Bonhoeffer, Torture, and Christian Responsibility

by David P. Gushee

I spent much of last year rereading Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What began as a pleasant intellectual exercise became a spiritual necessity as circumstances unfolded in my work.

I had always deeply admired Bonhoeffer's difficult journey with Jesus through the harrowing circumstances of the Third Reich, circumstances that ended with his senseless execution just before the end of the war.

But reading Bonhoeffer after three long years of helping to lead the anti-torture fight in this country cast his life and his writings in a new light. I don't compare myself to him in any way. But I have indeed drawn inspiration from a Christian leader whose theological and ethical convictions, combined with his personal strength and God's empowerment, led him into unflinching resistance to Nazi evildoing. And I have especially cherished the clarity of his moral vision at a time when the Nazis and their Christian collaborators in the churches were doing all they could to cloud the moral vision of the Christians of Germany. In a time when evil was called good and good called evil, when standing up for basic human decency was criminal and undertaking criminal acts was called decent, Bonhoeffer never wavered. He saw reality for what it was when all his nation's powers were training his fellow countrymen to believe illusions and lies.

Bonhoeffer seemed strangely relevant to me this year when I read his statement in Ethics that "only when Christian faith in God is lost do people feel compelled to make use of all means–even criminal–to force the victory of their cause" and that among those criminal means is "torture…the arbitrary and brute infliction of bodily pain, through the use of superior power." Or when he says that torture "means inflicting the deepest dishonor on the person, produc[ing] therefore a deep hatred and a natural bodily urge to restore the injured honor by using physical force in return." Or when he states that torture "in most cases is an ineffective means for discovering the truth, which would only be a consideration if truth were really being sought."

I wonder what Bonhoeffer would think about a nation whose evangelical Christians are more likely to support torture than any other group in that nation, including its secularists? Maybe he would turn to another section of his Ethics that I think needs more attention from today's Christian readers. I refer to his discussion of the nature of moral responsibility.

Here Bonhoeffer argues that "the structure of responsible life" is determined not by abstract principles but by our bond to God and other people and by the responsibility that goes with that bond. Moral responsibility emerges in concrete situations in which I am accountable for how I respond to other persons.  Looking especially at the example of God in Christ, but also at the inbuilt structure of human relationships, Bonhoeffer says that responsibility involves acting on behalf of others, indeed, in "completely devoting one's life to another person."

Bonhoeffer was deeply repulsed by all the soaring talk of responsibility toward the cause or the nation or the race or even the principle. He argued that these easily become idols in the service of which we end up "destroy[ing] human beings by sacrificing them" on the altar of our causes.

Instead Bonhoeffer called for responsibility in relation not to causes or ideologies but to persons, to actual human beings. "The attention of responsible people is directed to concrete neighbors in their concrete reality," he wrote.

In every horrible coffee table or lecture hall debate I have had to endure over torture, my adversaries have tended to make abstract arguments based on national security, just war theory, or extreme hypothetical cases. So an appeal is made to some subsection of just war theory and to a ticking time bomb that threatens us in New York. It's amazing how many people find such theoretical or hypothetical constructs compelling.

But Bonhoeffer, I think, would teach us to ask about the actual human beings with particular histories and particular identities upon whose bodies our nation has already inflicted intense brutality. He would direct us toward our response to this individual and that individual–"responsibility" means "response-ability"–our ability to respond in an appropriate way to those concrete situations and persons. Christians are those whose model of response-ability is Jesus Christ. We draw our clues from him and how he responded to the actual people that he encountered.

This year, we should ask ourselves about our response-ability toward the particular people our nation has detained indefinitely, often tortured and abused, in our name. Do we really want to continue sacrificing these human beings, and others to come, on the altar of National Security?

David P. Gushee is a distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, Ga.,  co-chair of the Scriptural/Contextual Ethics Group of the American Academy of Religion, and president of Evangelicals for Human Rights. He is the author and editor of many books, including Religious Faith, Torture, and Our National Soul. For three years Dr. Gushee served as the president of Evangelicals for Human Rights (EHR), which supported and partnered with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT). These efforts continued for several more years in his work with the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. These groups pressed for full respect for human rights in US counter-terrorism policy and zero tolerance for torture. Dr. Gushee's work on the torture issue culminated in his involvement in the national Detainee Task Force of the Constitution Project, which released its report in April 2013.

Questions for reflection:

1. In your lifetime, how have you seen human beings sacrificed on the altar of a cause? Have you ever been the victim of someone's cause? Have you ever victimized others for your cause?

2. What is your stance on torture when used in the defense of national security?

Resources for reflection:

Read this Washington Post article about a US soldier who refused to use aggressive interrogation tactics sanctioned by the military, because he found a more effective way: "I taught the members of my unit a new methodology—one based on building rapport with suspects, showing cultural understanding, and using good old-fashioned brainpower to tease out information. … We got to know our enemies, we learned to negotiate with them, and we adapted criminal investigative techniques. … It worked." (Read a TIME magazine review of the soldier's book, How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq.)

Then listen to a talk on the horrors at Abu Ghraib by Philip Zimbardo, the leader of the notorious 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment and an expert witness at Abu Ghraib.

For a look at torture through the eyes of one extraordinary victim, read "The Blessing Is Next to the Wound: A conversation with Hector Aristizabal about torture and transformation" by Diane Lefer for The Sun magazine (October 2005).

Religious Faith, Torture, and Our National Soul, edited by David P. Gushee (Mercer University Press, 2010)

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