Ah, Christmas—a time for holly, lights, caroling, manger scenes, and . . . politics. At our church, today’s services included “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Exceeding Joy” (a contemporary version of the Magnificat), “The Eyes of All Wait Upon Thee,” and, as part of a sermon series on “Coming Home for Christmas,” a sermon on torture.
Yes, today’s sermon was mostly about torture—not the torture some people endure at visiting or hosting relatives for the holidays, mind you, but waterboarding terrorists. “Who Would Jesus Waterboard?” the pastor asked, and concluded that, since Jesus himself was tortured, the answer is “No one.”
What did this have to do with Christmas, or Advent, or the Scripture reading from James, or anything else, for that matter? Well, nothing. What possesses a pastor to preach on such a topic at this time of year? This isn’t the worst instance I know of; another area pastor once preached an Easter sermon on nuclear disarmament. How seriously can they take the gospel if they consider these topics more important than God’s incarnation and resurrection?
In my experience, pastors who preach on moral topics tend to do so with remarkably little discernment, making it all the more puzzling why they feel called to do it. Surely there is a vast moral difference between Jesus’s many hours of fatal torment and 35 seconds of putting water up a terrorist’s nose. Moreover, the hard question was never addressed. It appears that waterboarding—of only three very high-level al-Qaeda leaders several years ago—yielded information that prevented at least a dozen terror attacks. Those seconds of terror (but no lasting harm) may well have saved tens of thousands of innocent lives. I consider that decisive. But even if you don’t, it seems to me impossible to deal with the issue in a serious way without confronting the possibility that intensive interrogation can save innocent lives.
“Does Jesus tell us anything about whether torture can be justified?” the pastor asked; I nodded “No.” That wasn’t the answer he was looking for. But the gospels are silent on a crucial set of moral questions. The sermon on the mount seems to direct you to repay injury and injustice against you with forgiveness. But what should you do if one person injures another? Imagine that the Good Samaritan arrives on the scene somewhat earlier, before or during the robbers’ attack. What should he do? Let’s assume he tries to dissuade the robbers and fails. What then? Is there anything in Jesus’s teachings that responds to that question?
The Christian (and non-Christian) left seems increasingly attracted to pacifism, assuming that the Good Samaritan, faced with this situation, should be willing to turn the other fellow’s cheek as well as his own. “Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek when we are attacked,” I have heard people say. The plural obscures the issue, wiping out the distinction between the person being attacked and the one in a position to prevent or stop that attack. Is there more to the argument than the resulting confusion?