photo by Justin Norman

photo: Justin Norman

To mark the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on the recent use of torture by the United States, here is a brief, draft excerpt from the book project I am working on.  The book is more broadly about Holy Communion and violence, but torture is one of the connections it makes.  My thanks to the many people, especially from The National Religious Coalition Against Torture, but also in the Senate, who lobbied and protested to get the Senate report released.

In the era of Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, Abu Ghraib prison, extraordinary rendition, and the School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), it is difficult for Christians living in the United States to claim that we have no moral or spiritual relationship with torture.[i] As a nation we not only torture people all over the world, but also teach torture techniques to military forces in other countries. Add to this the growing number of torture treatment centers in cities across the United States serving hundreds of thousands of refugees who are living with the trauma of torture.[ii] It is part of who we are.

Torture is a political technology of the body, to use the language of philosopher Michel Foucault.[iii] When someone is tortured, his or her body becomes a site of negotiation, producing particular relationships of power through the use of pain and minute, physical control. Through often highly ritualized patterns of inflicting pain and fear, torturers break down the sense of agency and colonize the subjectivity of their victims. We might say the trauma of torture structures habitus of helplessness and compliance. It also produces a range of behaviors associated with trauma, such as hyperarousal/fear, lack of initiative, and dissociation. Beyond that, acts of torture often constrict the victim’s capacities for relationship with anyone else who might offer hope or help, including God.[iv]

As William Cavanaugh says in his book Torture and Eucharist, the primary goal of such practices is to create an “isolated monad,” someone who is unable to resist, or to build relationships that might lead to a community of resistance.[v] Survivors of torture who are released back into the general population become “walking signifiers” of the state’s power, radiating fear-based practices that erode the relationships of others.[vi] The “feel for the game” inscribed on the bodies of torture survivors is thus reproduced in society, fragmenting the social body. In these ways, torture is an extreme opposite of communion with God and others, a sort of anti-Communion ritual.[vii]

 At its best, Holy Communion should and could counter practices of torture, and contribute to the re-formation of its devastating habitus. Holy Communion, after all, is also a political technology of the body: a way of inscribing certain instincts, and particular relationships of power.[viii] It should and could help to re-member us, to nourish the resilience of the habitus of deep communion, re-inscribing them on us through practices that embody our true connection with God and each other.   It can potentially enact the deeper reality that, regardless of the violent practices undertaken to dis-integrate us, we all belong, body and soul,[ix] to the beloved community of God.


[i] “We must resist the urge to maintain the unfamiliarity of torture,” writes William Cavanaugh, “to consign it to the past, or to a world of monsters. It is very much a part of our world, and we must make the mental effort, however uncomfortable, to put the ideas of ‘governance’ and ‘torture’ together.” William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), 28.

[ii] At this time of this writing, the National Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs(NCTTP) listed 35 organizations around the United States, serving hundreds of thousands of survivors. “NCTTP Member Centers,”, accessed September 19, 2014.

[iii] In his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault writes of various means to produce productive and subjected bodies, including torture, describing, “…a ‘knowledge’ of the body that is not exactly the science of its functioning, and a mastery of its forces that is more than the ability to conquer them: this knowledge and its mastery constitute what might be called a political technology of the body.” Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977), 26.

[iv] “Traumatized people feel utterly abandoned, utterly alone, cast out of the human and divine systems of care and protection that sustain life. Thereafter, a sense of alienation, of disconnection, pervades every relationship, from the most intimate familial bonds to the most abstract affiliations of community and religion.” Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 52.

[v] “With the demolition of the victim’s affective ties and loyalties, past and future, the purpose of torture is to destroy the person as a political actor, and to leave her isolated and compliant with the regime’s goals.” Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, 38.

[vi] William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, 45.

[vii] William Cavanaugh comes close to this when he says, “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.   Torture is liturgy – or, perhaps better said, ‘anti-liturgy’ – because it involves bodies and bodily movements in an enacted drama that makes real the power of the state and constitutes an act of worship of that mysterious power.” Cavanaugh, Torture and Liturgy, 30.

[viii] For Catherine Bell, as for Michel Foucault, the body is the most basic level of power relations, the “‘microphysics’ of the micropolitics of power.” (Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, 202) Consequently, to the extent that liturgy is a technology aimed at affecting the body, it is also a “strategic arena for the embodiment of power relations.” (Ibid., 170) Liturgical activities do not merely express or communicate power relations, but in fact constitute an embodiment and exercise of power-in-relationship. (Ibid., 196) Our communal worship enacts arrangements of power-in-relationship in a privileged way that inscribes them on the bodies of participants. It is in this sense that liturgy constitutes a political technology of the body as well (Ibid., 202).

[ix] This is an intentional play on the opening lines of the Heidelberg Catechism: “I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” It is also meant to avoid the pitfall of making the soul the church’s only concern, while the body remains controlled by the state. For discussion of this latter idea, see Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, 9.


Communion and White Fear

December 5, 2014

photo by Jon BehmAs demonstrations continue around the country, protesting the deaths of African American men at the hands of police, we need to talk about White fear. Like many of the posts on this blog, it may seem to have little to do with Holy Communion, but from what I can see, it has everything to do with it — at least for those of us who are trying to follow in the way of Jesus. It’s just that our practice of Holy Communion has become so impoverished that we don’t see how deeply they’re connected. White fear is a symptom of a kind of spiritual poverty that Holy Communion, as a spiritual practice, was meant to heal. The fact that it doesn’t, the fact that Holy Communion does little or nothing to reduce White fear in this country, and in many cases actually reinforces it, speaks condemnation upon the church.

If you’re White like me, then White fear isn’t always that easy to see. It mostly looks like nice, clean neighborhoods, and employment opportunity based on hard work, and police who are willing to do the difficult job of defending communities and the rule of law. White fear sounds like the voice of reason: we need to be unified. We need to pull together and talk the problem out. Peace and safety first, then we can address grievances.

Chances are, White fear has been a little easier for you to see lately, but just in case you’re still not seeing it clearly, I’ll try, with my own limited ability, to help. When a White police officer with a gun sees a Black teen his own height as a giant who makes him feel like a five-year-old, that is at least partly White fear. When civic leaders send out armored personnel carriers and instruct police to aim loaded guns at crowds of unarmed, mostly Black civilians, that is the face of White fear. (Have you seen all the police pointing loaded guns at unruly White college students who are burning cars after football games? No? Exactly.) When the governor, or the mayor, or the chief of police speaks of unity and calm without ever acknowledging a problem, or warns protestors to stop being unruly “before someone gets killed” (Who could that be? Hint: it’s not the police), that is White fear. When gun sales in the St. Louis area go up 300 percent before then grand jury decision, that is White fear. (You don’t really think all those gun buyers were African American, do you?) When African Americans are relentlessly stopped by police while driving through White neighborhoods, or walking through White neighborhoods, or shopping in grocery stores in White neighborhoods, or standing around looking too grumpy in White neighborhoods, that is White fear.

This is not the fear of the small, helpless child. It is not the fear of the elderly woman in the store parking lot at night. It is the fear of the privileged. It’s the fear of those of us who have so very much to defend. It’s the fear of the entitled, the owners. It’s the fear of those of us who bristle and seethe at anything that might puncture our willful ignorance of the cost of our comfort.

It is also the fear of the exploited, working-class “competitor.” It is the fear of less affluent people who have been conditioned to keep their attention focused on the threat of the Mexican immigrant and the African American welfare mother, rather than noticing the corporations that are driving down wages and crop prices, and the Wall Street insiders who are risking pensions, and the political leaders (of both parties) who are selling them out in back rooms with lobbyists. It is the fear that the government will take what little we have and give it to people who are undeserving. It is the fear that the thin line dividing us from them — whatever “them” we’ve been taught to fear — might be lost.

White fear is part myth, relying upon the racialized imagination of many generations. (Ask yourself: why were at least one-third of African American lynchings based on the accusation of rape of a White woman?) It is part ideology, working itself into a frenzy to defend a worldview where the status quo, with its prison pipeline, its shockingly unequal school systems, and its disparity of life expectancy, seems justifiable. If we’re going to be honest, though, White fear is also based on a degree of reality. The truth is that, in an era of unprecedented disparity between the poor and the 1%, in an era when African Americans lost their homes in disproportionate numbers during the recent recession while many wealthier (mostly White) Americans often saw significant gains, there is, in fact, wealth, power, and privilege at stake. Deep down, White fear is based in an awareness of injustice, and potential cost of making things right.

White fear is also a symptom of a deeper spiritual loss: the denial of our deeper connectedness.  It’s the loss of the ability to encounter the divine in people who are “other” to us, whose perspectives challenge and push us.  It’s not a coincidence that when the risen Christ appears to the disciples, he comes as a stranger: on the road to Emmaus, by a campfire on the beach, as a landscape worker in the cemetery.  It’s not a coincidence that the disciples at Emmaus only recognize Jesus when they invite the stranger in.  White fear is a symptom of the disruption of this kind of spiritual maturation and discovery.

What can possibly begin to neutralize that kind of fear? The solution is complex, and I don’t think it will help to oversimplify, but here’s one piece of the puzzle, from this little corner of the blogosphere. Jesus, with an odd, seemingly sanctified genius, invited people to step outside of their silos of privilege or oppression, and join him for dinner. Together. That was key. He understood, I believe, the spiritual poverty of being separated from people whose circumstances are different, but connected to our own. He also understood the deeper communion that we all share, and the sense of awe, even sacramentality, that comes when we encounter people who are “other” within a sacred frame of reference.  And so he invited them to take risks, and eat together. “Invite those who cannot repay you,” he said. “Go out and find the poor, the disabled, the sick.” He ate with religious leaders and with prostitutes. He ate with wealthy tax collectors and with those who had nothing to eat. Take a risk. Sit down here. Before you know it, the Beloved Community of God will come near.

It’s not a coincidence that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of a time when the children of former slaves and the children of former slave owners would sit down at a table together.  Rev. King understood that “nonviolent resistance does resist,” but he also understood is that the goal of nonviolence is to convert the heart of one’s opponent. The strategy is to connect, to call forth the mixture of compassion and shame that will cause people who are participating in unjust systems to stop cooperating with those unjust powers and step over the line. It is aimed toward something stronger than fear.

Especially in a time of gross injustice and deep division, we need spiritual practices that push us to risk engaging each other in challenging and constructive ways. So, despite my nervousness, I will get to my point here and try not to mince words: from what I’ve been reading in scripture, we who are White can’t get together with all of our White, upper-middle class friends in our safe, clean sanctuary, and do anything that even comes close to resembling Holy Communion. It’s just not possible. It doesn’t work that way, and it’s worse than self-deception to call it that. It’s exactly the kind of piety mixed with injustice and division that made the prophet Amos so mad. He was outraged enough to imagine God saying:

I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies….

Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever- flowing stream.

Remember when Paul got so mad at the wealthy church folk in Corinth, because they got off work early and had already eaten (and gotten drunk) by the time the people who worked late at Wal-Mart and Waste Management had taken the bus to get there? He was as mad as Amos. He said that when the rich folks came and ate and drank without those in need, they failed to discern the deeper unity – the fact that we are all one body. He said they ended up eating and drinking judgment against themselves. In other words, when their churchy eating and drinking actually reinforced division instead of breaking it down, it was like anti-Communion or something. It was worse than doing nothing, because it made them feel like they were in sync with God and others when they weren’t. Ouch.

I have a lot of White fear. Some of it is well-founded. I have a lot to lose. But I also recognize the spiritual poverty of my White neighborhood, my friendships with only well-educated people, and my own impulse to cry, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. I want my children to know the kind of spiritual growth, the spiritual depth that comes from practicing Holy Communion without self-deception. I want that for my whole family, and myself as well.  I want that even though, as the early church learned, it’s hard to sustain.  So, I will continue to go to protests, and to write to decision makers in government. And I guess I need to start looking for new ways to share in the sacrament of Holy Communion that are deeper, and outside of my comfort zone – in spite of my fear. Any suggestions?

Photo: Jon Behm