January 28, 2005
Ecumenicism and torture

In the comments to this post, Lee remarked:

I think there's a division among Christians between those who think that (to simplify tremendously) there is a radical break between "nature" and "grace" and those who don't. People like T.W., Hauerwas and Yoder want to emphasize the Gospel's distinctiveness from all other religions and especially the distinctiveness of Jesus' ethic.

Others (Aquinas, C.S. Lewis) tend to see Christianity as the completion of something that we have hints of in secular philosophy and ethics as well as other religions. That is, those things point us toward the Gospel, but can't take us all the way.

Actually, Telford somehow manages to be in both of those camps at once. Back here he spelled out his attitude towards other, um, traditions (let's not use the R-word!):
Schleiermacher, the father of liberal Christianity, speculated that all religious traditions come from different ways of articulating a common prelinguistic experience of dependence upon God. Despite it being both philosophically nonfalsifiable and empirically contraindicated by the fact that people in many rival traditions deny that they are essentially equivalent to their rivals, Schleiermacher's speculation won the day. Evangelicals once opposed liberalism, but Schleiermacher's claim is now widely shared not only by liberals but by the many evangelicals who have absorbed it from the culture or from liberal Christians. ...

... [W]e want to affirm what Karl Barth called "parables of the Kingdom" even when they come from outside our own confession. Israel affirmed some central features of Canaanite religion when it used the Canaanite "el" to refer to YHWH, and some central features of pagan Hellenism when it used the Greek "theos" in the same way. There are resemblances between the good news of Jesus Christ and the claims of others. If you don't trust practitioners of interreligious dialogue to confirm that, just ask missionaries. Sometimes these resemblances are so profound that acceptance of the good news becomes more of a modification than a substitution of prior convictions. (Not all the time, but sometimes.) Christians ignore these resemblances at our peril; we don't want to deny what God may have been doing in advance of Christian mission, because that would basically be blaspheming the Holy Spirit.

I think he assumes that when someone uses the word "religion" -- especially a modern secular someone -- he assumes they're using the model in the first paragraph. (In my 30 years as a secular person I never heard of Schleiermacher or his theory, but I'm familiar with the general concept.) That may be sometimes true, but I wouldn't automatically assume it.

Still, given how vehement Telford's been elsewhere against making Christianity equivalent to anything, it's striking how strong his ecumenical language is here. Blaspheming the Holy Spirit is the one sin that Jesus calls unforgivable. But it was impressed upon me why Christians should care about these things today when I saw that story about alleged interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay:

The interrogator left the room to ask a Muslim linguist how she could break the prisoner's reliance on God. The linguist told her to tell the detainee that she was menstruating, touch him, then make sure to turn off the water in his cell so he couldn't wash.

Strict interpretation of Islamic law forbids physical contact with women other than a man's wife or family, and with any menstruating women, who are considered unclean.

"The concept was to make the detainee feel that after talking to her he was unclean and was unable to go before his God in prayer and gain strength," says the draft, stamped "Secret."

The interrogator used ink from a red pen to fool the detainee, Saar writes.

"She then started to place her hands in her pants as she walked behind the detainee," he says. "As she circled around him he could see that she was taking her hand out of her pants. When it became visible the detainee saw what appeared to be red blood on her hand. She said, 'Who sent you to Arizona?' He then glared at her with a piercing look of hatred.

"She then wiped the red ink on his face. He shouted at the top of his lungs, spat at her and lunged forward" so fiercely that he broke loose from one ankle shackle.

"He began to cry like a baby," the draft says, noting the interrogator left saying, "Have a fun night in your cell without any water to clean yourself."

Now, I think this should worry Christians, even if they think Islam is Satan's biggest deception this side of Charles Darwin. Because this interest in breaking a person's reliance on his God does not serve the purpose of getting him to rely on Jesus. It has a much more sinister agenda.

In fact, something about this story sounds eerily familiar:

I well realize how destructive torture was to my faith. I still remember one of my torturers whispering into my ear after he had raped me that my God had died. And it's always painful and in a sense shameful for me to say, but there was truth to what he said. The God I had known did die, and along with God, I also died.

Technically speaking, the Gitmo interrogator's actions were probably legal, while the Guatemalan torturer's actions were not. But it's impossible not to notice the similarity of intention. Both of them defiled their captives in order to convince them their God had abandoned them. And in both cases, apparently, the captives believed them.

Ultimately, a torturer has to displace God because he needs to become God. To break a person whose commitments are diametrically opposed to his own, he has to redefine reality. To use a fictional example (though one reportedly based on some real Amnesty International reports), in one episode of Star Trek Capt. Picard was captured and tortured by a Cardassian who, in an ongoing head game, showed him a row of four lights and demanded that he say there are five of them. Picard doesn't break, but he admits afterwards that after some days of torture he actually started seeing five lights, though he knew that was impossible.

So when Saar worried that his report would lead people to think this was a "religious war," he was right, although I don't believe it's exactly a religious war in the sense that he thinks. It's that much older religious war, the rebellion of humanity against its sovereign. Because if we fail to recognize that God is with the prisoner in his cell, and that he might be listening and lending him comfort despite his sins and whatever erroneous beliefs he has about God, then we're failing to recognize the full extent of God's sovereign power, and arrogating some of his role to ourselves. Telford tells me that the idea that all non-Christian gods were Satanic developed in the Middle Ages, and it's surely not a coincidence that that seemed to be when Christendom started styling itself God's keeper and defender, instead of vice versa. And there was, I hear, a lot of torture involved.

(Thanks to Neil Dhingra for pointing to the U.S. Catholic piece, back on Ut Unum Sint somewhere.)

Posted by Camassia at January 28, 2005 03:28 PM | TrackBack

I heartily recommend Bill Cavanaugh's book, "Torture and Eucharist," for its profound analysis of the dynamic of torture (and "disappearing") and for theology of politics that sees in the eucharist a counter-weight to the use of torture as a means of social discipline. It's not a cheap book (Blackwell can't keep its prices low to save its soul). But it's worth every penny.

Dwight P.

Posted by: Dwight P on January 31, 2005 07:13 AM

I haven't read Torture and Eucharist yet, but it comes very highly recommended by some of my friends/professors in my local church congregation as well. Thanks for the reminder, Dwight! :)

Posted by: Eric Lee on January 31, 2005 12:43 PM

Cavanaugh's work is excellent. I highly recommend it. We used it in the class "Eucharist and Holy Eating" that I ta's last year.

Posted by: *Christopher on January 31, 2005 05:08 PM

Here's an article that gives a little sense of where Bill "comes from" in his theology of the Eucharist:

While I'm not sure how I feel about ad hominems, but I know Bill Cavanaugh and I can attest that not only does he write well and passionately, but he lives what he writes, too. He is a sincerely faithful Christian, a popular teacher, a gracious man. He deserves the royalties! :)


Posted by: Dwight P. on February 1, 2005 07:42 AM
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