Medical Torture and the Definitions of Sin

Breaking news that physicians were involved in medical experiments on people already being tortured leads us again to a place beyond right and wrong. That place is called sin.
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Breaking news that physicians were involved in medical experiments on people already being tortured leads us again to a place beyond right and wrong. That place is called sin. Sin is strong enough to approximate dehumanization. St. Paul was brilliant when he spoke of sin as the things that we would not do, that we do, and the things that we do, that we would not. Sin clamps us in a vise. Sin crosses our intestines and then nails us to those crossed intestines. Sin gets your attention. Most people think torture is "wrong" -- and that is the problem. As soon as we realize that it is both wrong and sinful, we will find a way to put our waterboards -- and our measuring sticks -- away.

Christians define sin in at least three ways. One is that it is alienation or distance from God. A Godly person could not torture another person, nor could he or she measure the responses to that torture with the intent of torturing again. (Why else would a doctor measure torture's effects other than to help the state to sophisticate its weaponry?) A second version of sin is that of Martin Luther, called Incurvatus in Se. That means curved in on yourself. Your buildings are so much more important than other people's buildings that you have an excuse to torture to prevent any more attacks on your buildings. Ungodly people are so isolated, from each other and from their Creator that they imagine themselves alone in the universe. Once that self-obsession starts, it is an easy walk to torture and measurement of torture. A third version of sin, and Jesus' favorite, is that sin is self-righteousness. It is the one sin he fears cannot be forgiven. Self-righteous people are so convinced of their own goodness that they first demonize and objectify others, then they torture them, then they plan on more torture, and then they get physicians to help them measure how "good" they are at torturing.

The medical experiments done on tortured people are a triple play, if not a home run. They hit all the bases and concern even those of us who really believe that all sins can be forgiven. All? Yes, all. The sins of the bombers who bombed the World Trade Center can be forgiven. The sins of the torturers can be forgiven. God's grace is even larger than our sin.

By grace I mean the capacity of God to forgive even the worst sin. By torture I mean the intentional destruction of a person's bodily and psychological integrity. That term comes from Andrea Northwood of the National Center for Victims of Torture. Torture causes system-wide trauma in the individual who is tortured -- and trauma is the core loss of trust in the world. Those of us who prefer to look away right now will do so because of our own trauma, our own loss of core trust in the world, much less in forgiveness. Torture dehumanizes both the tortured and the torturer. It goes on to dehumanize the guilty bystander. Torture is sinful. It is separation from God.

It is also wrong. Why? It says you can't live by anything but power. God's love is considered smaller than power! You have become desperate. You are not even good at decent war. You have gone, with your victim, below the level of humanity. Torture shows just how scared you are. The terrorists win every time we become a caricature of a free people and rape, pillage, torture, cheat, waterboard, humiliate, make naked, or bully our way around the world.

It would be morally convenient to exempt the writer and the reader from the sin of medically measured torture. Unfortunately, grace teaches us something inconvenient. Grace is not cheap or easy. It involves a return to the bosom of a loving God. It involves getting over ourselves and how good we are. It means never saying things like, "If only we knew." Now we know. Now is the time to point the finger not outward but inward. What did we know and when did we know it? If you'd like to give up on democracy, then you can have the petty excuse of "not knowing." If you'd like to give up on grace, then you can have the petty excuse of not caring about people you don't know, either the tortured or the torturers. If you'd like to give up on God, you can live a life curved in on yourself. It won't be pretty, nor will it be joyous. But you will be able to stay nearly alive in the prison of your own self-righteousness. From there you could also probably find a doctor to measure your peace or happiness. There are alternatives -- and they all have to do with bending our knees.

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