Torture: The Liturgy of Anti-Communion

December 11, 2014

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.

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