2007August1, Wednesday

Morality Propaganda

Posted in Current Events, Politics, Theology at 22:26 by Trey Austin

My very good friend and sometime mentor, the Rev. Dr. R. J. Gore, is always a very thought-provoking person. His book, Covenantal Worship is marvelously informative and challenging to conservative Presbyterians (if you’d like to hear him expound upon the principles of his book, take a gander over at Covenant Radio to an interview he did with the good folks over there). His classes in seminary (Erskine Theological Seminary) always produced hearty discussion (especially when the Methodists got mad at what he said!). I remember specifically his Christian Ethics class teaching us the famous “triangle” way of “doing ethics” and figuring out what is right and moral to do in any given situation. He always challenged us to think biblically and logically, while also seeing how the decision will affect people in the situation.

Well, that kind of thought-provoking teaching, training, and mentoring is the reason why i’m so surprised that Dr. Gore has approvingly quoted from a fellow who would say something that seems to me to violate the principles that any thoughtful Christian would see from Scripture’s plain teaching—i say “approvingly,” because on Dr. Gore’s blog entry that quotes the following is entitled “Amen.” Here’s the blog entry in its entirety:

From the August edition of the American Legion magazine, LTC Ralph Peters (Ret), says the following:
“Winning is everything. Fighting ruthlessly may not please the safe-at-home moralists, but its losing that’s immoral. Consider one of the many issues about which we’re insistently naive and hypocritical: torture. Earlier this month, our Army released the results of an internally initiated survey of soldiers and Marines in Iraq. The results showed that almost half of our troops would condone torture in specific instances if it saved their buddies’ lives. The media were, of course, appalled. I was shocked, too–surprised that so few of our troops would condone any action that kept their comrades alive. Torturing prisoners should never be our policy, both because it’s immoral and because it’s usually ineffective. But it’s madness to declare that there can never be exceptions. Forget the argument about the ‘ticking bomb’ and the terrorist who might have information that could save numerous lives. Let’s make it personal. Whether you’re left, right or in between, ask yourself this yes-or-no question: if torturing a known terrorist would save the life of the person you love most in the world, would you approve it? If your answer is ‘no,’ you’re not a moral paragon. You’re an abomination. And please make your position clear to your husband or wife, mother or father, son or daughter. Just tell ’em, ‘Sorry, honey, but I’d rather see you dead than mistreat a terrorist. It’s a moral issue with me.’ . . . We face merciless, implacable enemies who joyously slaughter the innocent with the zeal of religious fanaticism. Yet we want to make sure we don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. We’ve tried many things in Iraq. They’ve all failed. It’s a shame we never really tried to fight.”

Am i wrong to be perplexed by this? Am i an immoral person because i don’t necessarily think that i’d be willing myself to torture or to allow someone else to torture even an evil person just to protect the life of someone i love? To be very honest, if i told my wife that i most likely wouldn’t support torture to save her life, i’m not sure she would be very upset with me. I think she understands Christian martyrdom well enough to know that Christians shouldn’t want anyone to torture anyone else on our behalves to save their lives. Rather, our lives are Christ’s to take in order to further his Kingdom. We should lawfully seek to preserve our lives as much as possible, but we should always be willing to give them up for the sake of the Gospel of Christ, especially when God-haters would seek to destroy us for being Christians.  

Again, as i said on the comments of his blog, i understand the distinction between the government doing something and an individual doing something. God in his wisdom has granted the civil magistrate certain power and authority that individuals otherwise don’t have (i.e., the right of vengeance, the right of all types of punishment for evil-doers, including capital punishment, and the right to wage war, &c.). However, even if we’re speaking of our government, why would we advocate torture? Haven’t Christians been tortured at the hands of evil men enough to know that only those who are utter unbelievers and hate God’s children are the ones who are willing to do such heinous things? I don’t think you can separate an unbelieving heart from being engaged in the heinous behavior of torture (caveat: that’s not to speak head-for-head about people who have and can engage in these acts that they are necessarily unbelievers, nor is it to say that everyone who opposes torture is necessarily a believer). 

Beyond that, though, our Constitution says that the federal government is prevented from engaging in cruel or unusual punishment. Are we willing to violate the very standard upon which our once-great Republic was founded simply for pragmatic considerations? If our fathers before us, and even our brothers and sons today, were and are willing to give their lives to maintain the principles of the Constitution , why would we be so willing, in the effort to save a single life, abandon those principles? As a Christian, i just don’t see how to be a good citizen without also being a good Christian.

Am i the only one who sees this kind of thing as propaganda for the power-hungry American Empire? Am i *COMPLETELY* off-base on this? Please let me know what you think.



  1. tempe said,

    Are we willing to violate the very standard upon which our once-great Republic was founded simply for pragmatic considerations?

    I would argue that Dr. Gore doesn’t have any problem doing this when it comes to issues of Sabbath, Six Day Creation, or Sabbath worship, so perhaps his posting of the comments about torture shouldn’t surprise you too much. 😉

    Just ribbing you a little. I would agree that this is troubling to suggest. I would suggest considering though (although I strongly doubt it) that the term “torture” might possible be equivocated here. The media/left sometimes(often?) defines torture as things like playing loud secular music to captives, for instance. This is not “torture” imho, but I’m pretty sure the LTC would agree as well. Of course, the Christian approach is not to return evil for evil, per Romans 12. But the comments of a LTC or even seminary prof are not the standard by which are behavior is determined to be moral or immoral.

  2. Trey Austin said,

    Well, i don’t think Gore is pragmatic about worship or the Sabbath. I do think he’s trying to square what Scripture says with what actually happened historically in our tradition. I think it’s honest to understand those various aspects of worship and how to celebrate the Sabbath (even between English/Scots Presbyterianism and Dutch/German/Swiss Continental Calvinism, there is a great discrepancy over how the Sabbath is to be understood and treated, but i don’t think any of those people are dismissing the Sabbath for pragmatic considerations). But i know where you stand on those things. 🙂

    I agree, too, that loud music, sleep deprivation, or even colder/warmer than normal temperatures (while not threatening long-term health) are not and should not be considered torture. But what they have called “water boarding,” allowing dogs to attack prisoners, physical beatings, electrode application, &c., are indeed torturous. Those are cruel ways of treating someone. As you say, it would seem the retired colonel understands and affirms these distinctions (i.e., he’s not operating on a leftist definition of what is or is not torture), and yet he is still advocating using torture, and goes so far as to say that it is *IM*moral *NOT* to use it if you could to save the life of the person you love.

    What does he base this moral platitude upon? I just find it ironic that such a great American would not only dismiss Scripture, but also what should be at the fore of the mind of a military man, the Constitution that he is fighting to uphold. It is just so wrong-headed to me.

  3. tempe said,

    My comments about pragmatic concerns had to do more with modern “excuses” rather than the historical arguments. Sorry, but when Gore begins his defense of his position by saying things like “if you turn on a light switch on Sunday, then you’re forcing someone to work on the Sabbath,” it’s hard for me not to begin to think in pragmatic terms. Certainly there were different understandings on these issues (for instance, you had people in some quarters making up statements like “Calvin bowled on the Sabbath,” and you hear these still repeated today), but I would recommend the reading of Peterson’s Calvin and the Sabbath for anyone who thinks that the Continental Reformers varied greatly from the Scots on this issue. This whole notion of “I’m more Continental on the issue” tends to be a bit of a cop-out, imho (I mean that in the sense that if one of the Continental Reformers returned today and saw the way the Sabbath is observed in the vast majority of churches in this country, I don’t think he would cozy up in any sort of way). I heard R.C. Sproul use this sort of “cop-out” during a conference a couple years ago, and Derrick Thomas quickly called him on it. If you were to historically observe the way in which the Continentals and the Scots approached the Sabbath, you wouldn’t find nearly as much difference as some moderns would like us to believe (as Thomas pointed out, if you didn’t know better you probably wouldn’t be able to tell any meaningful difference). There are going to be some minor differences between Reformed folk on this issue (obviously you and I would differ in some ways), but, to use a phrase that you are sometimes fond of, we don’t throw out the baby with the bath water either (and you must admit that many have done this, even within the modern Reformed community).

    All that said, I like Gore a lot. I will continue to differ with him on “the big three” (creation, Sabbath, RPW), but I respect his firm stance on things like Reformed soteriology and the use of the sacraments (with the exception of paedocommunion, of course). I greatly enjoyed his ethics class, and the materials he provided from Frame helped me deal greatly with the subject. As you seem to be saying as well, that is what is so shocking about his agreement with these statements.

  4. tempe said,

    oops on my last post: that should be Gaffin, not Peterson, who wrote on Calvin and the Sabbath (Peterson wrote a similar book on Calvin’s view of the atonement).

    And one last thing about pragmatism, but this time concerning worship: Gore used as one of his rationales for challenging the RPW the fact that we live in “visual” age (instead of a word-oriented age). It may not have been his intention, but that sounds as if he is suggesting that the culture should be the paradigm for how we worship. Perhaps I am not being generous, but that sounds pragmatic to me.

  5. I must admit an emotional pull to both sides of the argument. But yours is ultimately the side I come down on. I think.

    The line is hard to discern, though, on what constitutes immoral torture. For instance, if it meant saving the lives of my loved ones – or anyone else for that matter – I would have no trouble pulling the trigger and shooting them dead. I would feel no need to repent. Rather, it would be unloving for me not to save my loved ones by killing he who threatens them, if it was in my power to do so. The question of them being tied up somewhere, where killing the creep wouldn’t save them but rather doom them, is a much, much harder one to deal with. I confess I don’t know how.

  6. Al said,

    Two points…

    First, the LtCol.’s first sentence is key to his whole argument and goes against much Christian thought when it comes to conduct in a just war. We fight to win (to do others is in fact immoral) but that is not the same as “winning is everything.” I do empathize with his frustration, but his answer is sub-Christian and amoral.

    Second, in what I guess is his supposed unassailable argument, he argues, “Let’s make it personal. Whether you’re left, right or in between, ask yourself this yes-or-no question: if torturing a known terrorist would save the life of the person you love most in the world, would you approve it? ” That argument works well in the classroom but comes up short in the real world. You will never know for sure if 1) the person you are torturing has the necessary information needed to save your loved one. 2) Even if you gained the desired knowledge it is impossible to “know” that you would without a doubt save him or her. The variables are too many to count and a hypothetical situation is just that.

    We should fight to win! But, it is not a question of what you are willing to inflict upon an enemy that ensures victory, but what you are willing to endure. We are in danger of loosing in Iraq because we (our political leaders and their flacks) abhor sacrifice. It is not because we are unwilling to put an eye out or two.

    al sends

  7. Al,

    Great points re: torture and what we “will never know for sure” in the real world. Thanks.

  8. Trey Austin said,

    Eric, yes, i can see what you mean, believe me. This is one thing that the WSC and WLC expostulation from the sixth commandment focus on. We are to do anything *LAWFUL* in order to preserve our own life and the life of our neighbor. Again, that doesn’t rule out self-defense; it does not rule out defense of others; and it certainly does not rule out just war. But the rule is to preserve life by all lawful means to whatever degree we can—and that includes, as Jesus says in Matthew 5, refraining from all things that would *LEAD* to ultimate unlawful death.

    Al, thanks for your comments. I think you’re absolutely right. We can’t violate what we know for sure by God’s revelation for some possible contingency that may never come into being. We walk by faith, not by sight.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: