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The Eighth Day: Bloody Memories and Hopeful Futures

How do you celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision? That’s what this day used to be called, this eighth of the twelve days of Christmas. Most Christians now know this day instead as the Feast of the Holy Name, celebrated on January 1st.

The contemporary liturgical language certainly sounds a bit more palatable for New Year’s festivities. But I think it’s a mistake to cover over the bloody wounding that accompanies the giving of a name — the violence that always attends carving out identities in social systems.circumcision

Following ancient Israelite custom, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth, which Luke’s gospel account mentions explicitly (Lk 2:21). January 1st falls on the eighth day of the Christmas season, and thus the rather odd religious commemoration on what just happens to be the first day of a new year on the secular calendar.

Perhaps this new year conjunction is just odd enough to provoke some serious reflection on why any of this matters.

British theologian Graham Ward has noted that the circumcision of Jesus marked a boundary of identity, specifically a Jewish male identity. This is just one among many reasons, as Ward puts it, to remember that theology always entails a “cultural politics.” (Go here for a link to Ward’s essay.)

Ward’s language, though, is still a bit too tame. As nearly everyone realizes, the politics of culture in the modern West always involve finding ourselves classified and categorized in social identities. These identities exhibit multiple features and characteristics, but they are always gendered and racialized. There is, in other words, no such thing as “generic humanity.” We are always already racially gendered – and this happens mostly through acts of wounding and violence.

Less abstractly, what identity means today in the U.S. depends on: a) whether one fears being raped and then being blamed for it; and/or b) whether one can drive a car, shop in a store, or walk down a street without raising suspicion among law enforcement officials – or ending up dead.

garner_eric_chokeMore simply still: If you are not marked as “white” or “male,” then who you are emerges through wounds and violence. And just there, God shows up – colored and wounded.

Christmas, after all, proclaims a God who chooses to identify with all of us on a path marked by blood. The blood of childbirth, yes, and yet more blood in wounded genitals, and still more as a criminal executed by imperial power on a cross. God takes up residence with us in all that bloody mess.

That’s why I fret over the erasure of genital blood on this “Feast of the Holy Name.” Does that liturgical shift reflect an ongoing discomfort with Jesus’s genitals or a subtle denial of wounded bodies? Probably a bit of both, which carries implications for all the sexually and racially scarred bodies populating our communities and sitting in the pews of our churches.

Well, so what? (And that’s probably the best question to ask about any theological reflection.)

Among the many possible responses to that question, I’m rather intrigued right now by the number eight. While I’m not particularly enamored with numerology, those who are note several significant features of “eight”: it’s the number of people saved on Noah’s ark (1 Peter 3:20); it’s the evocation of perfection in some Chinese traditions; Pythagoreans associate eight with love and friendship; some ancient Egyptians considered eight the number of cosmic order and perfection; flipped on its side, 8 is the mathematical symbol of infinity.

Most of all, I’m fascinated by Augustine’s fifth century speculation. For him, the “Eighth Day” is the day of the promised new creation, the glorious “what next?” that follows the seven days of divine creation in Genesis. For Augustine, the Eighth Day promise is signaled and sealed by the resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning.

On this eighth day of Christmas, I’m clinging to Augustine’s imaginative proposal. In the midst of so many bloody memories – not least, those incarnated in the bodies of Michael Brown and Eric Garner – Christmas invites a radical, even illogical hope for the future. Not in spite of our bloody awful memories but in the midst of all of them. God appears among us, from the very beginning, as wounded and scarred, enticing us to live differently.

For Christians, January 1st is always stained with blood. God chooses to reside right there, in our bloody memories. And right there, not somewhere else, God seeks to give birth to hopeful futures.midwife

Let’s be the midwife in 2015.

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Christmas in Torture Nation

Can violence and torture ever save us?

That’s a rather rude question for this Advent and Christmas season. Perhaps ruder still: Is violence just an inevitable consequence of living in the U.S.A.?WaterBoarding

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?

Merriamlynching-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.trail_tears

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.)

nativity_star_donkeyLuke 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.