April 20, 2009

Resurrection and Torture

by Debra Dean Murphy
Luke 24:36b-48
(Third Sunday of Easter)

"Torture may be considered a kind of perverse liturgy, for in torture the body of the victim is the ritual site where the state's power is manifested in its most awesome form." - William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist

The government memos released last week, detailing acts of torture carried out by C.I.A. operatives in the Bush administration, make for interesting reading in light of the gospel narratives' about Jesus' post-resurrection appearances to his disciples. That human bodies matter is a central truth of the Easter proclamation.

But this is less than obvious in an age when Christians more often associate Easter's meaning with "the immortality of the soul" than with "the resurrection of the body." When we spiritualize Easter—when we imagine disembodied souls reuniting with loved ones in heaven—we miss this point about bodies and we also, as Tom Wright has observed, “cut the nerve of the social, cultural and political critique.”

Resurrection is about the undoing of death and of all our death-dealing ways. But if our deepest Easter metaphors have mostly to do with butterflies, we will miss this. The undoing of death that Easter accomplishes creates a people who do not flinch from the tortured body of Jesus, but who also know that the marks of violence carried in his broken body are now signs by which we claim resurrection as a counter politics to state-sponsored violence that denies the dignity of any human body anywhere.

We know this most fully in the Eucharist. When we consume Christ’s broken body we become it. We enact a politics—a way of being in the world—rooted in witness, in suffering. Eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table become acts of resistance against any false power that would diminish the humanity of other eating and drinking bodies.

Where torture as liturgy is a kind of “scripting of bodies into a drama of fear” (Cavanaugh), the liturgy of the Table is the creation of a body which lives by hope and loves by a power not of its own making.

When Jesus stands among the disciples and declares peace to them (Luke 24:36b), he gives voice to what his resurrection has already accomplished: the end of violence and the undoing of death. And when he goes on to talk about flesh and bones, hands and feet, and to eat a piece of broiled fish, we see how we can never again talk about resurrection apart from bodies—our own; the violated bodies of torture victims; Jesus’ raised body; and his body, the church—sign, servant, and foretaste of the peace he has made possible.

And we give thanks that we “are witnesses of these things” (24:48).


Rev Gordon Bannon said...

i appreciate your connection between the gospel and the current issue of torture. It is all too easy to turn our back, and we must not.

Kyle Weir said...

Thanks for your note and the connection between torture, Jesus broken body, and resurrection. But where , where, where, in the USA is the "Church" on the issue? From the silence I hear, our "Church" is on the side of the torturers. Help me out here, Help me with a call to embody this connection: a truth and reconciliation commission, indictments and prosecusion for those who ordered this. Help me with something more than sitting safely in my living room reading nice words...

Debra Dean Murphy said...

I agree, Kyle, that the silence of the Church on this matter is profoundly disheartening. But it's hardly surprising. And you are right, Gordon, that it's very easy to turn our backs (and our eyes) to all this.

While advocating for a truth commission, etc. is one way to give voice to our convictions, the deeper issue, I think, is the Church's rather wholesale failure to form Christians in such ways that our life together is its own critique of such abuses of power. But its hard to assume the stance of critique--of witness--if the Church's own norms and "values" differ little from those of the U.S. of A.

MTL said...

Speaking of the Church's wholesale failure...the latest survey:

Anonymous said...

I used torture as a test case in a classroom discussion yesterday, asking students whether they would refuse to serve communion to a member of the congregation whose job was to torture. Most were unwilling to consider excommunicating even the unrepentant torturer. This suggests to me that in addition to the ways apathy and patriotism shape this issue, there is also a rampant individualism that refuses accountability, discernment and discipline--even in the church.
posted by Brent Laytham

Nola Byrum Boezeman said...

Christianity Today Live Blog posted an article this morning - "Evangelicals and Torture: A new study says white evangelicals are most likely to justify torture. What shall we make of that?"