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If Torture Is Not Evil, Then Evil Has No Meaning

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June 30, 2009

In my recent book, Jesus Was a Liberal, I wrote: “I believe that Jesus was a religious liberal. He came with a fresh new progressive vision… Instead of an eye for an eye, he asked us to turn the other cheek. Instead of loving just our neighbors, we were called upon to love our enemies too.”

I think about those words when the issue of torture rears its ugly head time and again. There was a time historically when torture was not only widespread but considered acceptable under the right circumstances. By 1800, however, most European countries had legally abolished the use of torture under any circumstances. Then there was an unexpectedly virulent resurgence of torture in Europe in the 20th century, especially in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Under the auspices of the United Nations, though, in 1948, all nations on earth, with six abstentions, agreed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states simply in Article 5: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Likewise, the Geneva Conventions in 1949 affirmed international law that prisoners of war in captivity need reveal only their name, rank and serial number, and then, “No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted…to secure from them information of any kind whatsoever.”

There’s a story in the eighth chapter of the gospel of Luke where man named Legion, kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, is freed by Jesus. He’s been tormented by internal demons, we’re told, as well as external. When Jesus first approaches him, he begs Jesus not to torment him, too. True to his nature throughout the gospels, though, Jesus comes to liberate, not to torment. He calls the demons out of Legion, and they move to inhabit swine which then run away and drown in a lake.

Legion was a threat, someone who might even have been seen by some as a mad terrorist. But Jesus steps into the midst of the danger with courage and an orientation toward healing and transformation; he doesn’t treat Legion as anything less than a fellow human being. As a result, Legion goes away proclaiming how much Jesus has done for him, while those who remain manage to transfer their fear to Jesus. They ask Jesus to leave the area, so he gets into a boat on the lake and departs.

To act like Jesus in the world is not necessarily to become popular. Most of us respond more easily out of our fear than out of our desire to heal and transform. And it seems like a particularly dangerous world these days. But it will become more dangerous if America abandons the moral high ground, doesn’t turn the other cheek, and leads by its example in exactly the wrong direction by defending torture in any form under any circumstances. When our “enhanced interrogation methods” amount to torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, then the world will indeed see, in President Bush’s words, “If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning.”

The Reverend William L. McLennan, Jr. — better known as “Scotty McLennan” — is an ordained minister, lawyer, and author. Since January 1, 2001, McLennan has been the Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University in California, where he oversees religious affairs on campus, is the minister of the Stanford Memorial Church and teaches undergraduate and Graduate School of Business courses. McLennan is the author of Jesus Was a Liberal: Reclaiming Christianity for All (2009), Finding Your Religion: When the Faith You Grew Up With Has Lost Its Meaning (1999), and co-author, with Laura Nash of Church on Sunday, Work on Monday: The Challenge of Fusing Christian Values with Business Life (2001).

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