Yet another mass shooting.

I have prayed.  On my own and in the seminary chapel.  Here’s what I keep asking myself as I read all the “enough is enough” articles and posts: am I sad and angry enough to be committed?  Am I willing to spend hours campaigning against any congresspeople who vote against gun reform until they are driven from the halls of congress?  Am I willing to contribute more of my own money to the organizations who are going head-to-head with corporate lobbyists and the nearly $30M  that the NRA contributes to political campaigns?  Am I willing to wade into the public discourse – blogs, and Facebook, and letters to the editor – and expose myself and my family to the rhetoric and threats that others who speak up have experienced?  Am I willing to recruit others to get involved, to call and write their legislators regularly?  How upset am I, really?

#letpeacebeginwithme #nobastarezad


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.

ferguson1Sisters and brothers on the Ferguson police force,

Grace and peace to you. On Monday I stood outside the Ferguson police station with hundreds of other clergy, asking for justice for Michael Brown, and for a change in our police culture. I was one of the faith leaders reading a litany through a bullhorn.

As part of that demonstration, I watched my colleagues in ministry – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist – approach those of you who were holding the line. Those clergy came very close to you. They got in your personal space, I could tell by your body language. I couldn’t hear what they said to each of you. We had agreed that those who spoke with you would say, “You are part of the system that has killed Michael Brown. I call you to repentance, and I offer to hear your confession.” Maybe they actually said that to you; maybe they just followed their hearts. Many of them talked for a long time.

Some of you conversed with the clergy in front of you. A few of you smiled, and even took hands with those who were speaking with you. Others of you stared straight ahead, or looked with controlled anger at the clergy who were facing you. I could see the strain on your faces: the strain of the situation, and a weariness from this long, 67-day siege that has surrounded your department. I understand that this kind of experience takes its toll on a person. I hope that you have support – family, and counseling, and some kind of spiritual support as well. I want you to know that I noticed how you were faring, and that I prayed for each one of you that I saw, moving from face to face.

As you can probably sense, even if you wouldn’t say it this way, it’s so easy for us to lose sight of the deeper communion that we share. It’s so easy to lose sight of the humanity of the African American youth who are leading this movement. The racist narrative is so strong, with the 24-hour news cycle eager for conflict, painting them as bloodthirsty and wild rather than as brave and tenacious. The conflict itself, day after day, can cause us – can cause you – to lose sight of the flame of the holy in each of them. I’ve heard some of the things they have said to you, and some of the things you’ve said to them. I thought of them as I watched you, because I sensed how we can easily lose sight of your humanity as well, hidden away as it is behind riot gear and the stern veil of discipline that is needed for your work.

So, I want you to know that I stood on the other side of the standoff Monday and saw your humanity, saw you as men and women who are affected by what is happening.

“I want you to know that I…saw your humanity, saw you as men and women who are affected by what is happening.”

I also want you to know two things that I have been thinking since I left the police station Monday. The first is this: it is unfair to send a police officer into harm’s way without providing the kind of skills, tools, and cultural competencies that are needed to avoid the inappropriate use of lethal force. It is wrong to ask local police officers to manage dangerous situations without sufficient training in de-escalation, with few non-lethal strategies and tools, and with only limited knowledge of the culture and life situation of the people in the community. It is immoral to pour the overflow of the military industrial complex into local police departments like yours, and then expect you to somehow not see angry young people as enemy combatants. It is unconscionable for police commanders and public officials to send officers like you out from the insular culture of an almost entirely White police department, into a predominantly African American community, and expect them to succeed. It’s not fair to the community, and it’s not fair to you.

“It is unfair to send a police officer into harm’s way without providing the kind of skills, tools, and cultural competencies that are needed to avoid the inappropriate use of lethal force.”

Second, as a member of the clergy, I want you to know the same thing that Bishop Oscar Romero wanted soldiers, paramilitary, and police in El Salvador to know back in the late 1970’s: that you are first and foremost a child of God, created and beloved. In the final analysis, regardless of what is done to you, and to us, you are under no obligation to obey any human command that is contrary to God’s ongoing work for justice and peace. You are free to act according to your conscience at all times. Regardless of how powerless you may feel, no one….no one is in a better position to influence the changes that must come to your leaders and your department – and to all the departments that are watching yours so closely. Some of us in the church are repenting of our former inaction. You can do the same.

“You are under no obligation to obey any human command that is contrary to God’s ongoing work for justice and peace.”

Before I left the police station, I thanked some of you who were standing on the line for being out there. I meant it. Thank you for standing out in the rain with no umbrella. Thank you for the hours of being on your feet, with no breaks. Thank you for the long periods of boredom mixed with tension. We are not going away, but we are seeing you, and praying for you. May God bless you as you discern how you will be part of the change that is to come.

It’s been quite a summer for acts of male, public, mass violence,  especially if you include not only shootings like the ones in Aurora and Oak Creek, but things like the mosque burning in Joplin.

Elizabeth Drescher has written a helpful article, noting that the causes of this violence are quite complex, and race and religion are important factors, but asking why the issue of masculinity, common to all of this summer’s bloodshed and destruction, isn’t being talked about.

A few thoughts:

1) If the common denominator is masculinities, or more accurately, the gender performance of particular, violent, dominating masculinities, then why can’t we in the church seem to mount a robust, Christian alternative?  As Drescher points out, feminists have been developing a critique of “religiously sanctioned masculinities” for some time, but they are hardly audible above the din of Avenger movies and misogynistic song lyrics.  What role model or ideal can possibly compete with that?  It’s long past time that we figure it out.  We need more faith-based alternative ideals and role models.  Fred Rogers (may his memory be a blessing) is my hero, but he can’t do it alone – especially in reruns.  At some point my youngest son will have seen enough army recruiting ads and David vs. Goliath Sunday school lessons that he begins to wonder if Mr. Rogers is a wuss.  We need more of what our sisters and brothers in the Black church call exemplars.  (Have you ever wondered why there are no children’s books about people like James Zwerg, or Jonathan Daniels?)

Fred Rogers is my hero, but he can’t do it alone…At some point my youngest son will have seen enough army recruiting ads and David vs. Goliath Sunday school lessons that he begins to wonder if Mr. Rogers is a wuss.

It’s true that there’s a lot in the biblical tradition to bolster the dominant constructions of masculinity in our culture.  But the fact that there have been a number of campaigns to “re-masculinize” Jesus in history points to the fact that something in his teachings and way of life that may run counter to the requirements of hegemonic masculinities.  How can we build up the Jesus whose gender performance is marked by healing rather than violence, mutuality rather than domination, collaboration rather than coercion, and resistance to abusive power?  There is a cost, of course, that comes with “refusing to be a man” as John Stoltenberg says.  Even so, there is a crucial moment of spiritual growth when a man’s faith begins to call into question the construction of masculinity he has always been told is a biological given.

2) When will there be enough violence that we actually start protesting the expiration of the assault weapons ban, the lax and inconsistent gun licensing system?  Is there any reason why it isn’t the church’s role to engage in this kind of protest?

3. It’s valid to point to all kinds of ongoing violence, from wars to gang violence, and ask why people are suddenly concerned when there’s a big news event.  Even so, we are clearly in a season of violence that needs to be addressed.

Photo: Candlelight vigil for the victims of shooting at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Aug. 5, 2012, at Cathedral Square in Milwaukee.  Photo by Chris Wilson/AP.

I continue to be impressed by the work of Andrew McGowan.  Here are links to a couple of recent articles:

Eating People: Accusations of Cannibalism Against Christians in the Second Century

Rethinking Eucharistic Origins


In this video, Tony Porter, educator, activist, and co-founder of A Call to Men gives a ten minute presentation on masculinity and violence.  It’s introductory, but there are some good stories.  He introduces the concept of the “man box,” the normative way of performing masculinity that boys in our cultures generally learn.

Now, if Holy Communion in its current forms does anything, it shores up the authority of those who are leading it.  We don’t draw attention to this aspect in worship, but it’s actually quite central to the way Holy Communion works.  Everyone who participates learns how to do this meal: the leaders get to lead the prayers, handle the holy food (breaking and pouring the body of Jesus), and distribute it to the rest of us.  We all have this ingrained through our participation (even if it annoys us).

In most church contexts, where men preside and women either help in subordinate roles or sit out, there is an intimate connection between the performance of masculinity as dominating, hierarchical, and maintaining the prerogative of violence, and the performance of presiding at Holy Communion.   This is nothing new.  Theologians like Marjorie Procter-Smith have been pointing this out for decades.  What Tony Porter reminds us is that the performance of masculinity can be a cage for men as well.  We may not easily see the ways in which presiding performs/reinforces the “man box,” but we go along with it every time we join in.  Is it any wonder that many churches, even liberal churches, rarely have women preside, if ever?

As you watch the video, I encourage you to consider how the “man box” impacts your life, and how it impacts Holy Communion.

I have three sons.  I got to the end of this video and cried.  You got a problem with that?  🙂

Tony Porter: A call to men | Video on