Amazement at Being Amazed — Torture and the Bible

skepticBack in April of 2009, the Pew Forum published the results of a survey The Religious Dimensions of the Torture Debate which attracted little more than passing interest at the time, but which has assumed additional significance in the wake of the publication of the so-called “torture report” under the auspices of Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The survey was updated in early May of 2009, and the updated version was published simultaneously with a cautionary note, The Torture Debate: A Closer Look , about possible reasons for the correlation of religious beliefs and attitudes toward torture. The latter publication wisely notes that, while religious beliefs may be decisive in determining attitudes toward torture, there is an equally strong possibility that both religious beliefs and attitudes toward torture may be artifacts of some additional factor(s) – political ideology, socio-economic status, age, gender, etc. – with which both are correlated. As the old statistics cliché says, “Correlation is not causation”. All that is straightforward enough. What surprises me, however, is that, especially among Christians who are progressive / left-of-center, there is a certain attitude of scandalized astonishment that anyone, Protestant or Catholic, who professes the doctrines and practices of Christianity, can advocate torture, which is – ostensibly – so categorically at odds with both. I am amazed that so many people are amazed.


But I need to pause for a moment to address an issue that almost always arises when I write or speak about any biblical text. In discussing the Plagues of Egypt or the Flood or the giving of the Law or any other biblical narrative, someone in my audience inevitably accuses me of taking the biblical text under discussion "too literally". This happens so regularly and so reliably that I have come to expect it as a matter of course. Hence this "preemptive digression".  So when I discuss, e.g., the Conquest of Jericho, someone critiques my discussion because I talk about the fall of Jericho as if it were actually a historical event in which the walls of the city were demolished by a trumpet blast. To those who would raise similar objections to this post, my anticipatory reply is simply this: biblical texts need not be taken literally in order to be taken seriously. The intent of such texts is not to tell the reader about actual events in space-time history, but to portray the Character of the biblical God. Forget the Bible. Consider George Washington, in particular, the story of the boy Washington confessing to his father that he (young George) had chopped down his father’s favorite cherry tree. Is the intent of that story to illustrate an incident in how young George learned a hard-earned lesson in cherry-tree horticulture? Probably not. The point is that, even from a young age, George Washington was a person of exceptional integrity. There likewise probably never was a Pequod or an Ishmael or a Starbuck or a Queequeg or a Moby Dick, either, but the eponymous novel is a warning about the fatal seductions of obsessive behavior. Similarly, the point of the stories of the Golden Calf, Jericho, etc., is not that the events recounted therein occurred historically, but that the Character of the biblical God is such that horrific punishments will be visited upon those individuals and nations that deliberately transgress God’s moral law. There is even a technical term for this kind of writing. It is called … literature.

booksAnyway, herewith some examples, pro and con, about the acceptability of torture and violence in the biblical text  …

Pro-torture / -violence …

 1. The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:23-28)

Even if there were no righteous people in Sodom, per God’s impromptu debate with Abraham, are we really to suppose that there were no children in those cities?  And if there were children, and if God is as implacably opposed to abortion as “pro-life” Christians claim, what are we to make of the consequences for such a vulnerable population?

2. The Plagues of Egypt & Death of the Firstborn (Exodus 11:1–12:36)

Same question as with Sodom and Gomorrah:  what about the kids?

3. The Conquest of Jericho (Joshua 6:1-27)

Admittedly, in this instance God was determined to preserve some especially favorite people, e.g., Rahab the prostitute.  But — one more time — one must ask what the consequences were for the children of Jericho — and for women who were pregnant at the time.

4. Noah and the Flood (Gen. chaps. 6-9)

And you thought waterboarding Gitmo prisoners was hideous! What about waterboarding the entire earth and all the inhabitants thereof? Except the story of the Flood was not about fake drowning!  Again, many of the biblical writers, diverse as they were and as diverse as their texts are, assert that God is not about violence, mayhem, and torture.

5. The White Horse Rider of the Book of Revelation (Revelation 19:11-16)

So much for “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” — Who leads the armies of heaven on a Christian jihad to exterminate unbelievers. This text takes Jesus’ own maxim about living by the sword and dying by the sword and adds a qualifying coda:  “Of course, it is quite all right to die by the sword, as long as it is the right sword and someone else’s sword”.

6. The Crucifixion Itself

There is a surprising diversity of opinion among Gospel scholars as to why Jesus was crucified. In the early 11th century, St. Anselm wrote Cur Deus Homo, which advocates for what turned out to be the prevailing orthodox answer to this question. God, argues Anselm, demanded the torture and death of sinners for the same reason that a medieval lord demanded the death of those who commit treason against him: offenses of such enormity demand the blood-price. Under this interpretation, God not only condones torture, but, at least in certain cases, and arguably in all cases, positively requires it. Jesus saves us by taking God’s punishment in our stead. But someone – be the victim ourselves or Jesus -- must be tortured.


Anti-torture / -violence …

1. God’s redemption of Israel from Babylonian Captivity (Isa. 40:1-2)

Israel – in this case, meaning only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin – was finally liberated from Captivity. But since God inflicted the Captivity to begin with, this circumstance removes a good deal of the air of gratuitous generosity.

2. God will henceforth tend God’s flock as a Shepherd tends his / her sheep (Isa. 40:11)

However, same qualification as above

3. Psalm 23 (also Psalm 17, 31, 36, 63, 69, and 117)

These are is some of the rather few examples of God’s kindness in the Bible that may (at least arguably) be read without qualification.

4. Jesus' admonition to "turn the other cheek" (Matt. 5:39)

But one must balance this text off against texts that depict Jesus as the Instrument of the Judgment of God, as in the Revelation text 5 above.

5. Warning against "liv[ing] by the sword" (Matt. 26:52)

This would seem to be a pretty straightforward admonition, not necessarily to radical and absolute pacifism (though that case can be made, also), but at the very least to avoid resort to violence as the first solution of choice.  But this text has to be balanced off against Jesus own understanding of Himself as someone Who "came not to bring peace, but to bring a sword".

We could continue to play textual Whack-A-Mole until we began to develop a meaningful dialogue with doorknobs, but we would still be left with the same question:  which set of texts do we go with?

Well ... thereby hangeth a tale. Please be patient here with your Faithful Skeptic. Honest to Great Cthulhu and all the Old Ones, the following is all connected. We are all heirs of the European Enlightenment of the 18th century, and one of the characteristics of the Enlightenment mentality is that texts -- all kinds of texts -- speak with many voices.  Of course, in one sense, this is highly un-problematical:  Enlightenment readers and critics recognized, just as we do today, that texts, especially literary texts (see second paragraph, above) evince layers / levels of meaning.  In fact, as a general rule of thumb, the greater the literary work, the more layers of meaning there will be.  There are many layers of meaning -- many voices -- in the Iliad, the Odyssey, in Moby Dick, in Huck Finn, in The Brothers Karamazov, in The Mill on the Floss, etc., etc.  And that is just prose.  The same is true -- if anything, even more so -- of poetry. (Literary critics say that great literature is "poly-vocal" -- which does not refer to the voice of your pet parrot). But our Enlightenment biases dispose us toward the belief that, though there are many voices in a literary text, all these voices speak in a manner consistent with one another. (This Enlightenment insistence on consistency is itself consistent with the Enlightenment's commitment to reason, not only as a discursive practice, but as an outlook on life-in-general.) This is one of the foundational tenets of the modernist sensibility. But we live in a time that is post-modern, when the presuppositions of the Enlightenment are being questioned, when literary critics and philosophers of language -- and, increasingly, biblical scholars, though they are usually behind the curve on such issues -- assert that ... yes ... literary texts do indeed speak in different voices, but these voices are often, in fact, usually are, in conflict with one another.  The text, in fact, is a "site of struggle" like Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" vision of "a darkling plain ... where ignorant armies clash by night".

If we are amazed by this, then, even if only in retrospect, we should be amazed at our amazement.  I say "in retrospect" because we could have anticipated that belief in the consistency of texts would be subverted by a belief in "conflicted poly-vocality". All literary texts have an author, and a century ago, Freud decisively put to rest the belief that the human personality is a choir singing in pristine harmony, because Freud was the first to recognize "conflicted poly-vocality" in the human personality itself.  (Think "id, ego, superego, cathexis, and neurosis" here for starters.) So we can expect no more harmony, no more consistency in any literary text than that which prevailed in the personality that produced it.  Also -- and this is deliciously ironic -- the close systematic critical study of biblical texts began in earnest in Germany in the middle 1700s, i.e., during the most triumphal period of the Enlightenment and its belief in textual consistency. Herr Wellhausen and his friends Messrs. / Ms's. J, E, D, and P planted the seeds of the crop that would eventually be harvested by Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Paul DeMan, Stanley Fish, Julia Kristeva, Frank Kermode, Terry Eagleton, & Co. roughly two centuries later. Postmodernist, especially deconstructionist, literary critics of the last half of the 20th century did with texts what Freud did with the human personality -- in particular, that of the author -- around 1900 (plus or minus).

m_c_escher_selected_drawing handsFinally, meditate on the fact that all the foregoing postmodernist considerations apply to texts with only a single author living a single lifetime.  Now reflect that the Bible is a text -- actually an anthology of texts -- written by ... pick a number ... authors living in ... pick a second number ... cultures spanning ... pick a third number ... historical periods and espousing ... pick a fourth number ... systems / codes of political ideology, morality, theological commitments, and world-views. (You could make a pretty strong case that one element of "hard" consistency is the existence of God and God's passion for morality. But maybe not. I think a strong case could be made that the Book of Job is an atheistic secular-humanist text "born out of due season". However, that is obviously another rant for another time.) As Qoheleth says in the book of Ecclesiastes, "Let us hear the conclusion of the matter". Virtually any consistency in virtually any part of the biblical text is an artifact arising from (a) the reader restricting her attention -- usually unconsciously -- to a certain narrow range of biblical texts, and (b) reading those texts -- also usually unconsciously -- through Enlightenment-colored glasses. (Most of us still live as if the principles of modernism and the Enlightenment hold true. This is quite fine for everyday purposes outside the Academy and also probably a pragmatic necessity:  if we did not, if we lived out the spirit of post-modernity consistently, we might well wander out onto the freeway and try to skateboard in the passing lane, or order a Drano-on-the-rocks cocktail before dinner.) The consistency we see tells us more about ourselves than about the Bible -- or what the Bible says on any given issue of the day.

Like, for instance, torture.

So ... what is the bottom line? Does the Bible condemn torture? Or does the Bible condone torture?

My answer:  Yes.

James R. Cowles




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