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Some basic principles that explain why torture must be unconditionally rejected
(Michel Stavrou)

May 2007

[English] [français]

Some basic principles




Lungern (Switzerland) - 30 April – 2 May 2007


Some basic principles

that explain why torture must be unconditionally rejected


2nd May 2007


International convention defines torture as any act through which severe physical or mental suffering is intentionally inflicted by a public official on a person in order to obtain from them information or a confession, or even to punish them for facts or ideas of which they stand accused. Thus, following this definition, torture relates to a deliberate decision and not to emotions – hatred for enemies or “others” – that are occasionally brutally unleashed in serious war situations or civil disorders.

Beyond the disgust and aversion that I instinctively feel towards any “methodical” recourse to torture, I firmly and profoundly believe that torture transgresses a sacred law governing not only conventional morality but also our innermost humanity, which as a result is dragged down into the Devil’s lair. My repugnance rests implicitly on a certain vision of humanity that I assuredly do not claim to embody in every aspect of my life, but that my conscience tells me is authentic and true. I am talking about the vision of humanity that emerges from the Christian Revelation as expressed through the Tradition of the Greek Church Fathers. Naturally this anthropology broadly overlaps with other Christian traditions since it rests fundamentally on the Holy Scripture.

On reflection, my instinctive rejection crystallises around two aspects of the act of torture, that are in fact simultaneously distinct and inseparable: firstly, the imposition of a dehumanising relationship between torturer and victim, and secondly the effect on the victim, i.e. the violation of his personal dignity. Usually, because of our wish to emphasise the wrong inflicted on the victim we underline the second aspect while neglecting the former, since this seems to involve the subjectivity of the torturer or his sponsors (who also bear their share of responsibility). Yet, and I will come back to this, the former aspect is just as crucial and shameful, for if the torturer thought of his victim as a fellow human being he could not torture him.

Beyond its trail of physical and psychological injuries, the painful and humiliating treatment of a human being does indeed mean the violation of his personal dignity, since it implies that he has no intrinsic worth other than the information that needs to be extracted from him, or the thoughts, acts or intentions against society that are ascribed to him. But what is this personal dignity we have been referring to, and is it an inalienable right?

To my mind, the answer provided by the Christian vision of humanity is sufficiently clear and unambiguous. It is a Christ-centred anthropological vision. Idou anthropos (Ecce homo) », prophesised Pilates unwittingly (John 19, 5), as he pointed towards a silent Jesus emerging from the court where he had been scourged and humiliated. The great Russian thinker Nicholas Berdiaev insofar stressed that « The Advent of Christ is the fundamental fact of anthropology ».

As evidenced by the Church Fathers on the basis of Paul’s Epistles, Man was created in the image and likeness of God. More specifically, the first Adam was created in the image of the second, the Eternal Word, the perfect image of the Father, on whom the Holy Spirit rests. The image of God is in Man, distinguishing the latter from the animals, and makes him a human being, tarnished and dulled perhaps, but never insignificant. As we chant in the Byzantine Funeral Service: “I am the unutterable image of Your Glory although I bear the scars of my sins”. The image of God becomes manifest in Man’s inner freedom, the freedom to conduct his destiny in his own way. Every human being is unique and irreplaceable inasmuch as he corresponds to an absolutely unique call from God to exist. Human beings are not ciphers that can be quantified; their quality alone matters. Personal dignity therefore does not arise from subjective consciousness, intelligence, personal morality or social position etc., although it encompasses all of these aspects. Rather it basically stems from the certainty that Man was created in the image of God, and that he has received within a unique call to carry out his own vocation.

I will not speak rashly of human “rights“. After all, dignity implies both rights and obligations. Noblesse oblige.

If therefore all human beings are considered as ends in themselves in God’s eyes, they cannot in any circumstance be treated as a means to an end. This is nevertheless what happens when captives are tortured to wring information or a confession from them, and amounts to denying their most profound humanity, that is to say, for believers, the image of God that resides within them inalienably.

And yet, human beings were not created as self-sufficient and static creatures. Irenaeus of Lyons considered that human beings are made up of the body, the soul and even the Holy Spirit, which means that Divine Grace, far from standing in opposition to human freedom, allows humanity to flourish within God. Created as a dynamic being, Man is called upon to blossom in God’s likeness, as emphasised by every Church Father. Although the Original Fall interrupted this process by introducing death and evil into this world, Christ, the Word of God Incarnate, gave us the gift of His Spirit to further our spiritual growth. Therefore torturing a suspect, even the worst criminal, is tantamount to denying the power of the Spirit that could lead him to regret his acts and to move forward on the path to perfection. In secular language, torture signifies equating a human being with his moral degradation or alleged crime, and reducing him to this through a malicious and pessimistic bias.

This leads me to another unbearable aspect of torture, the unavoidable prerequisite I mentioned at the start – the imposition of a dehumanising relationship between torturer and victim, which explains and « authorises », so to speak, the Descent into Hell.

If we fail to sense the sacred nature of a human face open to the transcendence of « the human being hidden deep inside the heart » (1 Pi 3,4), or if we ignore « the ocean within a look », as expressed by the Patriarch Athenagoras, by considering most human beings as interchangeable, then we have not left behind the embryonic stage of individual existence. The shocking nature of torture is deeply entrenched in a cynical and barbarous posture, completely at odds with the Christian ethos. Indeed, to believe that human beings are called upon to grow in the likeness of God means that authentic humanity is achieved by receiving eternal life. To share in God’s very existence is the meaning of all human life; it is what the Church Fathers call “deification”. In the clay vessels of our humanity, ecclesial life provides us with the treasure of Christ’s divine and human duality, a treasure that can transfigure and expand our being. And by descending to the very root of our existence, i.e. Christ, we discern that within Him we form a single being in our personal diversity, in the very image of God who is simultaneously One and Trine, i.e. the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, three Beings that are absolutely distinct and yet share a single nature within a communion of infinite love. Man therefore fulfils his authentic nature in a relational existence. The Apostle Paul explains that in Christ “henceforth we know no man according to the flesh (2 Cor 5,16), and that is because we no longer see others as separate individuals – all human beings, be they good or « perverse », are linked to each other in invisible but profound solidarity. This solidarity is not simply moral – for good or for evil – but ontological, and it compels our respect and even, with the help of God, our love towards all human beings.

This is what those who advocate or carry out acts of torture refuse to admit. Yet violent coercion excludes respect and love for the other. To torture someone is to turn one’s back on the unity of humankind and to abdicate a natural relationship with brothers and sisters in humanity, which amounts to renouncing one’s own humanity and trading with the Devil. Spiritually and psychologically, the torturer is a being whose humanity has been wounded. Instead of integrating with the « tangibly universal » Christ (as expressed beautifully by Nicolas de Cuse), the torturer shatters the invisible body of Christ – who identified on the Cross with all the torture victims of human history – and commits a homicidal act of barbarity that is not only opposed to public order but also to what is most intimate within humanity.

Although we might be convinced in principle that the use of torture should be banned, are there not however special cases – such as the « ticking bomb » - when these principles should be relaxed? We might indeed be tempted by this “exceptional” use of torture. I need not mention the many wise and astute arguments that Eric Prokosch, former adviser to Amnesty International, put forward against the ever-present temptation to sweep away the principles of “idealists and monks” in favour of « pragmatism, swiftness and efficiency » when society is under threat. To my mind, a decisive argument against this idea is: who will establish the boundary between what is exceptional and what is normative, between a temporary measure and a permanent one? Resorting to torture even in exceptional cases would inexorably lead to the trivialisation of intentional physical abuse within the prison system and would feed a culture of barbarism within the whole of society. Therefore a respectable end - public safety - which is claimed in order to justify the use of torture will never be either honoured or reached.

Those responsible for public affairs - and public safety in particular - must face up to their ultimate responsibility and remain vigilant as to the methods employed, for these are revealing of a certain view of humanity shared by society. The teachings of the New Testament – and particularly the story of the adulterous woman (John 8, 1-11) – show us that the God of Jesus Christ is not a God who is cruel and quick to judge but a God filled with patience, mercy and love for humanity. One of the most beautiful titles given to God in the Byzantine liturgy is “philanthropos Theos (God, the friend of humanity)”. In the very image of the Creator whose enduring imprint we bear within us, we are called upon to fulfil our humanity by respecting others, which excludes absolutely all use of torture whatever the circumstances. To be an official or agent of the State does not mean abdicating one’s conscience and renouncing one’s humanity. On the contrary, the danger of becoming an impersonal cog in an inhuman machine that chews up and spits out human beings must prompt greater vigilance in order to refuse courageously to commit acts that would lead to barbarism.

I should like to finish with a film reference. In the film “Rome, Open City” by Italian film director Roberto Rossellini, I remember a close-up, striking in its realism, of the face of the young communist after he has been tortured by the Gestapo: it is a Christ-like face. I believe that this unforgettable image is more eloquent than many words. In a way, torture amounts to resuming and pursuing unconsciously the court lynching during which Pontius Pilate’s soldiers humiliated the Kingship of Jesus – except of course that Jesus accepted willingly to be beaten and spat at because of his love for every one of us. Henceforth, any act of torture was aimed at putting down the very Kingship residing within human beings, while forgetting the words that were spoken: “They know not what they do” (Luke 23, 34).



Michel Stavrou

Professor at the Saint-Serge Institute of Orthodox Theology in Paris

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