of Jesus, or what Christian supported terrorism does to the face of Jesus that is the church? Patrick is correct; America has an influential voice on an impressive stage. I'd like to see the church, especially in America, take Dr.King's advice and become the conscience of the state again.

April 1, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJulie Krebill

I was sorry to read an article in ThinkProgress,org that John McCain ended up voting against the ban on waterboarding and supported Bush's veto. It seems to me from the description of that "interrogation technique" that it would certainly fall under the catagory of torture.

April 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKathy Shaw

That is very disappointing - and pretty incredible.

April 7, 2008 | Registered Commenter[Phil Stout]

To me this whole way life has been the past years with this war is a torture to all of us, especially ones that lose loved ones, and fighting on holy land where our dear savior first taught us to be Christians and love one another, there is a true torture slapping God and Jesus in their face. We need more love, love is not shameful, never wrong, nor racist, love is love can't be changed nor broken. And most of all is always there when needed, like Jesus and God always there when we need him or not. We need them every second of our lives if we are to move on. God Bless All.

April 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCraig Shell

Did our values change? Did our ethics change?

afaict pre-9/11 arguments against torture (and the arguments we hear now from military leaders) weren't based on moral absolutes but on the pragmatic expectation that use of torture on others legitmates the use of torture on us - reciprocal morality?

April 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterIsaac Gouy

I'm ashamed that I towed the line in this debate without considering the whole scope of the argument. I have been studying the rise of the Third Reich and Germanys slide into darkness. That the birthplace of fire breathing protestism could do such evil and it all started with moral relativism. We hanged the leaders and still hunt for those on the loose who commited those crimes.
Now America is on the slope. Our moral relativism manifested its ugly head in Roe v Wade in 1973. Now we torture. I believe that when we cheapaned unborn life, in 1973, we cheapened the life of all living. God help us.

October 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJerry Schotthoefer

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