Preface for Paschaltide

It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God; but chiefly are we bound to praise thee for the glorious Resurrection of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; for he is the very Paschal Lamb, who was sacrificed for us, and hath taken away the sin of the world; who by his death hath destroyed death, and by his rising to life again hath won for us everlasting life.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Peace Which Passeth Understanding

Warning: this post deals frankly with torture, which is some fucked-up shit; it is not recommended for people who are easily disturbed by things that are completely horrible.

I was more than a little irked when I was sent a link to the article "Our Partial Pacifism" on First Things, which lays the blame for our government's acceptance of torture, partly at least, at the feet of pacifists. Author Matthew Schmitz says the following:
Traditionally, Christians have argued that there is something called "just war." Leaders and their nations are bound to prosecute war justly without resorting to immoral tactics. Some things are in bounds, some out. 
In reply, pacifism insists that all war is evil -- that it is hell, so we must stay the hell out of it. This position is much derided, but more for the conclusions it reaches than the argument it makes. Many people believe along with the pacifists that war does indeed necessarily involve evil actions and so any attempt to impose a moral standard on our conduct is doomed from the start. 
Elizabeth Anscombe noted this in reviewing the justifications offered for the use of the atom bomb. Those who argued for it did not argue that it was in fact justified, they argued that war always and everywhere demanded the unjustifiable ...

Efficiency! Also genocide!

There are of course pacifists who believe that it is always wrong to use any form of violence, even in defense of the lives of innocents; not I. I accept self-defensive violence and indeed Just War Theory. Mind you, that still leaves approximately all wars open to criticism, since most are fought for unjust reasons, by unjust means, or both; but if the question is whether it is in principle morally acceptable to defend one's country by violence, then my answer is yes.

The reason I still describe myself as a pacifist is that I personally reject violence, because I feel called to do so. I think that the renunciation of the right of self-defense is not strictly necessary, yet a good thing, as renouncing the right to marry in favor of celibacy or the right to property in favor of poverty are good things. I think that pursuing one's ends through consistently non-violent means is a more excellent way, and that not making use of one's rights in order to imitate Christ, who emptied Himself of His rights as the Deity, more closely, is one legitimate path to holiness, and one for which we have a great deal of Scriptural, historical, and saintly precedent. Saint Joan herself, it may be noted, urged her opponents to withdraw rather than be killed, and carried no weapon but only a banner.

I hasten to add that my conviction of a pacifist vocation has been little tested. I don't know what I would do in the heat of anger or, still more, fear. I've participated in one anarchist anti-Nazi protest that included (but was not stopped by) a few protesters being arrested, and at the time I felt no impulse even to run, let alone to fight; that is as close as I have come. So I don't propose to make myself a poster-boy in all this.

Reminder: I'm this guy.

Turning to the question of torture, I don't know that I accept the charge that pacifism -- whether of the vocational sort that I espouse, or of the absolutist sort that would condemn a man for defending the lives of his children (such as seems to be implied by Shane Claiborne and others) -- has contributed to our acceptance of torture. It's true, certainly, that the same oversimplifications about justice and violence are present in both systems; but I don't see, based on my knowledge of the history of philosophy, that absolutist pacifism has had anything like enough range or influence to indirectly cause a corruption of Just War Theory into the pragmatic, patriotic theology that justifies torture, whether espoused with the honesty and reluctance of a Charles Krauthammer or the twisted, diseased sacrilege of a Sarah Palin. Torture has been a recurring problem, practical and philosophical, throughout Western history, and nearly all our institutions both political and ecclesiastical are stained with it; I do not think it is pacifism that has made it appealing as a solution to the minds of a frightened and unreflective generation.

I was heartbroken, and horrified, when, as a high schooler listening to discussions at my school over the then-current interrogations and invasions connected with the pursuit of al Qaeda and the Taliban, I realized that some of my Christian brethren were seriously proposing that torture could be countenanced. Mark Shea's ire is, in my opinion, completely justified. Torture is a hideous and fundamental assault upon the dignity of man as the image of God; no Christian may ever approve of its use, and the fact that Christians have done so in the past and do so in the present is one of the blackest marks on our history.

So what am I saying? That the lives of terrorists are more valuable than the lives of infants? Well, do let's keep in mind that there is no exchange center where you can trade one life for another, or weigh them in scales. Let's remember, too, that every human being -- including, as Scripture so often reminds us, our enemies -- is precisely a human being, an icon of the uncreated God; not a cost-benefit ratio. Or, to be more exact, there is an exchange center, and it looks like this:

Neither the U.S. government nor any other has access to that medium of exchange; nor is such a way of trading lives how the coinherence functions, whatever necromancers say.

But after all, torture works, right? It gets intel we wouldn't get otherwise, doesn't it? Well, no, there's actually no reason to think that at all. People regularly hold out under torture, or give false or misleading information -- whether out of cunning or to make the pain stop. Why wouldn't they? Besides which, whether it works is really beside the point. If something is always wrong, it's still wrong if it works. And torture is always wrong. It degrades not only the victim but the torturer; in order to ram food into a man's rectum or threaten to slit his mother's throat as a means of forcing him to talk, you have to become the sort of person who is willing to do that ramming and that threatening, and that kind of person is horrible.

It is peculiarly tragic, and stupid, that pro-life Catholics should apparently be disproportionately likely to advocate such measures. We, of all people, ought to know better. Not only because of the clear voice of the Church on such matters; not only because the dignity of all human life is, literally, the point of being pro-life; but because we have a special reason to recollect that everyone does eventually face the Four Last Things: death -- judgment -- heaven -- hell. What will you gain by saving your own skin, or someone else's, at the expense of your soul's corruption? It is, all but literally, making a deal with the devil: obtaining an expanse of earthly life, at the cost of damnation.

Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, My brethren, ye have done it unto Me.

Not that that penalty cannot be avoided, if you do approve of torture or have done so in the past, or have even participated in it. But the sole way out is repentance.

And all this is part of why I have, to the best of my ability and with little confidence in myself, renounced even just violence. It may be a hard path, one with its own spiritual perils, and one not strictly necessary nor suitable for every person; but it has the advantage of being a simple one. I believe that accepting violence even when it is just to do so carries with it the dangerous tug toward accepting violence when it is not just to do so, and I do not propose to open myself to that risk.

Moreover, such a vocation is eschatological. As celibacy prefigures the kingdom in which they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels of heaven, as poverty prefigures the kingdom in which they kept all things in common and none of them called anything his own, so pacifism prefigures the kingdom in which there will be no more pain, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. And it has this eschatological or prophetic character because it imitates our Lord, who, as He said, could at the moment of His arrest have called upon twelve legions of angels to halt the injustice, sparing the Apostles their lapses into cowardice and apostasy and perhaps converting both the Sanhedrin and the soldiers; but He would not force them. He represented in His person a new way of being, a peace which passeth understanding, and to Greeks foolishness. His victory was the victory of love, which is more powerful than power. He received into Himself the totality of human hatred and violence, together with the uttermost consequences, and showed Himself the conqueror.

The third week in Advent is an Ember week, one of the four traditional weeks in which Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday are observed as days to fast (wholly or partially) and to abstain from meat. This year, that means the 17th, 19th, and 20th of December. I encourage you, readers, to join me in observing this fast, not only in preparation for Christmas, but in penitence and humble supplication to God for forgiveness and healing in this country.


  1. If you accept that there can be a just war, which means accepting that human beings will be killed, is it a graver evil to inflict severe pain or distress on someone than to kill him?

  2. My question exactly, naturgesetz. Cases that admit a right to defensive killing (self-defense, capital punishment, just war) must admit of pain infliction too. I'd rather be disabled by pain than disabled by death. Maybe not in the moment, but after the fact I'd be grateful to still be alive rather than dead.

  3. It does occur to me that the Geneva Conventions prohibit torture of POW's. The underlying principle may be that prisoners are no longer combatants and therefore should be treated more like noncombatants than combatants.

    1. Quite. An illustration of exactly the same principle that governs the just use of self-defensive violence.

    2. Well, except...State defense versus personal self-defense is different.

      Personal self-defense ends as soon as the person is subdued. But the State is allowed to punish people years after they have already been subdued, including by death.

      So it's not exactly comparable. Even POWs are still kept imprisoned under the "sword" so as to not become combatants again. And if they tried to rise up or escape, could be legitimately killed or hurt in order to subdue them again. That's the whole point of guarding a prison or camp: the threat of violence if you try anything.

    3. I can concede that state and personal violence don't operate by quite the same moral rules -- though as far as the death penalty is concerned, I take the view that, as in self-defense, it is licit only if there are no other practical means for dealing with an offender (which, as the Catechism points out in paragraph 2267, is practically never the case in contemporary societies, and could be averted by exile in a great many cases even in primitive societies). But I don't think the state's power of the sword is fundamentally different, even if it expressed differently: it is the self-defense of the community, expressed in the person of its officers. Those who have become non-aggressors must be treated as such; if they become aggressors again, e.g. by trying to break out of jail, then the force required to restrain them is again licit. I don't think the animating principle changes, and consequently I think that a defenseless person is still categorically out-of-bounds when it comes to violence.

  4. My apologies for having left your comments for so long. I'm planning another post which will probably address these matters in a little more detail (a fisking of an essay in defense of torture written from a Christian perspective), but I'd like to make at least some reply to your remarks.

    First -- although, as I've said, I believe I am called to renounce it for myself -- I do concede that self-defense by violence *when nothing else will suffice* is morally licit. (C. S. Lewis, with his usual canny acumen, wrote of the question of self-defensive violence that the claims of the aggressor as a being possessed of human dignity "are inferior to all other claims involved but not nonexistent"; the context escapes me, though I think it's in 'Mere Christianity.') One of the qualifiers on this is that only as much force as is needed to restrain the offender may be used, and not more; this applies to Just War Theory a fortiori, where it is known as the principle of proportionate force.

    Setting aside the gross inhumanity to man that torture represents, and loth though I am even to consider the matter from this angle: I think the pragmatic objections to torture (i.e., the brute fact that it doesn't work, as the SSCI report indicated) imply that it is correspondingly *never* necessary to impose torture on someone. It is, so to speak, an attempt at violent self-defense that gets in the violence but doesn't actually defend the self.

    A more principled way of viewing the matter (which I prefer to a degree I can hardly articulate) is that, insofar as the principle of self-defense is the only thing that justifies violence, it is also the principle that animates those who have been deprived of the power to harm us. One of the longstanding qualifications of Just War Theory has been its insistence that not only non-combatant civilians, but even prisoners of war, *may not* be harmed. D. C. McAllister, whose article on this subject in 'The Federalist' I found logically incoherent and ethically loathsome, nevertheless gave a pretty good definition of torture (and, in defining her terms, did attend to a neglected element of the discussion) when she wrote that "Torture is the infliction of severe pain *on a defenseless person* with the purpose of breaking their will" (emphasis mine). This is categorically forbidden in Just War Theory, and falls decidedly outside the principle of strictly self-defensive violence, which is the only kind I would countenance as even potentially licit. (This also applies to pre-emptive strikes such as we made use of in Afghanistan and Iraq, which I deplored from the beginning.)

    Concerning whether torture can be worse than death, I'd actually maintain that it can be. After all, everyone is going to die someday, unless the Second Coming pre-empts them (in which case the unusual circumstance of some people not dying will, I imagine, be relatively low on our list of interests). Torture, by contrast, is something that relatively few people either inflict or endure. And torture, as Ms McAllister said, is designed to *break* a person. It is meant to reduce them to a shambling mess that cannot resist the torturer's demands. Nothing can remove the image of God from a man, but torture damn well tries to remove the likeness, tries to dehumanize and degrade and to treat human beings as animals and filth; and tries by doing so to interfere not only with their lives (which will end one day regardless), but with their free, rational, and immortal souls, by violent force rather than an appeal to the conscience. The trauma that the tortured will almost certainly suffer -- if they survive, as at least one victim of American torture did not -- hardly bears thinking about, and the stain on the soul of the torturer (who may be traumatized himself) is pure horror to think of.