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Monday, May 11, 2009

On white evangelicals and torture--some intense soul searching

A few weeks ago, I read an article by Brian McLaren that caused some intense soul searching. In his post on the popular God’s Politics blog, McLaren cited a Pew Forum study showing that 6 out of 10 white evangelicals believe that torture is often or sometimes justified, making white evangelicals the religious group the most likely to support torture. As a white evangelical myself, I realize that for many people, the torture question is morally ambiguous, especially in light of the infamous ticking time bomb scenario, so it is not my intention to demonize those who participated in this survey and answered honestly. What troubles me isn’t so much that some of my fellow white evangelicals believe that in a sin cursed earth, morally complex situations arise in which Christians sometimes have to choose the lesser of two evils; what troubles me is that most white evangelicals think this way.

Think about it. If this survey is correct, then atheists and Muslims are less likely to support torture than white evangelical Christians—and we are the ones who claim that if everyone on earth were to become like us, the world would be a more peaceful place. Even if we allow the white evangelical survey respondents the highest benefit of a doubt assuming that they had the most morally complex situations in mind, there’s still the question of what is it about evangelicalism, and more specifically white evangelicalism, that makes us the most likely to respond to evil with violence? In his post, McLaren framed the question this way:

Why would white evangelicals be most likely to support torture? Could some conventional theological assumptions of evangelicals have anything to do with it?

The truth is probably a combination of many factors, so in no way do I think that what I’m about to propose is the only factor, or even the greatest factor, but I’m convinced it is a factor and worth mentioning. Since McLaren opened up a huge can of worms with his open-ended question, allow me to throw in my two cents.

I believe that one little discussed factor is an exaggerated emphasis on total depravity in evangelical circles. Whether most evangelicals realize it or not, our underlying assumption is that those who are not born again are only capable of evil. Even if we notice good behavior in non-believers, our understanding of the Christian faith demands that we attribute it to selfish motives.

The translation usually goes something like this:

If society is going to change, then hearts have to change. Only a personal relationship with Christ can take away the evil and murder in people’s hearts, therefore we must send missionaries to convert the terrorists/radical Muslims to Christianity.

So far so good. I’m all for sending missionaries to preach the gospel to Muslims. Anyone that knows me will tell you that my life’s work has been devoted to extending the gospel to unreached regions of the world—and I refuse to apologize for it. But notice what happens next when we take the original assumption, namely that people apart from a personal relationship with Christ are only capable of evil (or at the very least good with tainted motives), to its logical conclusion:

Therefore, unless we convert these people to Christianity, the only other way to deal with them is through force.

As harsh as this may sound, I think if the vast majority of evangelicals were honest with themselves, they would discover that this is their underlying assumption. The problem with this idea is that it fails to take into account that even fallen human beings are created in the image of God. And even though the image has been marred by sin, there still remains a trace of God’s goodness in every human being.

Lest I be misunderstood, I’m a firm believer in the doctrine of total depravity—as long as we define total depravity as the idea that only God is truly good and that no one will seek God on his or her own apart from God’s gracious revelation. The problem comes when we turn a Biblical proposition and stretch it beyond its intended meaning. When we take total depravity to mean that every non-believer at all times is only capable of sinning, we forget that even fallen human beings are created in the image of God and are therefore capable of reason. According to Jesus, even evil people know how to give good gifts to their children. Jesus always affirmed the humanity of fallen human beings, and so should we. If we fail to affirm the humanity of others outside our fold, then we’re left with a theology that says the only way to deal with evil people is to convert them or kill them—or torture them.

This is one explanation for why so many evangelicals support the torture of other human beings as a matter of national policy. Now as to why so many white evangelicals support torture, that’s another subject for another day. I think I’ve done enough soul searching for one day. Thank God for His mercy!


toby said...

Two basic cases have been covered when it comes to Christians dealing with enemies. The following was supposedly said by Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"If your opponent has a conscience, then follow Gandhi and nonviolence. But if your enemy has no conscience like Hitler, then follow Bonhoeffer."

Now, if we talk about the government dealing with enemies of the state, that's another matter. Shouldn't the question be, "Does the torture of an individual cost less than whatever would happen if the individual wasn't tortured?" Obviously, that is a difficult question to answer, and the situation will vary greatly from case to case.

Julia said...

The bottom line has to be what Jesus said, as hard as His message often is. Read Luke 6:27-31 and Matthew 5:43-45. Read slowly and pray over what you read. These are the words of our Lord on how Christians should deal with their enemies.

It is very hard for me to find anything in Jesus's words that could support torture.