Going to Hell with the Terrorists and Torturers

mikhail-nesterov-harrowing-of-hell-undatedIn 988, Prince Vladimir of Kiev was Baptized and embraced the Christian faith. Among his first acts as a Christian ruler were to tithe his wealth to the Church and the poor, and to outlaw capital punishment and torture. It is said that the Bishops advising him counseled him that he might need to keep the torture in order to rule effectively.

This anecdote has always brought a wry smile to my face, it seems so quaint. Of course torture is not quaint, nor is it medieval. It is quite common in the so-called modern world and has recently moved to the front pages as the US has pulled the veil of secrecy back from its interrogation techniques in its war against terror. I have been interested to watch the reaction to all of this on social media. Many friends have reacted with moral outrage. Others, particularly those whose politics are conservative, have posted supportive pictures and thoughts. Christians find themselves on both sides of the question.

But there isn’t really a question. Prince Vladimir was right and the bishops advising him were scandalously practical. Their fear is apparently a modern fear: what if the lack of torture doesn’t work? Our enemies are dangerous and the lives of the innocent are at stake.

The conversation surrounding all of this (it will disappear as soon as the news cycle moves on) reminds me of several classical problems in ethics. All of them pose the question, “What would you be willing to do to save the life of your loved ones?” It is a tragic question, for in the scenarios of danger that are always suggested, there is no choice that does not yield human suffering – even unimaginable human suffering.

But those nightmare scenarios are not always make-believe. The regular posting of atrocity videos have made us all too aware of the nature of the game.

I do not offer a moral debate in this posting. Torture is wrong. Justify it if you will, but it remains wrong. St. Vladimir was right and the bishops, however practical their advice, did him a great disservice.

But there is something of far greater value that is too easily missed in our current round of hand-wringing. It is the dark places of the human heart that we see and quickly cover in the wrangle of debate. It is a place where our thoughts should linger.

For the place of torture and the smashing angry insanity that drives a plane into towers dwell in the same dark heart – and the heart belongs to us all. Some will protest immediately that I am drawing some kind of moral equivalency. One act is done to save lives, the other to destroy them. But it is not any kind of moral anything that I wish to draw. Rather it is our attention to the true character of the human heart.

There is a morality that is practiced in our day-to-day life. It may include the simple rules of etiquette and a host of other expectations. And for many people, the observance of these rules are what constitute their notion of good and bad. But there is often an abstraction that occurs within such moral musings. Polite society shields itself from many of its immoral actions. The violence of poverty is often covered with economic theory and political discourse. For the child who suffers – these are just words. The general wealth of a healthy standard of living grants the luxury of oblivion – the ability to ignore the true cost of the luxury. This is true whether the cost is the exploitation of slave labor in a foreign land or the torture of the enemy well out of sight. And these are only egregious examples.

More hidden still are the dark recesses of our own hearts. For the torturers and the terrorists are just human beings. They were not spawned on an alien planet. Whatever they know, they learned from other human beings. And though the dark recesses of our hearts may often yield nothing more than thoughts and feelings, we should remind ourselves that their true character is the stuff of which torture is made.

I am even more interested in the cold assessment of those 10th century bishops who cooled St. Vladimir’s jets and offered their advice on statecraft. For theirs is the calm, pragmatic mind within us all. There is a chilly moral calculus that governs their advice. “The kingdom must go on, even if it requires a little torture from time to time. The gospel is good and the Baptism of the Rus is even better, so long as the Prince of the Rus doesn’t forget that he’s a prince and do his job.” I fear the cool utility of such reason far more than I do the uncontrolled passions within us.

But it is right and salutary that we should allow ourselves to look in the dark places of the heart. Orthodoxy insists on proclaiming that the resurrected Christ first descended into hades. There is no easy transition from the cool tomb to the bright Sunday morning. There is the intervening and inconvenient reality of true darkness.

C.S. Lewis portrays a fanciful story of a bus ride from hell to heaven. Those in hell (“the gray town”) are invited to remain in the bright, solid reality of heaven. The conversations that take place in that delightful work (my favorite Lewis) are very telling. They are the confrontation between morality and reality, between the forensic model and the ontological. Heaven is so real that its solid objects hurt the feet of the hellish ghosts. Their moralities appear silly in the face of plain, solid being. The ghost of a wayward bishop protests that he cannot stay in this new place, since he has a prior engagement in a theological discussion group, where he is to read a paper – swallowed by hell and his life is unchanged.

Our own moralities are equally banal and empty, and we shudder and make excuses rather than examine the true darkness of our hearts. Dostoevsky repeatedly unmasked the emptiness of society’s morality. In the Brothers Karamazov, there are four brothers, all sons of a father who is a drunkard and a thoroughly disgusting human being. He is the definition of a “Karamazov.” None of the brothers appear, at first, to be like their father. One is a greatly tormented romantic, his life filled with pleasures and excess. Another is a cold, hard-bitten cynic who no longer believes in God. A third is a very dark character, ultimately a patricide. And the fourth is an innocent, a virtual saint. But even he admits, “I am a Karamazov.” And his brother says to him, “We are all insects.”

Dostoevsky (and Lewis) do not write in such a manner in order to simply tear down the pretense of public morality. But they know that our salvation cannot be found within the little efforts of our moral strivings. They (Dostoevsky in particular) dare to go into the darkness where Christ has entered and suggest to us that we all have a share in that place. We are all Karamazovs.

Entering into that darkness and acknowledging its depths is not an effort to consign ourselves to perdition or to embrace a doctrine of total depravity. It is an effort to unite ourselves to Christ. The traditional name for this journey is repentance. Moralism has all but destroyed the Christian understanding of repentance, replacing it with good intentions and apologies. Our sin is a brokenness and is best seen in the darkest corners of the heart.

St. Paul found Christ in the dark corner of murder and burning hatred. The heights of his holiness are only rivaled by the depths of his sin. Tradition holds that St. Stephen was a kinsman of St. Paul. The anguish of such sin is indeed a “goad,” as Christ described it.

St. Peter did not truly find Christ until his own encounter with cowardice. Always the first and the loudest of the Apostles, probably easily recognized as a leader by others, he was not given the care of Christ’s sheep until he found Christ in the depths of his personal hades on the shore of Galilee. And the resurrected Lord says to him, “Do you love me?”

We must not ignore the public sins of our culture (torture) or the sins of enemies (terrorists) who seek to destroy us. But if we are to stand honestly before God, then we need to see the place that such things have in our heart. Do we dare to speak and acknowledge the Karamazov within ourselves or do we pretend that we are offended and shocked by the hearts of others.

If we do not find Christ in hades, we will not likely find Him anywhere else.

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