St. Paul the Pacifist: A Christian Response to Torture

The recent Pew findings—that churchgoers, especially white evangelical Protestants, are more likely to believe that torture can be justified—have caused many commentators to wonder whether particular forms of Christian theology engender an acceptance of the use of torture.

In a recent article on Religion Dispatches, Sarah Sentilles suggests that Christian theologies and images of Christ’s crucifixion (essentially is an act of torture) have influenced some Christian communities’ understanding of torture as salvific, necessary, and justified. This view of torture is especially fueled by what is known as atonement theology: the view that Jesus’ death provided reparation for humanity’s sins against God.

So what would a Christian theological response against torture look like?

Most Christian theologies are rooted in the writings of Paul, who is particularly celebrated this year by the Catholic church on the bimillenial anniversary of the apostle’s birth; Paul provides the earliest interpretation of the meaning of the crucified Christ. People often forget, or are not aware, that nowhere in the gospels does Jesus himself explain the meaning of his own suffering on the cross. But Paul does.

And I believe that if we were to bring Paul into our current dialogue about whether Christians should support the use of torture, his response would be a resolute “No!”

First, Paul’s life experiences reflect a radical shift from violence to nonviolence due to his Christian conversion. The Acts of the Apostles describes Paul before his conversion as persecuting the earliest followers of Christ. At the outset of a religiously-sanctioned campaign to persecute Christians in Damascus, Paul encounters the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and undergoes a dramatic, religious conversion; from persecutor to preacher. Paul’s encounter with Christ, then, transformed his life of religious violence to a life of love.

When we shift our attention to Paul’s writings, we see further indications of his stance on nonviolence. Take, for instance, his statements in Romans (12.14, 16, 17–21), which echo the themes of nonviolence and non-retaliation in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… Live in harmony with one another… Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Not to Crucify but to be Crucified

Scholars have typically paid little attention to the themes of nonviolence in Paul’s letters, and some would argue that Paul does not hold such a position. In recent times, however, a small voice in biblical studies has drawn attention to Paul’s theme of nonviolence as it relates to his understanding of God’s restorative justice. New Testament scholar Richard Hays asserts in The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, “There is not a syllable in the Pauline letters that can be cited in support of Christians employing violence.” He further explains that even in cases where Paul employs military imagery in his rhetoric, they “actually have the opposite effect: the warfare imagery is drafted into the service of the gospel, rather than the reverse.” We observe Paul, then, as actually re-visioning violence in light of the gospel.

We see in the life and teachings of Paul a inculcation of a Christian lifestyle of justice and nonviolence through the cross; one that imitates the crucified Christ who did not inflict suffering on others, but who embraced it for the sake of others. Michael Gorman, in his book Reading Paul, argues that the saving, restorative justice of God “takes place not by inflicting violence on the enemy, but by absorbing violence on behalf of the enemy. Its extreme modus operandi is not to crucify but to be crucified. It does not require the destruction of the enemy but the embrace of the enemy.”

I believe that Christians must embrace and embody Paul’s revision of violence. This also needs to be applied to our understanding of America’s rhetoric and activities of justified war and violence, and the “war on terror.” We must be mindful that Christians are to embody the cruciform ethics of not crucifying (i.e. torturing) one’s enemy, but to be crucified (i.e. be tortured) on behalf of one’s enemy. And our attention needs to be not only on those who are tortured, but perhaps even more so on those who torture.

Rhetoric such as a “war on terror” that seeks to eliminate terrorism and condones the use of violence and torture (i.e. terror) is contrary to Paul’s view of God’s peaceable, restorative justice.

As Gorman argues in his newest book, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology:

That world leaders who call themselves practicing Christians (or Muslims or Jews) seem to espouse such views and that many others who follow such leaders seem prepared to carry out their allegedly sacred violence without question should concern us deeply. More specifically, as an alternative to this kind of thinking and acting, the church of Jesus Christ must make nonviolence a more central dimension of its life and teaching and a central corollary of its creedal affirmation that God raised the crucified Jesus from the dead, thereby ending the case for violence as the modus operandi of God and of God’s people in the world.

Those who are in Christ today, with Paul, identify with the life-giving and reconciling cross of Christ, validated by God in the resurrection, not as an expression of a violent personality or a conviction that violence can be sacred and salutary, but in the paradoxical belief that in Christ and his cross God was nonviolently reconciling the world to himself and giving to us the ongoing task of nonviolent reconciliation of people to God and to one another. In that spirit, we may need to be prepared to absorb violence, but not to inflict it. Such is one central aspect of the calling of our time to those justified, sanctified, and divinized in Christ.

In sum, Paul’s stance on nonviolent reconciliation and justice provides us with the necessary anti-torture posture for Christians today as they reflect on and respond to the pressing issues of war, terrorism, and torture.

Will Christians embrace Paul’s moral vision and lifestyle of justice and nonviolence?