Torture and the Bible
In a largely cautious dissent from rightwing orthodoxy George Will writes, “The purpose of a writ of habeas corpus is to cause a government to release a prisoner or show through due process why the prisoner should be held… As such, the Supreme Court's ruling only begins marking a boundary against government's otherwise boundless power to detain people indefinitely, treating Guantanamo as (in Barack Obama’s characterization) ‘a legal black hole.’”
In other words, the court’s decision, mistaken or not, provides just a small limitation on the state’s power to imprison at will. Is that so bad? Conservatives, and regrettably lots of Christians among them, say emphatically “Yes.”
It was also reported this week that military trainers at Gitmo based an entire interrogation class on Chinese torture techniques used against U.S. serviceman during the Korean War to elicit false confessions.
In the NY Times Scott Shane writes, “The recycled chart is the latest and most vivid evidence of the way Communist interrogation methods that the United States long described as torture became the basis for interrogations both by the military at the base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and by the Central Intelligence Agency.”
A truly biblical legal structure would not countenance torture. In Jewish law confession was inadmissible in criminal court. Professor Aaron Kirschenbaum writes, “Confessions, whether made in or out of court, guilty pleas, and self-incriminating statements are inadmissible. The prevailing principle is that allegations of guilty must be supported by evidence obtained from sources other than the mouth of the accused.” Justice requires the accumulation of evidence by lawful means.
The Old Testament account of Achan’s sin and execution shows the point. God had pronounced judgment on Jericho and demanded that all her residents save Rahab’s family be killed. Moreover all of the city's treasure was to be devoted to the Lord.
But Achan stole from the Lord (Joshua 7:1) and other men died as a result of his crime. God required the death penalty for the offender. The Lord also empowered Joshua with supernatural means to discover the offender. When Joshua confronts Achan he says, “My son, give glory to the LORD, the God of Israel, and give him the praise. Tell me what you have done; do not hide it from me” (7:19). The confession of the crime is thus primarily to God and only secondarily to man.
It is important to note as well that even God’s supernatural discovery of Achan, as well as Achan’s confession, did not alone constitute grounds for conviction. Achan’s story was corroborated by evidence before his conviction and punishment (7:22-23).
Biblical law was largely the ground of civil law in early Christendom and there is no evidence that canon law allowed for torture. Indeed in 866 Pope Nicholas sent a letter to the Bulgars prohibiting torture. He wrote, “If a thief or a robber is apprehended and denies that he is involved, you say that in your country the judge would beat his head with lashes and prick his sides with iron goads until he came up with the truth. Neither divine nor human law allows this practice in any way, since a confession should be spontaneous, not compelled, and should not be elicited with violence but rather proferred voluntarily.”
In contravention to Christian civilization Hellenistic society and Roman law allowed for torture of suspects and slaves using such implements as red-hot irons and lacerating hooks. As the medieval church was increasingly influenced by pagan ideas and sought the synthesis of Christianity with Greco-Roman thought torture was revived as a means of weeding out heretics. With the beginning of the Inquisition, Innocent IV issued a decree that called on magistrates to use torture as a means of eliciting confession against themselves and others.
Under the influence of pietistic Christianity and as a result of secularizing tendencies the shift toward pagan practices in the civil sphere has continued. Today it is the polis or the state that is the source of morality rather than the Christian scriptures. Following Hegel modern man says, “The State is as God walking on Earth".
The 20th Century was filled with torture, violence and bloodshed. Mussolini, a man held in high esteem by Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler and Stalin, spoke for modern man when he said, “Beyond the state, nothing that is human or spiritual has any value whatsoever.”
Christians are largely responsible for this sad state affairs because of their general hostility to the application of scripture in the social and civil arena. By their indifference and outright hostility to this aspect of God’s word they implicitly affirm humanism as the source of civil law—which leads directly to the Star Chamber and the torture chamber.
“Biblical law,” writes Rushdoony, “is not popular with men even though it limits civil government to a minimal dimension; sharply limits civil taxation to a small sum; preserves the person from torture; requires self-government; and furthers freedom. It has a great fault; it indicts all men as sinners before God, something man refuses to hear.”