Torture, Terrorism and Theology: The Need for a Universal Ethic

by Max L. Stackhouse

At the time this article was written, Max L. Stackhouse taught at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts. He subsequently taught at Princeton Theological Seminary.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 8, 1986, pp. 861-863. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Ethically, we are in an age in which there is grave doubt among theologians, philosophers, jurists and social scientists as to whether any universal principles exist which can be reliably known and used by the international community to define torture or terrorism as fundamentally wrong.

Deciding how to respond to acts of torture and terrorism is one of the critical issues of our time. But sadly, our response is limited by two factors, one ethical and one political.

Ethically, we are in an age in which there is grave doubt among theologians, philosophers, jurists and social scientists as to whether any universal principles exist which can be reliably known and used by the international community to define torture or terrorism as fundamentally wrong. To be sure, many say that terrorism and torture are terrible. But when the question is posed as to whether there are any universal absolutes, or whether there are any intrinsically evil acts, or whether there are cross-cultural values which could be the basis for declaring such practices to be inherently wrong, we find only doubt and skepticism.

One of the greatest intellectual crises of our age, one with enormous practical implications, is the fact that most people simply do not believe that there are any universal principles of right and wrong, or, if there are such principles, that we can know them sufficiently to demand adherence to them. If this is so, then not only terrorism and torture, but every issue of human rights, is up for grabs.

Politically, we are in an age in which the sovereignty of the nation-state is everywhere assumed. We assume that every nation-state will make decisions based upon national interest or national ideology, and that no universal principles exist which can or could compromise national sovereignty. Even people in our churches are often more inclined to form opinions on international matters on the basis of national identity rather than Christian identity, which can never be confined to the boundaries of a nation-state.

Our difficulty in speaking about cross-cultural principles of right and wrong is compounded by the fact that international organizations, from the United Nations to the World Court, are fragile and nearly helpless in many of the most critical areas of conflict. At the same time, given what we know about the tendencies of absolute power to become exploitative and dominating, we are not sure that we want a single world government.

Terrorism and torture have been in the international news now for three generations. Only those who forget the genocides of Armenians in Turkey and minorities in Indonesia believe that such acts occur only in industrial societies. Only those who cannot remember the terrors and tortures of Stalin, Hitler, the Urgun, the Mau-Mau, Idi Amin and Pol Pot think that the phenomena are confined to certain cultural traditions. And only those who deny the reality of terrorism and torture in the Algerian War, the Vietnam War, the shah’s Iran, the Afghan "occupation," the Philippines under Marcos, or the current struggles in Central America, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Beirut attribute terrorism and torture to a single political ideology or economic system.

One thing that is new, however, about recent acts of terrorism is the fact that we find them so horrendous. Much of history did not find them so. Refined techniques of torture were well developed in ancient China and Rome, and among Native American tribes that had no discernible contact with one another. Terror was created in the raids for heads and women in Africa, Assam and Iryan Jaya, the raids for pillage by Vikings, Vandals and Visigoths, and the raids for land by nearly every people from the time of Genghis Khan to the settling of the American frontier to the development of logging companies in contemporary Brazil.

More than one-third of the world’s countries have been cited for using torture as an instrument of policy in the past decade, and at least that many have experienced terrorist actions at the hands of governments or revolutionaries. It appears, then, that terror and torture are both very old and very widespread practices. The fact that we now regard them as terrible is a moral triumph. And yet we don’t seem to know why or how this moral judgment can be justified.

We can, however, identify some of the elements that help to constrain terrorism and torture. Terrorism and torture tend to occur most where governments are not restrained by a democratically authorized constitution, where legal systems have little independence from military control, and where state authorities understand themselves to be the sole guarantors of order, development and stability. Thus, as the Swiss scholar Thorward Lorenzen has pointed out, "there is a higher rate of torture in socialist countries and in countries controlled by a dictatorship or a military regime" than elsewhere (quoted in "Packet one," American Christians for the Abolition of Torture).

We should also note the lessons learned from Patricia Weiss Fagan’s research on human rights in Latin America, conducted in the 1970s. She convincingly argues, among other things, that "where repression is especially severe, where institutions (schools, trade unions, churches, professional associations) have been purged and subject to constant governmental vigilance," little discussion of human rights occurs ("Human Rights in Latin America: Learning from the Literature," Christianity and Crisis [December 24, 1979], pp. 328 ff.). Torture and terror then become instruments of state, used to stifle protest and any attempt to raise questions about hunger, exploitation, economic inequities or lack of participation in decisions affecting the common life. Consciousness of, discussion of, action for and writing about human rights

can only occur where there exists some institutional umbrella that can protect human rights advocates and offer both political and material support for human rights activities: a church . . .; a press sufficiently independent so that it can report information the government would prefer not be made public and that can offer a forum for some opponents of the government; professional associations, academic and intellectual centers which are financially solvent and not directly controlled by military or government officials.

It is important to recognize, in this regard, that it is not simply the existence of a legal system, an educational system, a press or a religious institution that is important. Every complex civilization has these. Rather, it is the existence of a certain universalistic quality in the jurisprudence, the scholarship, the media and the religion that is decisive—a universalistic quality which, precisely because it transcends particular beliefs and practices, can bring the particulars of that situation under critical scrutiny.

Which returns us to the particular crisis of our time: the fact that current ideologies of religious, ethical, cultural and political pluralism do not provide the universalistic principles whereby we can state with clarity and confidence that some things are just plain wrong.

Indeed, modern trends in theology may well contribute to this crisis. In his stunning new book Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Harvard University Press, 1983), Harold J. Berman argues that the roots of modern universalistic principles of law, morality, science and scholarship derive from essentially theological insights which are now in peril of being lost by neglect. In fact, it is quite possible that the theological positions that many today hold dear serve unwittingly to foment the perspectives that allow terrorism and torture to persist and increase.

Contemporary theology tends to be either contextualist or confessionalist, focusing in either case on "our experience." That is, many contemporary theologies tend to believe that we can derive the normative content of faith, truth and justice directly from the immediate contexts of our social, economic and political situations; at the same time, other contemporary theologies have abandoned even trying to argue that theological claims are in any sense normative. All we can do is "express" that which is already in our contexts or "confess" what is already in our hearts and experience. But since our contexts and our confessions differ, all anyone can do is to give theological legitimacy to the particular practices and convictions in which he or she is already involved. We therefore end up legitimating a new religious polytheism and a new social apartheid, and we deny the possibility of a universally valid theology or ethic.

How then can we say that terrorism or torture, or, for that matter, anything, is fundamentally, intrinsically, wrong, and that we ought to intervene to alter it? The answer is: we cannot. If we draw our imperatives from contextual indicatives; if we take our theories from concrete praxis; if our ethics and theology are derived from the contexts in which we find ourselves and from the confessions already present in the world’s faiths; if we reject all universal "abstractions" in favor of concrete experience, then we can expect terrorism and torture to be on the agenda of the future. For it is always possible to argue that contextual indicatives require terrorism and torture; it is always possible to say that praxis demands setting universalistic ethics aside; it is always possible to say that "our" experience overrides any cross-historical or cross-cultural principles. The facts of terrorism and torture are the facts of contextualism and confessionalism raised to the level of violence.

Such reflections, to be sure, run directly contrary to views widely shared by socially engaged, ecumenical Christians. Though many of these Christians are engaged in some of the most committed and exemplary actions for human rights that one can find, there is reason to fear that the present pattern of contextualist and confessionalist thought is unlikely to sustain the promise of those commitments. If we believe that terrorism and torture are, in fact, fundamentally contrary to the truth and justice of God and ought to be stopped everywhere, we must recognize that the theological foundations on which many contemporary contextualist and confessionalist theologies rest are inadequate to this task, whatever their contributions in other areas. Sadly, they do not have the cross-cultural, intellectual or moral amplitude necessary to address these issues.

Is there a way to avoid these perils? I believe that there is. The necessity of dealing with international institutions, with lawmakers who defend total national sovereignty, with an American public that is often fixated on its own context, and with churches preoccupied by their own confessions demands new steps toward a Christian public theology. A public theology is neither "biblical politics"; nor "civil religion." It is an attempt to identify in modes of discourse accessible to the public those first principles of truth and justice that are sufficiently clear as to be adopted as bases for public policy and the ordering of international life.

One of the groups beginning to explore the basis for such a theology is Philadelphia-based American Christians for the Abolition of Torture. ACAT invites pastors, theologians, human rights activists, and those with ties to specific problem areas of the world to join in the attempt to discern the theological foundations of right and wrong and to persuade themselves and others what it is that may be true and just beyond preferences and national interests, beyond our limited contexts and confessions. One critical action today might just be thinking—clarifying the basic theory on which to preach, teach and act for justice.

Several recent studies may give us clues as to how to begin this project. Walter Harrelson’s little book, The Ten Commandments and Human Rights (Fortress, 1980), is one of the most important recent attempts to show how the biblical understanding of human obligation under God gave rise to the principles present in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The failure of modern theology to articulate the importance of such motifs has eroded our understanding of what it takes to maintain freedom. Joseph Allen’s Love and Conflict: A Covenantal Model of Christian Ethics (Abingdon, 1984) connects God’s general covenant with humanity to the specific covenant Christians know in Jesus Christ, and to the particular obligations, duties and rights that have to be worked out in political, economic, personal and ecumenical life.

Kosuke Koyama’s Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai (Orbis, 1985) considers what the Christian appropriation of theonomous first principles might have to do with the cultures and religions of the East. He denies that all things can, or should be, culturally or nationally determined. He also denies both that the biblical grasp of universal moral principles is irrelevant to Eastern cultures, and that the West has a monopoly on those principles. The fact that we are in the midst of an enormous transformation toward a "universal civilization" suggests that only in a new confrontation with localistic, cultural and nationalistic idolatries of all sorts, and only by clariflying what universal realities are worth living and dying for, can we find hope. And A. J. Reichley’s Religion in American Public Life (Brookings, 1985) carefully analyzes the role that theologically based principles, interacting with certain humanistic ones present in philosophy, political theory and jurisprudence, played in the development of democratic government and human rights in America. He argues that we have come to a point where we must recognize that the secular values of egoism and contract and the ideology of contexualism simply cannot sustain crucial aspects of our civilization.

Yet much, if not most, of our intellectual, social and even religious leadership has begun to doubt whether anything theological is of fundamental and universal importance. Without a renewal of a "theistic-humanistic" vision, we are likely to plunge into a new version of the Hobbesian world where all contend against another for advantage, and where might makes right. Thus, the struggles against torture and terrorism require us to recover and recast a genuinely ecumenical and normative public theology, one willing to engage in the patient yet urgent task of identifying, clarifying and defending those universal principles of right and wrong inherent in the Christian understanding of life.