Can violence and torture ever save us?
Actually, these are exactly the questions to ask in relation to Christmas, a season to celebrate the birth of one born into a context of imperial violence and who would die from state-sponsored torture.
This seems a particularly timely topic today given how many (mostly white people) were surprised by the grand jury decisions in Missouri and New York and who were nearly as surprised by the recent Senate committee report on CIA-run torture programs.
I admit: I found all of this shocking and I was among those who were, at least at first, surprised by all of it. But it didn’t take long for me to remember why I shouldn’t be.
And yet there’s more: As I began editing this blog post, two NYPD officers were shot and killed as they sat in their patrol car; how quickly some linked their deaths to the protests over the deaths of unarmed black men (notice the headline from this NY Daily Post story). And still more: a human rights group in Germany has now initiated a process to file war crime charges against Bush administration officials for their role in torturing terrorism detainees after 9/11.
Are all of these just random, poorly timed (it’s the holidays!) moments of tragic violence? Or are we, in the U.S., at last ready to consider the diabolical thread that connects them?
Merriam-Webster defines “torture” as “anguish of body or mind; the infliction of intense pain (as from burning, crushing, or wounding) to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure.”
That definition renders American history in quite disturbing textures:
- Institutional slavery was nothing if not organized, state-sponsored torture, which lasted for nearly two-and-a-half centuries on this continent.
- Jim Crow segregation, routine lynchings, and countless instances of bodily degradation of African Americans surely qualify as terrorism if not socially sanctioned torture.
- “Homosexuals” (mostly gay men) were routinely hospitalized in the first half of the 20th century, many of them subjected to electro-shock therapy (yes, it’s as bad as it sounds) and sometimes forcibly separated from families and exiled from their communities; I would call that torture.
- LGBT people still today, every year, take their own lives because of the constant religious haranguing about being “abominations” and “Satan-spawn” and “defective”; it’s the religious version of water-boarding, but stretching over years rather than minutes, and it’s torturous.
- Nearly every U.S. governmental engagement with Native American tribes on this continent has involved forced relocations, genocidal military attacks, destruction of sacred sites, disruption of tribal life, decimation of cultural customs and languages, and the near-constant ideological humiliation of whole peoples who are apparently “uncivilized”; I couldn’t come up with a better centuries-long plan of torture if I tried.
That’s just a short list of the torture we know about, and it’s knit into the very fabric of American history and culture.
The most recent instances of American violence are not just anomalies, or brief blips on our national radar screen that shall soon disappear. They are symptoms of a much more insidious disease. American society turns instinctively to violence and even torture to solve our problems.
Contemporary theologian Kelly Brown Douglas in her book, What’s Faith Got to Do with It?, argues for noticing just one of the root causes of this social pathology: Christianity itself. She notes, for example, the close alignment between a particular view of atonement and the justification of violence against all those deemed “other.”
She means, in brief, that if the torture and suffering of Christ is the means of salvation, then it’s a very short leap indeed to find nearly any other kind of torture salvific, or the (tragic) means to a greater good. “While the cross in and of itself may not precipitate deadly terror,” she writes, “the cross invested with power does” (p. 69). And indeed, it at least contributed to how Christians could gather – as Christians – to lynch African Americans in 20th century America. Pioneering theologian of liberation James Cone has argued the same thing in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree.
Sound absurd? Or maybe just a quaint, if tragic, token of America’s past? Consider the recent polling data indicating that more than half of U.S. Christians believe U.S.-sponsored torture is justifiable. And get this: more than half of self-identified atheists insist that torture is never justifiable.
Note that data well: religious theists are on board with torture and atheists aren’t. How is this possible?
Kelly Brown Douglas would likely ask, but why are you surprised?
No, violence and torture can never save us; they are the very things from which we need to be saved. First-century residents of Israel/Palestine could have and likely did say the same thing in the midst of imperial occupation, violence, and frequent torture. (The cross on which Jesus was crucified was not, after all, unique. Crucifixion was one of the favored means of torture in the Roman Empire to keep occupied peoples docile and passive.)
Luke begins his account of the nativity by making that context plain, which we dare not forget today: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus…” (2:1). Nothing about Jesus, not even the place of his birth, is free from the touch of imperial power and everything implied by that power.
If Christian preachers this week in the U.S. don’t address American imperialism in some fashion, as well as the violence and torture on which it has always relied, it will be more than a missed opportunity.
It won’t be the Gospel.