Friday, January 16, 2009

Love, War, Torture, and Human Dignity

This morning, I listened carefully as a local radio host interviewed a Catholic priest who had written an article critical of torturing terrorists. The priest argued that Islamic terrorists bear the image of God just as every other person on earth does. Therefore, they should not be tortured. It is dehumanizing and demeaning.

The talk show host and his listeners did not agree with his argument. They made the point that terrorists should not retain human rights. The terrorists had forfeited all rights when they started to engage in the murder of American citizens. Some callers completely denied the idea that terrorists are human beings. They considered the terrorists to be animals.

From a biblical perspective, the priest made the better argument. Of course the Islamic terrorists bear the image of God. They are not animals.

However, the question is not: Do Islamic terrorists bear the image of God? The question is: Is it morally acceptable for the government to torture them in order to save innocent lives?

On the one hand, Jesus told his followers to love their enemies (Matthew 5:44). Islamic terrorists certainly fall into the category of the enemies of Christians.

On the other hand, Christ wants his people to love their neighbors (Matthew 22:39). The innocent people who are the targets of the terrorists would certainly fall into the category of our neighbors.

So what do we do when two commandments seem to conflict? If a woman were being raped in front of my house, would it be enough for me to plead with the rapist to stop raping my neighbor? Or would the loving thing be to use whatever force necessary to stop the rapist, even if it meant hurting or killing him? I believe the answer would be to try to stop him verbally, but to kill him if necessary. It's loving when we call for repentance, but it's also loving to intervene with force when necessary to protect the innocent.

In Romans 12, the apostle Paul urged Christians, "Do not repay evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord" (Romans 12:17-19).

Then, in the next chapter, he adds, "For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:3-4).

So is it morally acceptable for the government to torture terrorists in order to save the lives of innocent people? Yes. It's the government's duty to terrorize those who would kill the innocent, and it could be the most loving thing the government could do for our neighbors. At the same time, Christians need to be praying for the terrorists' hearts to change while calling on them to repent from their evil. Both actions can be motivated by love.

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