In 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.