C.S. Lewis used to talk about what he termed Chronological Snobbery, that is, the belief that the art, practices, culture etc… of an earlier time are inherently less valuable or evolved than those of the current era. This attitude, of course, crops up a lot at every point in history. Unless we’re incurable cynics we like to focus on the good things going on in our time, and explain away the bad. It goes against the very modern narrative of continual progress to suggest that there may actually be some ways in which we are less moral or less well-equipped than our forebears.1 One of the ways this comes out in the era of the New Atheists and the like, is the condemnation of religion as a source for the world’s ills. Two events in the history of the Christian west in particular bear a great deal of scrutiny and are repudiated, with reason: the Crusades and the Inquisition.

Obviously I’m not going to defend the actions that folks are condemning when they condemn the Crusades and the Inquisition.  The sorts of things people have in mind are fundamentally wrong, whether such actions actually color the whole of either set of events. Moral outrage is not a very nuanced emotion, in large part because it cannot be, and still lead to the sort of cleansing that is needed. An ironic thing came to my attention this evening though, as I read the newest edition of the Atlantic Monthly (January/February 2012). One of the articles in the magazine is entitled “Torturer’s Apprentice” and discusses the use the United States has made of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” I’ve written about issues of torture and Christian belief in the past, and shared resources, here and here.

Our continued justification of torture-by-another-name, as well as other behaviors we would never tolerate from another nation if directed toward us, are attributable to a particularly negative aspect of American Exceptionalism (and no, I am not a person who believes that everything that would fall under that category is necessarily wrong or evil.  I would argue there are definitely good aspects related to the unique character of the United States). I’ve argued in the past that this negative form of exceptionalism, which sees the United States as always being in the right, is in part bolstered by a national narrative that can only exist because of the Civil War and the creation of a shadow side in the form of the American South. Because the United States was purified through blood in the fighting of a morally good war to free people from slavery, somehow it affirms the God-given rightness of all that we do. Ironically, many of those raised in what Flannery O’Connor rightly called the Christ-haunted South (as distinct from Christ-centered) are the most supportive of such a narrative.  On the other hand, I think that Southerners are often in a better position to question the dominant narrative of the spotless moral record of our nation, since there are aspects of our own history–communal and familial–that, when dealt with honestly, force us to weigh our past as a morally mixed bag of both good and bad.

All that is to say, these two factors combined: generalized chronological snobbery overlaid with an unjustified presumption of moral superiority2, lead us to assume that some things done in our name are not wrong because they are done in our name.  Case in point from this article in the most recent Atlantic.  It is not out online yet, so I will simply type the portion I’d like to highlight, but I encourage you to purchase the magazine and read the article in its entirety:

As it happens, the Inquisition invented that defense [i.e. the defense that the number of time someone was waterboarded actually meant ‘pours’ rather than ‘sessions’ and was therefore not as bad as it looked]. In theory, torture by the Church was strictly controlled. It was not supposed to put life in jeopardy or cause irreparable harm. And torture could be applied only once. But inquisitors pushed the boundaries. For instance, what did once mean? Maybe it could be interpreted to mean once for each charge. Or, better, maybe additional sessions could be considered not as separate acts but as ‘continuances’ of the first session. Torture would prove difficult to contain. The potential fruits always seemed so tantalizing, the rules so easy to bend.

 

The public profile of torture is higher than it has been for many decades. Arguments have been mounted in its defense with more energy than at any other time since the Middle Ages. The documentary record pried from intelligence agencies could easily be mistaken for Inquisition transcripts. The lawyer Philippe Sands, investigating the interrogation (which used a variety of techniques) by the United States of a detainee named Mohammed al-Qahtani, pulled together key moments from the official classified account:

 

‘Detainee spat. Detainee proclaimed his innocence. Whining. Dizzy. Forgetting things. Angry. Upset. Yelled for Allah. Urinated on himself. Began to cry. Broke down and cried. Began to pray and openly cried. Cried out to Allah several times.’

 

The Inquisition, with its stipulation that torture and interrogation not jeopardize life or cause irreparable harm, actually set a more rigorous standard than some proponents of torture insist on now. The 21st century’s Ad extirpanda is the so-called Bybee memo, issued by the Justice Department in 2002 (and later revised). In it, the Bush administration put forth a very narrow definition, arguing that for an action to be deemed torture, it must produce suffering ‘equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.’ To place this in perspective: the administration’s threshold for when an act of torture begins was the point at which the Inquisition stipulated that it must stop.

So, the next time someone bashes the Inquisition, perhaps we should tout their humanitarian credentials…

 


  1. Of course, this is not to deny that there’s a whole other swath of people who believe that things were better in the past simply because it was the past, but we’ll leave them to the side for the moment, and talk about these issues in another post. []
  2. This is not to deny that there are areas where a sense of moral superiority is justified–it simply has to be recognized that it is not uniformly deserved–that’s just honesty []