THE BLOG
12/15/2014 03:59 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

Who Cares If It Works? Jesus, Torture, and Rectal Hydration

We did what?

Rectal hydration? There's no way I'm Googling that.

Rectal feeding? I can't even...

The Senate released its report on torture on December 9. Turns out, we did some pretty horrific things to other human beings in the name of national security.

'You have to understand just how scared everybody was after 9/11,' I've been repeatedly told on social media. 'We were just trying to prevent any more catastrophic attacks. Because terrorism.'

I get that, I guess. I was scared after 9/11 too. Who wasn't?

I also understand that people do things when they're afraid that they might not otherwise do. When the lizard brain kicks in, almost anything can look like a threat that needs to be eliminated... by whatever means available. And if torture can prevent harm to me and mine, well then, that seems like a small price to pay.

It's that last part that really worries me -- the rationalization of violence part. Distilled to its essence, the rationalization amounts to something like: If torture successfully helps us to confront threats to our safety, it's morally acceptable. You have to break a few eggs, right?

This is classic Utilitarianism: That act is moral which maximizes general utility. In other words, an act can be judged by the amount of pleasure (Bentham) or happiness (Mill) it creates relative to its negative effects. In the case of torture, the calculation is: Torture harms a person, but it may save lives by helping to uncover existing plots that endanger people's lives and well-being. Therefore, the primary calculation is whether torture "works" to prevent terrorism.

So, here's my problem: I've recently seen Christians defend torture on purely utilitarian grounds. In 2009, the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project found that 62 percent of white evangelical protestants at least sometimes believe torture is an acceptable practice, presumably because sometimes you have to hurt people preemptively to secure your safety.

I'm just not sure how you square that circle, though. Those who follow a man tortured and executed by the state as a threat ought to be especially circumspect about supporting state sanctioned violence -- even if it should somehow maximize general utility.

But here's the thing: I keep hearing otherwise good Christian people debate torture by referring to torture's success or failure at producing information that thwarts terrorist plots, as if whether or not it "works" is the only meaningful criteria for determining whether it should be done.

From a moral standpoint, for those who follow Jesus, whether torture works or not isn't a particularly interesting question. The moral question for those serious about their commitment to the itinerant Galilean is always, "Is it right?"; which is to say, is it liable to make us more like Jesus, more capable of helping us embody God's unfolding reign of peace and justice?

Or does it make us into people harder and harder for Jesus to recognize?

And torture, as an answer to these questions, fails the moral calculation, utterly, miserably, "thanks-for-playing-we-have-some-lovely-parting-gifts-for-you."

It seems to me that the burden of proof lies with those who would read the Gospels and come away saying that Jesus -- a man who chose to absorb violence rather than inflict it -- would be totally cool with rectal hydration, if it, you know, gets the job done.

Unfortunately, the only theological case for torture that I've heard sounds less like Jesus, the suffering servant, is at the heart of moral reckoning than, what appears to be, an unwavering commitment to cost-benefit analysis.

Look, I'm not saying you can't be a Christian and support torture. I'm just saying that you're going to have a hard time convincing Jesus that it's a Christianity he would recognize.