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A Biblical reflection on the ban on torture

December 2010

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Claire Chimelli, 1 August 2005

Comments, statements and affirmations on the absolute nature of the ban on torture and on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment are legion today. Indeed, the ban forms part of what is known as the "hard core" of basic rules to which all signatories of the United Nations Charter must adhere because it is as fundamental as the right to freedom or the right to life.

As Christians campaigning for the abolition of torture, we try to base our work on our beliefs and in particular on the word of God, whom we worship as Creator and Saviour, and who reveals to us the real meaning of being human.

Expressions like "relationship" and "humanity" provide the key to understanding the reasons behind our commitment to fight torture uncompromisingly. By re-reading some of the great Bible passages, we can fathom how these two notions are the building blocks for human life: relationships with oneself and with others - because we are human in our interactions with others - and our relationship with God - who is humanity itself.

The Bible: an account of human nature

Rich though it is in lessons, there is no commandment in the Bible saying "Thou shalt not torture". Indeed it presents scenes and words that contain nothing of the gentleness of the Gospels. The Bible is a reflection of the world and of history, warts and all. We should also remember that the world over the centuries when it was written was a place where the death penalty, harsh treatment, vengeance and even torture were a part of how men survived, governed and exercised power. We must therefore necessarily put these writings in their proper context. That obviously does not mean acting and thinking as if we, too, live in the past; however, our era is not devoid of cruelty and injustices in other forms.

The times and people’s sensitivities have changed in many respects. Today, especially in the west, the evolution of philosophical, political and psychological thinking has led us to consider human beings - in theory at least - as individuals "born equal" as set out in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to recognise certain practices like torture for what they are: an attack on human life.

However, when we look back at our experiences, at what we see around us, we realise that basic human nature has not changed and that man is still the same person we read about in the Bible. If God’s intentions for mankind are unchanged, violence has by no means disappeared and man’s life and struggles are played out amidst these contradictions.

Creation: a link-up

The texts on creation in Chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis recount both what we shall become and what we are. In Genesis Chapter 1 we read that God created man "in his image and after his likeness" adding immediately "male and female (or man and woman) he created them" (1, 26-27).

Genesis Chapter 2 is different in form and in the sequence of events: only after creating man does God declare: "It is not good that the man should be alone (2.18). Therefore woman is created from Adam’s rib. What matters here is that from the beginning, humankind is created to live in contact with God and with his fellow men, that is to say a relationship built on confidence, closeness and mutual assistance. God gives man his creation for him to run it and survive. "Be fruitful and multiply" (1.28): the work is ongoing and the relationships that are fundamental to human life are to continue down the generations.

If we can say that a relationship is a primordial thing, we can also see it as part of a much larger dynamic which is the continuation of creation. From the beginning this appears to be putting things into some sort of order after a victory over primitive chaos, like separating out a number of elements where each person must play a role. But the order is not set in stone - it needs frequent upkeep and renewal. Therefore what in the second text is presented as a ban on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is one of a number of parameters set in place by the Creator in the same way that he limits the elements (the waters separated by a firmament, the sky by the earth and so on). Far from hindering the development of human knowledge, as could be thought, it is a reminder of the fact that humankind has its limits and is not God.

Man is not the supreme judge of "good and evil" for the word of God precedes him, the same word that created and ordered the universe. While managing Creation and his relationships with it, mankind is a participant in creation and must therefore recognise his limits. He is given responsibility for the universe but his judgements are in the name of another who created him free and responsible but not absolute master. Not least because of his very relationship with his worldliness, his freedom and responsibility are linked to that of others.

If we read further in Genesis we come to the text on the "fall" which tells the story of how humankind was unable to manage his relationships and where a worrying and seductive new element has arrived to upset his fragile balance. So, from the beginning, the dark side which seems to be one of man’s basic traits is apparent and leads to him refusing to accept any limits and overstepping them. Busy conquering the world around him he forgets he is a creature and gets carried away by a force which leads him to assume power and want to be master rather than manager, to refuse to admit that he must account for this conduct. The Bible incorporates this principle in the form of a serpent - and we find it in the Gospels called Satan or the devil.

When God asks "where are you, what have you done?" the ensuing conversation shows that far from accepting responsibility for their acts, man and woman try to blame another - the woman, the serpent (3, 9-13). Indeed, we find examples of this need to justify oneself in all situations where someone must account for prohibited actions and cites a chain of command and loyalties, whether assumed or contradictory.

Our concern for human integrity

We know how the Bible reads on (Genesis 4). Cain in a later generation is asked the same question. "Where is Abel your brother?" He tries to shake off any responsibility for his brother, "Am I my brother’s keeper?" In killing him, Cain, who is jealous and violent, cuts a vital link. He has taken it out on another body and taken a life. When the Bible talks about human beings created in God’s image and likeness we are not thinking about spirituality but his physical being. Without getting involved in matters that have been the subject of much theological controversy, we could ask ourselves what significance there is in the fact that God came down to mankind in the person of Christ through incarnation.

All Jesus’ work, his healings, what he says about the kingdom of God and his prophesies show his concern for mankind’s whole nature and his physical and spiritual sufferings. An attack on this wholeness comes down to unleashing the forces of darkness and it is not coincidental that the Gospel says that most of the sick healed by Jesus are tortured by evil spirits. Healings are a new victory over the forces of chaos.

Coming back to Cain, we see him aware of what he has done, fearful of his fellow men: the cycle of vengeance is a threat that he hopes to avoid by fleeing. In his eyes, the fact he has taken another’s life has cut him off in some way from human companionship. A similar idea appears in the text of a seminar held by the World Council of Churches on "Seeking lasting peace in Africa" (2004) on the genocide in Rwanda.

"… the perpetrators of the massacres killed all humanity within themselves and severed the relationship with God before they took away the lives of other human beings". The same is true of torture which "dehumanises" the torturer and his henchmen as well as the victims.

But this does not provide a definitive solution. In our story God puts a mark, the "mark of Cain" on the murderer. Rather than being a mark of infamy or a curse, it is intended to protect Cain and to allow him to live. In any case, a warning is given: no one is to harm Cain, he is not to be killed. Even he, a murderer, has the right to live and no one is authorised to kill or harass him on pain of terrible consequences. His life has a value and social order must be maintained. Once more, chaos is not allowed to get the upper hand.

Disregard for life and human dignity, even that of a murderer or torturer, corresponds to that part of chaos that dictates that one human being sets himself up as supreme judge to decide what is human and what is not. The other person, who overshadows him and whom he envies has turned into an enemy to be crushed. Anyone whose behaviour is deemed deviant, no longer has a human face for his executioner and so no obstacle remains to degrading that person or torturing him and stopping thinking of him as a human being - this is considered useful and worthy for the rest of society.

Let not one perish!

It is significant that over the centuries torture has only been inflicted on those judged inferior, those stripped of all dignity or honour by a system of social values - in short slaves, non-citizens, "inferior classes", "nobodies". Those inflicting the punishment or ordering it believed that they could establish their power and obtain proof of real or supposed crimes and that the ends (to guarantee safety and maintain good order) justified the means. But are things different today? The practice or even just the debates on the question of "strong-arm interrogations" in the context of the fight against terrorism is justified in this way.

A prime example of this approach can be found in the Gospel according to John. The religious leaders are exasperated by Jesus’ popularity with the people. They see a danger for their credibility with the Roman authorities. Jesus is in the way. He has exposed the hypocrisy of the rulers of his time, talked blasphemy and endangered the civil order they represent. The episode in question (John 11, 45-52) happens after Jesus has brought Lazarus back to life. Easter is approaching and as with all festivals that bring crowds in to Jerusalem, the Roman authorities fear rioting and the temple elders are worried about what action the Romans may take against the people. John’s Gospel talks about a meeting of the temple leaders: priests and Pharisees do not know how to deal with this potentially explosive situation. Caiaphus, the High Priest, suggests getting rid of Jesus.

His concern is to avoid intervention by the Roman occupying force and to maintain safety and public order - a well-used argument adopted in all emergencies. "It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people" (John 11, 50). This is the classic justification used today to bring in exceptional measures and impose restrictions on civil liberties, inflict inhuman treatment and even torture, if insurgency threatens and the safety of the people make it necessary.

In Caiaphus’ speech, we can see the calculations being made by an authority that does not hesitate to dispose of a life - and the dignity and integrity - of a human being to benefit superior values. It is "useful", "expedient" for the people, for security, for our power and our authority that this person disappears. What is one person compared to a crowd? We are talking numbers and power politics. If you follow that way of reasoning, you are admitting that a human being is being traded, denied his intrinsic value and that it has been decided that he can be sacrificed. It is one person setting himself up as absolute master over life and death and usurping the place that only God can occupy.

Exposing the relationships of power

We know what happens next, how Jesus is summarily tried, perjured, convicted and executed. John the Evangelist adds his comment on Caiaphus’ speech: without realising it, he says something prophetic, in which believers recognise the profound meaning of Jesus’ death.

It is like holding up a mirror to show what a human being is prepared to accept and to do when the sense of common humanity with his victim is lost. The Gospels show the real image of God in the person of Jesus who accepts humanity to the extreme and who, on the cross, exposes man’s struggles for power and his violence.

The parable of the last judgement (Matthew 25, 31-46) uses other words to remind us that they way in which we help or neglect "the youngest" of his brothers typifies the relationship we have with others and how we are linked to Christ, who totally identified himself with humanity.

Caiaphus reproached his fellow men for not understanding the situation: "you know nothing at all" - literally "you reason badly". From one viewpoint as a policy, it is clever and reasonable. But it betrays the thoughts of someone who has been led astray because it does not give credence to the common essence of humanity or to the limits of human judgement. There will never ever be any justification for such an act.

For Christians, the absolute ban on torture is more than a simple legal prescription. It is rooted in the core of our humanity, of our ability to form relationships and that does not allow us the power to decide who is human and who is not.

Again in the Gospels, John (8, 3-11) we see Jesus confronted by a series of religious judges who bring an adulteress before him. The law sanctions lapidation in such cases. They are pushing him to make his position clear - "testing" him, says the text. But he refuses to become entangled in the logic of guilt and punishment. On the contrary, he makes them face up to their own selves. "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her" (v 7). In other words, they are forced to recognise their status as imperfect people who do not have the right to decide on the life and death of another. Moreover, he allows the woman to begin a new life and rejoin a community that was on the point of carrying out a punishment and exclude her.

Some other texts to consider

Justice and chaos
See Jeremiah 5, 20-26
When a person’s rights are ignored and human beings are treated like prey what becomes of human relationships, and ones relationship with God and with creation?
What is the situation today?

The image of God
See John 1, 1-18
Philippians 2, 4-11
Colossians 1, 12-20

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