Torture and Eucharist: Part 1, Claiming the Bodies

In the last chapter of Unclean I make an argument for open communion, basing this argument on Jesus's ministry of table fellowship with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. Since the publication of Unclean I've added to that argument in various posts here on the blog.

As I've made this argument in various places I've encountered counter-arguments and have discerned, in these conversations, that the most powerful argument many have encountered in favor of "Eucharistic discipline," closed communion and excommunication is the argument made by William Cavanaugh in his book Torture and Eucharist. (A H/T to Chris Haws for finally getting me to get Cavanaugh's book and engage this argument.)

I read Torture and Eucharist over the family vacation and want to devote some posts this week to summarizing and interacting a bit with Cavanaugh's argument.

Cavanaugh's book is an analysis of the Catholic church's response to the torture program under the Chilean dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet took power in a coup d'état in September 1973. After taking power Pinochet's regime, particularly in the early years, intimidated, killed and tortured rivals and those not supportive of his government. Many Chileans were arrested in the middle of the night and never heard from again.

Cavanaugh discusses how the Catholic church was slow to respond to the torture but how it eventually gathered itself. According to Cavanaugh the slowness of the initial response had to do with bad theology, particularly Eucharistic theology. Eventually, the church found her voice in using the Eucharist as a "counter-politics" to the politics of the torturing state.

The argument begins with Cavanaugh arguing that the church in Chile had, in the years prior to Pinochet, accepted a division of labor with the state, a Gnostic division between the body and the soul. According to this division the state had control over the bodies of Chileans while the church would restrict its attentions to the souls of Chileans. This was, in essence, the classic separation between the political and spiritual where churches restrict their attention to issues of personal piety and withdraw from the political wranglings of the state. What is interesting in Cavanaugh's framing is how he identifies the political with the body--politics is essentially what the state is allowed to do to the bodies of citizens (and aliens within her borders). For the most part, we accept this power and when the state is working well we really don't notice this power. But the power is there. The state can incarcerate a body or demand, in times of conflict, that bodies go to war.

Torture, according to Cavanaugh, represents the logical outworking and endpoint of this power of the state over the body. In torture we see that the state can do whatever it wants to the body.

Thus we confront the problem when the church has withdrawn its claim over bodies, we see here the impotence of the church when she restricts her witness to issues of personal piety. Initially in Chile the church was in this powerless position, ineffectual and confused by bad theology in speaking out about how the state was using bodies because the church had ceded its own right to lay claim to bodies in the name of Christ. The church in Chile regained its footing when it began to exert its claim over bodies, to enter into a dispute with the state over the state's self-appointed right to do with bodies whatever it saw fit.

In summary, the church becomes "political" when it enters into a dispute with the state over bodies.

(This might seem to be an abstract conversation so let me give a few other examples.

Consider America's own torture program during the Bush administration. The American state claimed it had sole and unrivaled power over those bodies. The questions Cavanaugh helps raise are these: Did the church have any claim over those bodies? Or did the state stand unopposed?

Consider a different issue, the deportation of illegal immigrants. The American state claims it has sole and unrivaled power over these bodies. Again, the questions are: Does the church have any claim over these bodies? Or does the state stand unopposed?

Consider a final issue: capital punishment, execution. The American state claims it has sole and unrivaled power over these bodies. Again: Does the church have any claim over these bodies? Or does the state stand unopposed?

Other examples can be offered, and feel free to do so in the comments, but the point of conflict has been highlighted. The church gets "political" when it disputes the state's claim that it can do whatever it wants to bodies.)

Here is how Cavanaugh summarizes the issue:
[The] ecclesiology which dominated the Chilean Catholic church between the separation of the church in 1925 and the coup in 1973 had theorized the church not as a social body but as the 'soul of society.' The church would be responsible for the souls of Chileans, in effect handing their bodies over to the state for political and military duty. The church would supposedly form their individual consciences, and people would enter public life as individual Christians, but the church as a body would not act politically. I will argue that imagining that it could become society's soul, the church had already begun to forfeit its own discipline and to disappear itself.
The church in Chile began to recover her voice when she began disputing the state's claim to sole ownership of bodies:
In the face of constant accusations of interfering in politics, the church gradually made clear its refusal to leave bodily matters such as unemployment and torture to the state--in other words, to hand over the bodies of its members to the state.
In tomorrow's post we'll get to the next part of Cavanaugh's argument, that it was necessary for the church to lay claim to tortured bodies so that the church could be made visible. By laying claim to tortured bodies, by saying that these bodies bodies are "ours" and not the state's, the church rescued the tortured bodies from becoming anonymous victims of the state to making them visible martyrs of the church. And with the martyrs now visible and publicly recognized the persecuted body of Christ became publicly visible and able to prophetically resist the torturing state.

Part 2

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19 thoughts on “Torture and Eucharist: Part 1, Claiming the Bodies”

  1. I'll provide this additional example without further comment.

    Consider one more issue: abortion. Many women claim they have sole and unrivaled power over their bodies. Again: Does the church have any claim over these bodies? Or do the women stand unopposed? 

  2. I think the church should claim the bodies of the women and the babies. The trouble I've seen is that the church doesn't claim any of the bodies involved.

  3. A couple of thoughts...

    The liturgy reading yesterday was the passage in John's Gospel of Jesus feeding the 5,000.  Following the worship service, my discussion group dealt with the chapter on The Lord's Supper in Borg's Speaking Christian.  The contrast was drawn between the mystical concept of transubstantiation versus a sense of oneness with Christ, the church, and beyond--to that of the whole world in open, inclusive communion.  The ritual and the elements symbolize our affirmation of oneness with Christ and humanity.  It was interesting to hear that Catholic protocol is very strict on the handling of any remaining elements, as well as the cleaning of the cup.  This reminded me of the story of Jesus' feeding of the 5,000.  Twelve baskets full of leftovers, which Jesus carefully gathered in order not to "waste" or lose any of the bread.  I connect *bread* as Jesus' body, taken, blessed, broken, and given to the world.  When we celebrate the Eucharist, we affirm a willingness to also be taken, blessed, broken, and given for others.  Isn't it sad that the church at any time in its history would be confused as to the importance of actual living, breathing people over ritual symbolism?  Quite simply, such concern over maintaining the holy essence of the communion cup and symbolic elements, while essentially throwing away real people?  Tragic.

    Engagement with the powers and third way a la Walter Wink -- this is hard stuff.  And not because I do not care, or selfishly want to avoid responsibility or risk facing persecution.  Do the powers (individually and/or collectively), who apparently have no regard for the dignity and worth of every human being, have a conscience that can be manipulated by shaming them?  How much can we even persuade another person to care, empathize, have compassion?  I'm struggling to make sense of this.  Not powerless, but how exactly to exercise the power that I have?  ~Peace~

  4. I think you've missed the point of Cavanaugh's work, which is about the Church allowing the State to arrogate power over the body (and I think Cavanaugh's work has more than a few resonances with Foucault here). The dichotomy is over ecclesiastical and "secular" spheres of influence. Reproductive rights might perhaps be relevant, but if so, it'd be have to be so pretty obliquely.

  5. To defend Guest a bit.

    You're right that Cavanaugh's book is about the church contesting the power of the state over bodies. And in Guest's comment Guest suggests that the church interrupt the power of the woman over the fetus. That is a change of frame from Cavanaugh's but it is, I think, worth thinking about.

    My problem, hinted at in my comment below, isn't that the change of frame isn't worth thinking about. It is, rather, that the church isn't actually laying claim to the unborn or to the bodies of the mothers. Rather, the church is still giving power over both to the state, effectively trying to insert the state between the two bodies. That, to me, is the deeper connection with Cavanaugh's larger argument, how most pro-Life advocacy is actually still ceding power over bodies to the state. The church isn't, by and large, saying we'll care for and love all mothers and babies. The church isn't claiming these bodies in love and care; it's handing them over to the state.

  6. Being unable to enter into the logistics of These offerings, may I say that I am so glad my mother had such a high view of my body that she took me to a Dallas orphanage and Momma and Daddy took me home at the tender age of seven months...a moment of grace if there every was one. Perhaps a moment of Eucharistic grace at that.

  7. I find it telling that the argument here is only about the state doing "bad" things to the body.  Where is the notion of the state as "father"?  If "the church" wants responsibility for the body as well as the soul, then it (the church) should not be OK with the state providing food, shelter, and physical protection to the body of its citizens, either.  States not only torture, they also protect and nurture.  We are all "anonymous" recipients as well as "victims".

  8. Wow...good point. Rather than advocating politically for the unborn, trying to enact policy (which a majority Republican Gov't won't do, despite their campaign promises), we should rather be servants of and for the world and offer our lives as living sacrifices to care for the infants. Very similar to Stringfellow's urgings to his clergy friend who called about a woman who needed money for rent.....his response, "sell your church tapestries and pay her rent."

  9. Please perhaps expound upon this as it pertains to the deportation and exploitation of illegal immigrants as that is one of the most pressing and urgent human issues of our day, especially in Texas.

  10. How is it any different?  What about those who disagree with this logic?  Perhaps they see the usurpation by the state of an individual's responsibility to care for, feed, and protect him/herself as a violation of their "basic human rights" as well.

  11. Okay, looking at it that way, I can easily agree that the Church has outsourced the abortion issue to the state, and this exactly not what the Church should be doing. I also tend to agree with what your proposed alternative, about the Church needing to actually care for, not just pay lip service to all mothers and children. (Incidentally but not irrelevantly, I think Eugene McCarraher has one of the best analyses of pro-life infatuations with the fetus here.)

    What I worry about, though (and what I think Guest may have been alluding too) is that this theology of the Church claiming the bodies of its congregants might all too easily slide into again, the Church simply silencing and oppressing the voice of women (I guess my deep sympathies for feminist theology are quite clear here). I'm not saying that the Church should open abortion clinics, but that the Church (or at least, many still influential swathes of it) do not have a fantastic track record with gender issues, and extra sensitivity should be called for when dealing with an issue as complicated and messy as abortion. I find it deeply problematic, for example, that the vast and overwhelming majority of pro-life voices are male, and that feminist voices are demonized and often misrepresented.

    So in my comment I do wanted to draw a distinction between the sociopolitical entity known as the state and the female inhabitants of that state, because I simply don't trust patriarchal Christianity on issues of gender, which is, unfortunately, the Christianity I'm most familiar with. Sorry for sort of tangenting away from the main discussion.

  12. No, Anonymous, this is not a tangential point; on the contrary, I find the question of religious power -- and the altogether valid healthy skepticism of entrusting ourselves to it -- a most brilliant and relevant critique for us to consider.  When many of us have witnessed injustices in and coming from the church itself, there is great difficulty in trusting that organization to handle our "bodies" (or our souls, for that matter) in a manner much better than the state.  Every church and denomination has its particular polity; furthermore, the body of individuals comprising a given church will usually be diverse.  What I'm getting at is that blanket trust of an organization, without weighing the politics of the organization, can get you martyred (and I mean crucified) in a different way.

    Whom to trust?  Like the good Buddha said, be thinking for oneself.

    Being a person of the church and of this world who is trustworthy is also helpful, if one wants to claim the dispossessed and stand with them in their suffering (versus standing on the sidelines, or standing over a person in a position of judgment, power and superiority).

    And to be perfectly clear, I am not questioning Dr. Beck's trustworthiness.  What I am saying is that, while Dr. Beck's (and Cavanaugh's) ideology jives with my own, and I believe that Dr. Beck is one of the good guys (or I wouldn't have stuck around here for more than a New York minute), I think the entity "church" tends to be a wild card.

    In my darkest nights and deepest pits, the church as I have known it in the past was the last place I would have submitted my body to be cared for.  I haven't trusted the state with that either, more than I could help it anyway.  But...  Where does that leave one, then?  Trusting yourself and God (maybe), and accepting the way life shakes out.  Play the hand one is dealt.  Don't impose on or burden others with one's troubles.  Try not to hurt people.  Help (i.e., love) others, whenever one is able.

    I think this is the way I have mostly dealt with the hardships of necessity, for the most part.


  13. I'm so glad you're making these posts! Having read two of Cavanaugh's more recent books - The Myth of Religious Violence and Migrations of the Holy - T&E has been on my list for a while but I haven't yet gotten to it. Thx for giving me a head start.

    To only add balance to your example of torture under the Bush administration, note the dramatic rise under the Obama admin in the use of drones for state-sponsored assassinations abroad, including of American citizens. To whom is the state accountable for the eradication of these bodies, not to mention the frequent collateral damage that is incurred by this death-by-RC-airplane strategy?

  14. Cavanaugh is a double-minded solipistic sophist, a purveyor of lies. An apologist for systematic brutality, while pretending otherwise.

    If you do your homework you will find that both Protestants and Catholics gave enthusiastic support to the unspeakably dreadful outfit featured at this site:

    This reference is also very much about the systematic brutalities that were perpetrated at the time - applied "father knows best" patriarchal politics.

    Furthermore you will also find that the Vatican and the then Pope also essentially gave "theological" and therefore poltical support to this outfit too. The details are described in the book by David Yallop The Power & the Glory - The Dark Heart of JPII's Vatican.

  15. Their status as illegals isn't a matter of interpretation, it's fact: there are laws about how foreign nationals are to enter the US, and these individuals did not follow them. Therefore, they're here illegally. You or I may sympathize in their plight, or wish the law to be changed, but reflexively adding so-called and scare quotes around a word that accurately expresses a fact about their situation is merely silly.

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