A waterboarding demonstration at a protest in New York in 2009. (Photo credit: Mary Altaffer, Associated Press)

By the Golden Rule, torture is always wrong

By the Rev. John Zehring

The message is simple and clear: According the Golden Rule, torture is wrong. According to the Golden Rule, torture is always wrong. The Golden Rule is the highest moral principal of humankind. It is worthy to guide you in figuring out what is right or wrong.

According to Newsweek, “one out of every five countries” surveyed by Amnesty International maintains a “‘significant’ presence of armed groups” that have committed abuses. Further, 48 percent of Americans say there are some circumstances under which the use of torture is acceptable.

In 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report documenting that, under the George W. Bush Administration, the torture inflicted was far worse than reported. According to an article in The New York Times: “The Senate Intelligence Committee…issued a sweeping indictment of the Central Intelligence Agency’s program to detain and interrogate terrorism suspects in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks, drawing on millions of internal C.I.A. documents to illuminate practices that it said were more brutal — and far less effective — than the agency acknowledged.”

And when candidate Donald J. Trump was asked if he would condone torture, specifically the practice of waterboarding, he answered, “Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I’d approve it. … In a heartbeat. … And I would approve more than that. And don’t kid yourself, folks. It works. OK? It works. Only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work.” To which Clyde Haberman in The New York Times — hardly comprised of stupid people — replied via headline on an opinion piece: “No, Mr. Trump, Torture Doesn’t Work.”

Whether or not many of the planet’s nations practice torture, and whether or not the U.S. president or any of his agency heads might consider the benefits of torture, the practice fails the test the Mount Everest of human ethics found in the Golden Rule: Do to others as you would have them do to you. The Golden Rule is the peak of social ethics and the Everest of all ethical teaching.

Today you can look up any word or verse in the bible by computer in the blink of a second. A remarkable observation about the Golden Rule is that it is difficult or impossible to find even by computer because every single word is so simple. Ten of the 11 words have only one syllable. How do you find it by looking up do (2,678 results), to (21,000 results), others, as and so on? The highest moral principle known to humankind can be spoken with the simplest words in every language, and it is easy to remember. Children learn it and understand it, sometimes better than adults.

This Mount Everest of human ethics is found in every great religion on the planet, including:

Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor.” — Hillel

Confucianism: “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” — Confucius

Islam: “Do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you; and reject for others what you would reject for yourself.” — Hadith

Hinduism: “Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” — Mahabharata

Buddhism: “A state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?” — Samyutta Nikaya

Christianity: Do to others as you would have them do to you. — Luke 6:31

If a planet full of human beings in their morality hold anything in common, it is the Golden Rule. It is interesting to note how many of the great religions and philosophers put it in the negative, as in “Do not do… .” Jesus of Nazareth put it in the positive, indicating that the faith he taught was not a religion of avoiding but a proactive religion of doing.

This highest stage of moral development, the Golden Rule, can proscribe a moral absolute of right and wrong, and that is:

By the Golden Rule, torture is wrong.

By the Golden Rule, all torture is wrong.

By the Golden Rule, torture is always wrong.

By the Golden Rule, torture is wrong, even if it appears to serve a greater good.

By the Golden Rule, those who inflict torture are wrong, those who condone torture are wrong, and those in high places who knowingly allow torture are wrong.

The Golden Rule is a fixed point of truth, recognized by humans throughout the world and throughout time and of every religion: Do to others as you would have them do to you.

I have failed at the Golden Rule. You have failed at the Golden Rule. My country has failed at the Golden Rule. By God’s grace, let us pick ourselves up, extend grace to those who have failed, and march forward to the moral principle of how to live that is nearest and dearest to the heart of God: Yahweh, Allah, Buddha, Ahura Mazda, the Great Spirit, to humanists and philosophers, and to all who hope for a world in which the good, the right and the just triumph over the bad, the wrong and the unjust.


The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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