April 25, 2004

Torture and Eucharist

Category: Politics,Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

In the entry before last, I mentioned William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ. I read the book a couple of weeks ago and enjoyed it very much, if “enjoyed” can possibly be the right term for a book on torture.

Torture and Eucharist is based on Cavanaugh’s doctoral dissertation (written under the direction of Stanley Hauerwas). It focuses on what happened in Chile — and in particular, what happened to the church in Chile — during Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990). Under Pinochet’s regime, the enemies of the state — or suspected enemies or potential enemies or, for that matter, people who were not (yet) enemies — were frequently “disappeared” and tortured by agents of the state. Gradually, the church in Chile learned to respond to the state’s oppression.

Cavanaugh begins with a helpful, though deeply disturbing, discussion of torture. Torture, he says, is just as much an attack on social bodies as it is on individual, physical bodies. When you are in pain, you are isolated from others. You cannot focus on past allegiances or future plans; your whole world shrinks to your body and its suffering. As used in Chile, torture is a tool designed to create individuals, to separate people from their attachments to other social bodies, including the church, so that there are only individuals under the power of the state. Torture is a form of discipline, training people to become disciples of the state, actors following the script the state writes.

At first, however, the church in Chile was not able to respond adequately to Pinochet’s oppression. Cavanaugh provides a trenchant analysis of the “New Christendom” ecclesiology promoted by men such as Jacques Maritain, which is still widespread in the Roman Catholic church today (see John Kerry’s comments below) and which seems remarkably similar to what I’ve heard Presbyterians speak of as “the spirituality of the church.”

According to this view, the church deals with man’s soul, with man’s inward, spiritual life. The church may attempt to persuade men of certain moral positions and to shape their consciences, but it has no coercive power and certainly may not get involved in politics. Politics has to do with the temporal, not the eternal. It is physical, not spiritual. It is external, not internal. It isn’t the church’s area of competence. The church should leave that realm to the experts and focus instead on its own carefully circumscribed role, namely, the care of the soul.

As Cavanaugh explains, however, adopting that view entails handing people’s bodies over to the state. “New Christendom” ecclesiology crippled the church in Chile so that she was unable to resist the state’s oppression — and all the more so because the oppressors themselves, including Pinochet and many, if not all, of the torturers, were themselves Roman Catholics. As one bishop said, “To resist an atheist dictatorship is easy; what’s difficult is to resist a Catholic dictatorship” (cited on p. 80).

As the oppression intensified, however, the church continued to care for the suffering people of Chile and drew on itself the wrath of the oppressors for doing so. Over the years, the church began to respond, first by discussions with the leaders of Chile and then more strongly, through public protest and, most importantly, through ecclesiastical discipline.

The church began to develop a new ecclesiology, centred on the Eucharist, by which the church is united into a social body, a body which is necessarily political and which is concerned not only with souls but with bodies. Eventually, the church began to excommunicate torturers, policing its own bounds, declaring publicly who is and who is not a member of its body. And as it declared some outside the body, it also intensified its bonds with those inside the body. The Eucharist created solidarity, and that solidarity enabled Chilean Christians to resist the state’s attacks. The church’s discipline, forming people into disciples of Christ united to each other, enabled her to stand up to the state’s discipline.

That’s a fairly superficial summary of Cavanaugh’s book, however, and does not do it justice. I recommend the book highly. Cavanaugh writes well and the book is quite understandable. It is also extremely thought-provoking.

At the same time, I was left with some questions. I’m not sure what role, if any, Cavanaugh would assign to the state. Many times, he talks about what “the state” does or wants to do, and I’m not always sure if he thinks this is necessarily true of all states or not. At times, Cavanaugh (and similar writers) make me wonder what role they think there should be for civil government. Of course, that’s part of the reason Peter Leithart wrote “For Constantine” in Against Christianity.

Cavanaugh strongly dislikes “Constantinianism” and “Christendom” and wants to maintain that the church isn’t an alternate polis. But, as Leithart and others have pointed out, that is exactly what the church is (though not exactly in the sense Cavanaugh has in mind).

In Philippians 3, for instance, Paul says that the church’s “commonwealth” (politeuma) is in heaven. The church is a colony of heaven. It is a city within the city, a colony within the (Roman) colony of Philippi, with a calling to colonize its surroundings, advancing faith in the gospel, which is the good news that Jesus (not Caesar) is the true Lord and Saviour.

I appreciated much of Cavanaugh’s discussion of the Eucharist. I have to admit, though, that I can’t make head or tail out of some of the things he says. For instance, “the earthly Eucharist is the eternal action in time of Jesus Christ” (p. 223). I don’t have a clue what “eternal action in time” means, but it seems vaguely Platonic. So, for that matter, does Cavanaugh’s discussion of secular vs. Eucharistic time, in which he says that “secular” time is linear and Eucharistic time is … well, I don’t know, but not linear somehow, because it entails past, present, and future all at once. Perhaps it’s just because I’m new to this sort of Eucharistic theology, but I found this approach hard to grasp.

I am also not convinced by Cavanaugh’s claim that the church doesn’t excommunicate but merely recognizes that someone is self-condemned and has put himself outside the church by his actions. That approach seems weak. Indeed, it seems to me to smack of some of the same kind of gnosticism Cavanaugh is striking at throughout the book, because it implies that the church merely recognizes what people themselves have done; she doesn’t have the power to effect something by excommunication. But Paul speaks of the church’s discipline as actually doing something, changing someone’s status, putting someone outside (1 Cor. 5).

On the whole, though, I found Torture and Eucharist very profitable, not only for its analysis of what happened in Chile, but also for its analysis of torture as a disciplining anti-liturgy and of the Eucharist as a counter-politics whereby we become more and more the body of Christ, a body which must be guarded by excommunication. Again, in spite of my questions and reservations at a number of points, I highly recommend this book.

Posted by John Barach @ 10:16 am | Discuss (0)

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