I did not have a have a clobber text against torture.
This wasn’t something I’d ever noticed or thought about. Up until about 2003 or so, I had never needed such a text and it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone else would need one either.
Torture seemed like the kind of monstrously self-evident wrong that didn’t require an explicit prohibition or condemnation. Most people recognized the horrific evil of deliberately inflicting pain and torment without having to consult a chapter-and-verse scripture to confirm that it was wrong. And if someone did wish to engage in torture, it didn’t seem likely that such a chapter-and-verse prohibition would deter them.
But then, rather abruptly, some time around 2003 white Christians here in America began “debating” torture. And, as usual for such debates within that community, that argument turned to what the Bible had to say for or against the subject at hand.
It’s not hard to find passage after passage from the Bible demanding unwavering love for our neighbors and our enemies alike. One can cite countless iterations and variations of the Golden Rule and can very easily produce a host of biblical passages that would overwhelmingly imply that torture was utterly impossible to reconcile with “biblical” teaching or biblical faith.
But none of those passages consisted of a simple propositional statement employing the English keyword “torture.” So none of that mattered. I did not have a clobber-text to convince my fellow white Christians that torture was wrong.
Those are the key components of a clobber text: 1) a simple propositional statement, and 2) explicitly employing the English keyword of the “issue” in question. Ideally this statement will be so unambiguous that it will neither require nor allow any further interpretation.
This is why most clobber texts come from either the books of Moses or from Paul’s epistles.* Stories and parables and poetry are always overflowing with meaning — too much potential meaning to be of any use for someone seeking an explicit, unambiguous, monovalent “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” statement. Proverbs is too full of similes to be a reliable source for clobber-texts. If you’re seeking a direct “Do this”/”Don’t do this” statement, you don’t need some proverb telling you that “One who does this is like one who gives counsel to a drunkard on a windy day.” That’s 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife because, again, the whole point of a clobber-text is to relieve us of having to interpret anything in any way.
So clobber-texts are mostly extracted either from the commandments in the Pentateuch or from those Roll Calls of Shame in the Pauline or Paul-ish epistles. You know, those passages where Paul condemns “sinners” in general and then pauses to list a half-dozen or so examples, sounding like Arlo Guthrie in “Alice’s Restaurant,” listing all of his fellow criminals right next to him there on the courthouse bench.
Alas, none of the hundreds of commandments in the books of Moses include an explicit prohibition on torture. It may be that people newly freed from scourging bondage in Egypt didn’t need to be reminded that it was bad. It may be that the priestly compilers of commandments thought such a prohibition was duly implied in the proportional strictures they borrowed from Hammurabi. Or it may be that even the most lawyerly of Levites didn’t see the point of enumerating such a prohibition because, well, duh. But in any case, it’s not there.
Nor are “torturers” to be found in any of those Pauline lists apparently anathematizing sinners and evildoers of various kinds. Those lists tend to include lots of novel Greek words the translation of which requires extensive guesswork, yet none of the multitude of translators over the millennia ever attempted to torture any of those words into our English term “torturers.” Not even the Corinthians, apparently, needed to be reminded that this sin was sinful.
It wouldn’t really have mattered if such clobber texts prohibiting or condemning torture did exist. That wouldn’t have altered the substance or the outcome of those “biblical” debates back in the early 2000s. A clobber text permitting torture would have been trumpeted by the advocates of “enhanced interrogation techniques” as the definitive biblical word settling the matter beyond dispute, but a clobber text prohibiting the practice would have been relegated to endless exegetical dissection.
This exegetical distraction is one of the primary functions of clobber-texting. Once a clobber text has been isolated and extracted from the text, it’s meaning may thereafter only be considered within the framework of that isolation and extraction. The context of the passage is beyond the bounds of this consideration. So too is any discussion of how the passage in question may be in tension or contradiction with other biblical passages — which is to say with any biblical passage that does not explicitly contain the same English keyword as the clobber text.
This is, again, why we can never exegete our way to justice. Scrupulous, intensive, granular exegetical study of isolated texts may be valuable in its own right, but it cannot persuade. When someone is demanding that they be persuaded to see the value of justice then no amount of persuasion is likely to do any good.
But the main reason we cannot find a clobber text in the Bible prohibiting torture is that clobber texts are not something we simply find in the Bible. Clobber texts are not found; they are made.
The construction of clobber texts — the construction of clobber-texting as a hermeneutic — came about in order to accommodate sin and injustice. It is a device that was designed and developed to avoid major themes and conversations pervading the whole of scripture — a way of eluding every iteration of the Golden Rule, of shifting the focus to the tithing of dill and cumin in order to evade the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. (Matthew 23:23 would be a good clobber text against clobber-texting, except that there’s no such thing as a good clobber text.)
And the thing that clobber-texting was constructed to accommodate was a form of injustice that included torture as an essential component. Slavery includes violence, beatings, whippings, rape, emotional torment, deprivation of food and sleep, forced labor, forced marching, shackling, humiliation, degradation — and the ever-constant threat of all of the above even in the mostly mythical case of the “benevolent” slave-keeper.
I use words like constructed, designed, and developed because I think they are accurate and true. This hermeneutical tactic for accommodating massive, howling injustice was constructed, designed, and developed. I use those volitional words because the process was volitional — it was a thing that humans chose to do just as the vast injustice it was adopted to accommodate was also a thing that humans chose to do.
Some recoil from this idea because, I think, they overestimate the conscious, willful aspect of our human choosing. Sometimes, rarely, it does occur that we find ourselves explicitly faced with a clear choice and we pause to tell ourselves “Now I shall decide.” Those tend to be big moments — the stuff of plays, of High Noon, and of “I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it.”
But that’s not how it works most of the time. That’s not how choosing works, or how humans work, or how human choosing works.
When I say that the clobber-texting concordance-ism and “common-sense literalism” and pretending-we-don’t-need-to-interpret-what-we’re-interpreting approach to the Bible was designed and developed to accommodate slavery I’m not suggesting that there was a secret meeting of a cabal of nefarious slave-trading white Christians who mapped out some grand conspiracy on the great white board of whiteness. I’m talking about a process of evolution — a process of function and utility over time. It’s natural selection wherein the “nature” involved in selecting is human nature. The end result may appear, to some, to be the product of intelligent design, but it doesn’t require that.
The construction of a hermeneutic to accommodate slavery is the product of human choosing. But it wasn’t the product of a choice or a decision — it was thousands of little decisions over time, many made semi-consciously, with the seeming inevitability of convenience and habit and utility and practice.
This matter of human choosing and human construction matters. We humans chose this and therefore we humans can un-choose this. We humans constructed this, and therefore we humans can deconstruct it to build something better.
* You may have noticed that there is another rich vein of unambiguous propositional statements in the Bible that I have not mentioned here. You are not supposed to notice this and mentioning that you have will earn you hostile glares and generally get you treated like you’ve done something unforgivably rude.
I’m referring here to the Sermon on the Mount and to its various parallels in the other Gospels and in Romans 12, etc. The Sermon on the Mount would seem, at first glance, to be a veritable gold mine of clobber texts, but this is not what clobber-texting is for. Clobber-texting exists, in part, to enable us to avoid contending with or heeding the Sermon on the Mount. It is one of many elaborate constructs in Christianity — and particularly in white Christianity — designed to prevent ourselves from having to pay any attention to those passages at all.