Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Reflections on Esther

So yesterday I had a plane ride from Michigan to Boston, and I decided to take the time to catch up on some Bible reading. For no particular reason I decided to look at the book of Esther, which I hadn't read before.

This is about a Jewish girl in Persia during the period of the Persian rule over Israel (the Persians had conquered Israel from the Babylonians, as Isaiah had foretold). After the Persian queen Vashti falls out of favor, Esther wins a beauty contest and becomes the next queen of Persia. She finds out about a plot by the emperor's evil minister Haman to commit genocide against the Jews, and she thwarts the plot and saves her people. It's really a good read. If you do read it, you should read the longer, Catholic/Orthodox version which includes several chapters not included in most Protestant bibles. These chapters are among the best in the book, and their beauty alone indicates that the Catholics, Orthodox and Eastern churches were right to keep them.

People read the Old Testament in different ways. Personally I don't get hung up on which parts of the Old Testament are literal fact: I read it not as a textbook of history, biology, or paleontology, but as an inspired work written by fallible men whose function, for Christians, is to prophecy Christ. I read the Old Testament only in light of the New, for the light that it casts upon the story of Christ. Jonah wasn't really swallowed by 'a big fish', and his story isn't simply a fable about interreligious tolerance, though it is that too: rather it is a remarkable prophecy of Christ. It was with this 'typological' interpretation in mind that I read the book, and was struck by how many remarkable parallels it has with the story of Salome in the Gospels. Salome, of course, used for evil ends the power that Esther used for good.

This parallel came to my mind when I noticed the promise that Xerxes makes to Esther, reminiscent of the promise Herod Antipas makes to Salome: "Ask for anything and I will grant it, even unto the half of my kingdom."The story of Salome, like the story of Esther, shows us the power that sexuality carries with it, and the power that love has to rule over the actions of men. As Rousseau acknowledges in the 'Discource on the Origins of Inequality", even in a communistic state where men no longer have wealth and resources to fight over, they will still fight over love. Salome, like Esther, was a woman of great beauty who used her beauty to advantage. But the difference, of course, is that while Esther used her power to bring life, and to succour the suffering, Salome used hers to bring death. The true God is a god of life, who made himself incarnate "that they might have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). The evil power, whatever name we call him by, is a power who loves death.

Here is another difference. Xerxes truly loved his queen, and physical attraction was intermixed with tenderness and affection. When she approaches him with fear and trembling, he responds with gentle kindness: "And the queen faltered, and turned pale and faint, and collapsed upon the head of the maid who went before her. Then God changed the spirit of the king to gentleness, and in alarm he sprang from the throne and took her in his arms until she came to herself. And he comforted her with soothing words..." (Esther 15:7-8). Few things lead us to feel tenderness and solicitude more than to see the vulnerability and tenderness of those who suffer. The sight of anyone who suffers- a crying baby, a fearful child, a forlorn adult man or woman crushed by poverty, sickness, or oppression- leads us out of ourselves, into empathy and sympathy. And to be brought out of ourselves is the beinning of virtue, and wisdom. In this way God brings good out of evil: "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but [he was born blind] that the works of God might be made manifest in him" (John 9:3). How many of us have been asked for food, or for money, by an adult and been overcome by cynicism, but then when we see that they have a hungry child with them have changed our mind? Again, "Though he will not get up and give him anything because he is is friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise up and give him what he needs" (Luke 11:8). This is one reason that Christ became man, so that those who were unready to love a distant and absolute heavenly king might be touched, and their hearts moved, by the sight of a wandering carpenter nailed to a cross. Incidentally, one line from this scene, "The law was not made for thee, but for all others" (Esther 15:13) has been interpreted as a prophecy that St. Mary would be conceived free from original sin; for if we understand the law in its broadest sense, as having to do with sin and its consequence, then this line is foretelling that at least one human person would someday be born without original sin, and that would be the Mother of God.

In the love of Xerxes for Esther, then, we see both spiritual and physical elements: and most of all, we see how through love, physical desires are transformed and ennobled into something spiritual. For the sake of his love, Xerxes became the vehicle of the protection and deliverance of the Jews. Through his story we see how romantic love can be added to and converted into something greater. Like Severus Snape, Xerxes was saved through his ability to feel love, and his love led him to realize the enormity of what he had done. Contrariwise, in the passion of Herod for Salome was pure and unadorned lust, and the worst and most unnatural form of it. Esther was a child of adoption, her cousin created a family where there had not been one before. Herod's desire for Salome was, of course, incestuous, and in this sense it was a violation of the very institution of the family. More than that, actually: it was triply incestuous for she was his distant cousin, his neice, and also his stepdaughter. The fact that consanguineous relations are a crime against the very notion of the family, and that they corrode filial affection (filia) by converting it into something lower, is the reason this is considered, cross culturally, to be the worst and most unspeakable of all crimes. Where Mordecai built a family, Herod destroyed one, and in so doing he mirrored the destruction of innumerable families that his father had been responsible for at Bethlehem during the massacre of the holy innocents.

Herod, like Xerxes, was a man torn between good and evil. Xerxes, remember, signed his name to the irrevocable order for genocide before his love for Esther made him think better of it. And Herod, too, had some vague sense of who St. John the Baptist was, and even who Christ was. He had refused his wife's request to kill John, "knowing that he was a righteous and holy man", and fearing the consequences (Mark 6:20). And he had a strange fascination with Christ too, for when He was on trial for his life Herod summoned him to talk to him: "He was very glad, for he had long desired to see him...and he was hoping to see some sign done by him" (Luke 23:8). Oscar Wilde, for all that he shocked Victorian England with his lifestyle, was at heart a Christian all his life, not just when he converted on his deathbed, and his portrait of Herod in the play "Salome" is a dark, haunting vision of a man who knows that e is doing evil, has some vague and instinctual sense of what good and evil are, but somehow cannot stop himself from going over the edge, and laments at the end, "I have committed a great crime against some unknown god." Herod, who had allowed himself to pervert and corrupt true love- through fratricide and incest- at long last, faced with the choice of good and evil chose evil: Xerxes, caught between good and evil, chose good. When the round table breaks, as C.S. Lewis said, all men must choose the side of Galahad or of Mordred.

The last thing I'd note about Esther is that it indicates, perhaps, that today's incessant arguments about gay marriage, and some of the other sexual issues, are perhaps missing the point. Clearly, going by sacred scripture, by natural law, and by tradition, God is not a big fan either of polygamy or of divorce: "Whosoever puts away his wife, saving for adultery, causes her to commit adultery" (Matthew 5:32). They are sins, and I would be happy to condemn them. Yet in spite of that, he was able to work through Xerxes' polygamous marriage following a divorce, and to use it for his ends. Xerxes should not have divorced Vashti, and he shouldn't have married a whole slew of different women: but given his sins, God was still willing to infuse his marriage to Esther with love and affection, and to use that love and affection to make Xerxes a new and better person, and to save him from becoming an accomplice to genocide. If God could work through and ennoble a divorced polygamous marriage, which we generally agree is sin, then why could he not work through a gay relationship, or an unmarried relationship, which not all of us are even sure if they are sins? The story of Esther, finally, tells me that God is ultimately more concerned about the content of a romantic and sexual relationship, and of whether it is characterized by love and by self-giving, then by the form. "For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life" (2 Corinthians 3:6).

Domine Jesu Christi, Fili Dei, miserere mei peccatoris. Amen.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A consideration of torture

There are at least two separate issues involved with the question of torture. Firstly, is it ever licit, from a Christian point of view, to deliberately inflict serious physical pain on another human being? Secondly, is it legitimate for us to do so for the purposes of interrogation? Because it’s possible to inflict pain for many reasons- for one’s own pleasure, for intimidation, for the correction of a criminal, the expiation of sin, procuring confessions, extracting information, etc. Inflicting pain could potentially be legitimate for some of these purposes and not for others. This will be a long post, but here is what I think: the answer to this question is Yes, and No. I believe that pain can sometimes be legitimately inflicted as a punishment: but as a means of interrogation, it is wrong.

Let’s start by rejecting two premises that often seem to sneak into this debate. There is, first, the idea that pleasure is good, pain is evil, and that to inflict pain on another person is always wrong; and there is the equal and opposite error that war is hell, and that whatever you need to do to win it is justified. The second is of course, easily rejected: that is the logic of Hiroshima and of the Stalinist purges. The first however must be refuted at more length.

Pain is not, in the Christian conception, an inherent evil, nor is death. Both of these are considered penal, a result of living in a fallen world. People often think that the New Testament forbids capital and corporal punishment, but this isn’t so. Christ implicitly accepted the legitimacy of corporal and capital punishment when He didn’t correct the thief on the cross, who acknowledged, after being scourged and crucified, that we receive the due reward of our deeds (Luke 23:41). St. Paul accepted capital punishment when he pled to Festus, For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die (Acts 25:11). Now as St. Thomas Aquinas said, if the death penalty is sometimes legitimate, then it must be legitimate to inflict, on criminals, physical punishment short of death. And indeed, Christ seems to acknowledge that in certain circumstances, physical punishment is legitimate: that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes (Luke 12:47). The question then, is this: when is it legitimate to inflict pain?

The guideline that we should use, as Christians, is what Christ told us was the second greatest commandment, after the duty to love God: And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself (Matthew 22:39). And how do we know what is a loving action? And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise (Luke 6:31). So the question we need to ask, before we consider inflicting physical pain on a human being, is this: would we ever be in a position where we would like physical pain to be inflicted on ourselves?

Well, perhaps. Most of us would prefer not to be caned or whipped for no reason. But I can certainly imagine circumstances when I would deserve to suffer, and where I would be better off for having pain inflicted on me. Specifically, if I had done something very wrong, that I knew was wrong, and for which I needed to atone and repent for. Of course I would probably plead not to have to suffer, and not to endure pain, when it came to the sticking point. Hell, most of us cringe away from taking our blood drawn at the doctor’s. For the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41). This doesn’t mean, however, that in the coolness of foresight we would not say that we would deserve to suffer for doing something wrong, or that in the coolness of hindsight we would not acknowledge that we were better off for having suffered for it. Our fundamental human nature, not the corrupt and fallen thing that our nature is today, is to love good and hate evil, and anything that helps to cleanse our souls, to expiate sin and to wash away the stain of guilt from our conscience, is ultimately a good thing. It is said, Thou shalt strike him with the rod, and deliver his soul from hell (Proverbs 23:13), which St. Augustine invoked in defending the use of force by the state.

Is it true that suffering can expiate sin, and that we can be cleansed and made whole by enduring pain and suffering for what we have done wrong? I certainly believe so; as St. Paul said, I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake. (Colossians 1:24). As Pope Paul VI said, The necessity of mortification of the flesh stands clearly revealed if we consider the fragility of our nature, in which, since Adam’s sin, flesh and spirit have contrasting desires. And as his present day successor has said, suffering is the process by which we mature [spiritually]. Simone Weil, interpreting Plato, sets out the purpose of legal and judicial punishment: to overcome pride and self-love in the heart of the offender, and to restore him to a place within the moral order (The Need for Roots). Some kind of suffering is necessary to do this. For the root of sin and wrongdoing is pride: as St. Augustine puts it, original sin is summed up thus: when the soul abandons Him to whom it ought to cleave as its end, and becomes a kind of end to itself. (City of God, 14:13). And suffering is necessary to restore us to humility. When we suffer, all we can think about is suffering, and we are reduced to the position of a child, asking “Why am I being hurt?” And through the process of answering that question for ourselves, we can come to repent, and to love good and hate evil. Thus it is said learned he obedience by the things which he suffered (Hebrews 5:8), and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross; wherefore God also hath highly exalted him (Philippians 2:7).

So physical pain is not intrinsically wrong when used moderately, as a punishment, for the sake of the correction of the criminal. The Left wing government of Bolivia recently legalized moderate corporal punishment, as an alternative to prison, for some minor crimes. Other countries- Malaysia, Trinidad, Guyana- also practice corporal punishment today, and I don’t think we would call them evil or uncivilized. So if we wanted to change the laws to sentence convicted terrorist to be caned, say, 20 times as part of their punishment, or to be forced to perform grueling physical labor, or to endure rough treatment in general- with caterpillars, with being slapped in the face or given a bloody nose- I wouldn’t have a problem with that. In fact, I think that the modern West has gone far too much to the other extreme of shunning all punishment of the body. In what way is it more humane to place a man in solitary confinement than to give him a caning and then let him go home to his family? In what way is the psychological suffering of prison more humane than the physical pain of caning? The only way it can be is if you believe that the body is more real or more important than the soul, such that only punishment inflicted on the body is really wrong. But that relies on a deeply anti-Christian anthropology that I reject. Excessive physical punishment, that threatens maiming, organ failure or death, is of course wrong: even those who are sentenced to death should not be tortured to death. Death is enough of a punishment. But moderate physical punishment, when it is done for the correction of the criminal, for the expiation of the crime, is not a bad thing. Nor is it incompatible with loving our neighbor, for to love our neighbor often involves trying to get him to correct his behavior and overcome his moral deficiencies, and physical pain can be a means to that end. The spirit is higher than the body, and sometimes we can cause physical pain to ourselves or to others in order to become morally cleansed: and that is just, and right. A man doesn’t love his child any less when he spanks the kid; nor does an Aymara court in Bolivia love their prisoner less when they sentence him to be whipped with a rope. There are circumstances in which I think I would deserve, and would need, to have physical pain inflicted on me: therefore, I say that it isn’t wrong in general.

Now the other, and more difficult question: If inflicting physical pain is not always a bad thing, and if it can be justified as a form of punishment against criminals, then can it be justified too as a means for getting information? Vital information, which could save thousands of lives? Information that we desperately need, which could be gotten in no other way? Information that we can depend on, information about a ticking bomb or an assassination plot?

I say that it cannot. This may be surprising. After I’ve just defended corporal punishment, which is considered horrid and barbaric by most of the enlightened chattering classes in the West today, it might seem as though I should defend torture of suspects too. After all, punishing a criminal (according to the thoughts of many ‘enlightened’ people) serves no actual good function, whereas torturing for information could save millions of lives. But my answer is, still, “No.” And here’s why. There are many reasons why torturing suspects to get information is not equivalent to corporal punishment, and why beating a suspect for information is wrong, even if beating a criminal as a legally prescribed part of his punishment is not.

1) Physical pain, to be justified, must be inflicted with the goal (at least one of the goals) being the correction of the criminal and the expiation of his crime: it must be for his own good as well as for ours. Interrogative torture is not. Its goal is the procuring of information. The prisoner is being treated as a means to our end, rather than as a person that we are seeking, out of paternal love, to morally correct. And using a prisoner as simply a conduit of information, instead of a person about whose soul we are concerned, is wrong.

2) Physical pain, to be justified, needs to be proportionate to the crime committed, for it derives its justification from the fact that the victim is guilty. But interrogative torture is not: rather, its duration depends on how willing the suspect is to stand pain, and how unwilling he is to tell us what we want to know. These things are not closely related to actual moral guilt. The punishment must fit the crime: but interrogative torture doesn’t fit the crime, therefore it is not an acceptable use of physical force.

3) Physical pain, to be justified, must be moderate in extent. But torture, if it is moderate, will quickly fail, for terrorists will be trained to withstand it. If 10 punches in the nose is the limit, then terrorists will train each other to hold out to the eleventh. Torture will only work if it is open ended and potentially unlimited- if the victim knows his pain will stop only when he concedes what he knows. Because torture runs the risk of becoming open ended, it has tremendous potential to be extended beyond any reasonable limit.

4) Physical pain, to be justified, should not threaten life. But some of our techniques- waterboarding, simulated crucifixion- can and have threatened life. Therefore our torture program has transgressed the limits of acceptable severity.

5) Physical pain cannot be inflicted on innocent people who have not done anything wrong. We would only concede to being punished or caused pain if we had done something wrong, and felt we needed to atone for it; but no one would consent to be tortured while still innocent. We do not know, in a legal sense, whether any of these people are guilty, since they have been convicted of no crime. Legally, they are prisoners of war, not convicted criminals. Sure, a lot of them are probably guilty. But we don’t know that. They might have had varying degrees of culpability- some of them may be mentally ill, some of them may have had their families threatened by the jihadists, some may have boasted falsely of the degree of their involvement. Until we know that they are guilty, we cannot impose a punishment on them, and that includes any kind of physical punishment.

Ariel Dorfman tells a chilling story of a man he knew in Chile, a young socialist revolutionary, who had escaped from Argentina. When he got to Chile he started boasting, in a bar, about how he was an expert with arms of every kind, and how he was going to overthrow the Chilean government. All nonsense, just to impress young Chilean women. But he was picked up for it, and tortured. And tortured, and tortured. Of course, he confessed, to all sorts of nonexistent plots. And when the Chileans found out he was lying, they tortured him some more.

That is what we risk when we use torture as a means of interrogation. Pain should have a place in our criminal justice system: it can lead to moral correction, and it is not incompatible with loving our neighbor to cause him pain if it is necessary to do so. Again, it is said If you accept, accept through love; if you correct, correct through love….(Seventh Homily on the Epistles of St. John). But it is not compatible with loving our neighbor to use him as a means to an end, even if that end be valuable. And it is not compatible with loving our neighbor to cause him pain if we are not sure- legally and morally- that he has done something wrong. The just and innocent man ye shall not put to death (Exodus 23:7), even for a good cause, and nor should we cause him serious pain if there is a decent possibility he’s innocent. The right of Christians to assume political power and to try to embody states that pursue natural law and Christian values, is foretold by St. John of Patmos: And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations: And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers. (Revelation 2:26-27). But with rights come responsibilities, and with the right to use physical force, that the state receives from God, comes the duty to use force subject to the limitations of natural and divine law: only when necessary, only when proportionate to the crime, only when pursuing the good of the criminal as well as that of society, and only against the guilty. For St. John tells us, too, speaking of how we are to combat political evil (under the figure of Babylon, i.e. Rome), Reward her even as she rewarded you (Revelation 18:6) thus use force against the guilty alone. Thus it is categorically forbidden to use any kind of punishment- death, pain, or both- on those who we know are innocent, or whom we are not sufficiently sure are guilty. The risk of killing the innocent leads many to oppose the death penalty. While I disagree with them I would certainly be opposed to killing suspects without a trial, and such is the case with pain too; until someone has been convicted of a crime, they must be spared from pain and death.

Love thy neighbor as thyself. We are commanded to love even the prisoner, for Christ identifies himself with the prisoner: I was in prison, and ye came unto me (Matthew 25:36). He makes no exception for the guilty: note that he does not say I was held innocently in prison or I was held without cause, but simply I was in prison. Christ loves the guilty and is especially solicitous about them, for What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it (Luke 15:4). Thus we are bound to love the prisoner too. We can punish him harshly- by imprisonment, by hard labor, by pain, even by death- but we cannot do this merely for our sake, but also for his. Inasmuch as Christ identifies with the prisoner, the purpose of all punishment must be, at least in part, to destroy and discipline that aspect of the man that is opposed to the Good, in order that that part which is of the Good can flourish. Pain must have this intention, among others, and it can never be imposed solely for our own sake; we can never use the prisoner as a simple means to get information.

Love thy neighbor as thyself. We would not want to be caused pain when we may not have done anything to deserve it, or when the pain was inflicted according to someone else's information needs, as opposed to our own need for correction. Thus we should not impose it ourselves. The law of Christ was not meant to be impossible, and it does not rule out using harsh and violent methods, even pain and death. Christ was no pacifist, and no soft-on-crime hippie. He came to rule us with a rod of iron, to bring a sword, to baptize us by fire, and as fire illuminates and cleanses it also destroys. But a responsible person is very careful about when and where he uses fire. The desire to requite suffering by suffering, to inflict pain on ourselves or others in order to expiate our sin, is a natural outgrowth of the desire for justice and retribution, and not wrong in itself. But like other desires, it can become wrong when exercised outside of certain limits. To indulge the desire for vengeance outside of the strict limits of judicial punishment, is against the purpose of that desire, and is deeply wrong. We have strict rules about against whom, to what extent, and for what purposes it is legitimate to inflict pain, and waterboarding transgresses them.

And thus I arrive at this compromise. Physical pain- caterpillars, slapping, even caning and whipping- can be justified for the purpose of punishment, but not for the purpose of interrogation. My original questions were 1) can pain ever be legitimately inflicted as a punishment, and 2) can it be inflicted for the purpose of interrogation. The Catholic Catechism of today, and the laws of the United States, say No to both questions: much of the Christian tradition however, for over a thousand years, said Yes to both. In the light of scripture, natural-law reasoning, and my understanding of tradition- both as it stands today and in the light of history- I say Yes to the first question, and No to the second. And in doing so, of course, I’m sure both liberals and concervatives will be rapid to tell me how wrong I am.