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Torture—good guys, bad guys and Genesis

by Carl Wieland

25 May 2004

The images of US soldiers involved in dehumanizing humiliation of Iraqi prisoners (many innocent of any crime) have reverberated across the western world. War (and the incarceration of people) always gives opportunity for mankind’s sinful nature to come to the fore. And as many have been quick to point out, the US torture images pale against what Saddam’s henchmen were carrying out routinely, and the subsequent media beheading of an American. But ‘our side’ is not supposed to do that; we see such barbaric behavior as somehow more normal for ‘them,’ but not ‘us,’ as if we were intrinsically superior.

Science and the Bible unite to affirm that the idea of some sort of ‘racial’ predisposition—to greater or lesser cruelty, for instance—is nonsense. We are all ‘one blood,’ genetically. The thing that makes a difference for any group of people is their culture and upbringing, particularly the biblical heritage of a nation which leads to shared moral restraints.

And such a heritage can be quickly replaced by new thinking. Take pre-war Germany—a civilization with a strong biblical heritage of compassion was rapidly undermined by Hitlerism, with its Darwinian message of superior and inferior races. Ordinary ‘nice’ people, still capable of tenderly dressing a child’s grazed elbow, committed horrific acts against a group of people once they saw them as ‘less evolved/human.’

The Iraq pictures have disturbed us—the jocular ease with which death, suffering, sexual humiliation and depravity seemed to be trivialized by US guards. We cry out to ourselves, ‘Aren’t we supposed to be the good guys here?’ But ‘we’ never were ‘good guys’ or ‘superior’ in any sense other than our culture, based upon the Bible and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And the Iraq prison debacle demonstrates how that culture, that shared set of values, has undergone a drastic change right at its foundations. Ask yourself—would such widespread debasements and sexual humiliations, seemingly routine and smiled upon by superiors, have been anywhere near as likely by US troops during WWII?

Brigadier Jim Wallace, former commander of Australia’s elite SAS troops, wrote recently that the time-honored standard for a soldier to determine what to do has been, ‘Who am I and what do I believe?’ But, he said, this is now rapidly moving away from this absolute basis to ‘What is most expedient in this situation?’ Bottom line: If our cultural beliefs change, so will our behavior—and that of our soldiers.

We have, as a church, sat by for many decades while our society is taught that the Bible’s history in Genesis can’t be trusted, reassuring ourselves that ‘it’s just a side issue.’ We puzzle over how ‘nice’ people can so trivialize human life, sexuality and suffering in Abu Ghraib, yet we have let our culture tell these same people that they—and their captives—are just evolved animals, randomly reorganized pond scum. (To avoid the notion that we are ‘blaming a scientific theory,’ see Evolution and social evil.)

The very core of everything that is good about our western civilization has come from the belief that the Bible was really, truly true. To the extent that the church remained true to this, the blessings have flowed to even the majority who weren’t truly born-again—like a little bit of salt flavoring the whole stew. But if the Bible can’t be trusted about history, it can’t be trusted about morality and salvation, either (John 3:12). There is much more at stake in the battle for the authority of Genesis than even most Christians realize.

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