Bonnie Kristian wrote a column last week decrying the nomination of Gina Haspel, current deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, to be its director. She claims Haspel is a “torturer” because she oversaw programs that used waterboarding and other techniques such as stress positions and sleep deprivation in the aftermath of 9/11.
Kristian’s assertion is straightforward: Christians cannot support Haspel because she supports torture. Her reasons?
To be a Christian is to worship a God who chose to be tortured himself to save his enemies. It means pledging our allegiance to a Lord who told us to love our enemies self-sacrificially, to be merciful and return good for evil. Christians have long debated how these commands should influence our ethics in the realms of criminal justice and war, but torture is not subject to debate. You cannot love someone while you torture them, and as followers of Jesus we affirm that anything not done in love is worthless.
To cap it off, she says that “for anyone who has committed their life to Christ, torture is categorically unacceptable.” Apparently, from my reading of Kristian, Jesus requires that love of enemy means we willingly give up our lives to terrorists and other groups that have made it their mission to destroy us. That is, if we follow her logic.
She states that there is a “long” debate about criminal justice and war, but I fail to see how that could possibly be the case according to her own lights. In her consistent and absolutist position, loving enemies means I must be merciful and do good to them, meaning I cannot harm them in any way. If the cross is the moral example for all Christian ethics, then we must sacrifice ourselves freely because that is what the cross teaches us. Do not resist evil.
But let’s take Kristian at her word. What she really wants to do is single out torture as particularly immoral and not, for instance, war. I do not know how this can work in either theory or practice.
First, torture can take many forms, and Kristian’s absolutist position fails to make distinctions. The CIA uses psychological techniques such as sleep deprivation or stress positions that do not leave physical scars, but many would argue these constitute torture and inhumane interrogation practices. Let’s say waterboarding is unacceptable and consider other methods. Can a Christian support using sleep deprivation against known terrorists to gain valuable intelligence that could save lives? What about using stress positions? Kristian doesn’t allow consideration of consequences or what is practical. She says it’s not debatable, meaning it is self-evidently obvious.
But why single out torture instead of, say, the covert drone campaign? That program actually kills people, often innocent ones, so-called “collateral damage.” Does the non-debatable Jesus ethic include a prohibition on the use of drones? Does the cross of Jesus translate into a moral absolute of never using this technology since it involves the deaths of innocents? What would be the difference between drones and waterboarding? Then we will inevitably have to ask about war, the use of force, the use of police, and the many other forms of coercion the state uses on a daily basis. Are these consistent with the Jesus ethic? It would seem not.
Then there is the more general question about the role of tragic choices in politics and especially in international relations. Ethicists have been long debated over “dirty hands” situations when we must choose not between good and bad but between bad and bad. Intervene in Syria, and you could potentially make the situation worse. Do not intervene, and a brutal dictator kills hundreds of thousands of innocent people in order to stay in power. Neither position presents an obviously moral path, let alone a clear path that Jesus would take. There are no clean hands in that scenario.
Torture presents a similar dilemma. If we use stress positions or sleep deprivation, we may cause distress and even lasting psychological damage in order to obtain intel that could save innocent lives. We may choose to forgo any morally questionable techniques, but that does not excuse us of the guilt we incur when we fail to do everything in our power to stop fanatics who carry out evil plans. The sin of omission is not the obviously superior option.
It is fine if Kristian and other Christians want to die at the hands of their enemies because they think the gospel requires it. But does the gospel require we also offer up our neighbors? It is one thing to die for your beliefs. It is quite another to imagine that all the people around you, many of whom do not share your convictions, should die for those beliefs as well. Is the government obliged to follow the convictions of Kristian and those who believe that the gospel requires us to live lives that are not safe? I do not think so. And there is a very long tradition, within both Catholicism and Protestantism, that understands government as ordained by God but not beholden to the same moral standards as Christians.
Leaving the merits of Gina Haspel aside, I know people who have served in the CIA and the American military because they love their neighbors and desire to protect the innocent and restrain bad actors. Historically, this has been understood as a respectable Christian vocation in service to one’s neighbors and nation. Where does this fit in the absolutist position? It appears, on this account, that it can only be viewed as hatred of neighbor.
What the absolutist position gains in terms of moral consistency it loses in terms of moral nuance. The ethics of Jesus, on this score, require that we essentially see all government and international politics as immoral and unchristian. That seems to be too heavy a price to pay.
Daniel Strand is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at the Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: Official portrait of CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel, via CIA and Wikimedia Commons.
For further reading, see Mark Coppenger’s “Waterboarding and the Platinum Rule” and Marc LiVecche’s “The Fifth Image: Seeing the Enemy with Just War Eyes.”