Torture and Eucharist: Part 2, Making the Body Visible

We continue working through William Cavanaugh's book Torture and Eucharist.

According to Cavanaugh a strategy of the torture program in Chile under Pinochet was to "disappear" the body of Christ and, thus, deny the church the ability to stand in opposition to the state. The state would proceed with its torture program but never publicly or visibly attack the church. The state secretly arrested, tortured and killed individuals. Consequently, if the church wanted to oppose the torture program she would need to publicly claim those individuals as her own. This would make the conflict between the church and the state visible. And this visibility, that the state was torturing and persecuting the church, would function as a rallying cry for resistance, protest, civil disobedience, and standing in solidarity with the oppressed.

Basically, by keeping its actions clandestine and targeted at individuals (rather than institutions) the state hoped to avoid a public and institutional confrontation with the church and, thus, proceed unopposed. So if the church was to resist the state she would have to fight against this disappearance. She would have to pick a public fight. And the first step in this fight would be to claim tortured bodies as her own. To say, in effect, "If you torture them you torture us."

So what is needed in the fight against torture, according to Cavanaugh, are a set of practices that allow the church to resist being disappeared by the state, a way to make the persecuted body of Christ visible so that the church can pick a fight with the state and mobilize collective resistance.

The main way the church becomes visible is to claim the victims of the state as martyrs of the church. In operating clandestinely and moving against individuals the state hopes to fracture communities using fear to keep the population quiet and docile. If the state shows up at the Smith's house and arrests Mr. Smith in the middle of the night that's a sad and tragic thing for the Smiths. By acting against Mr. Smith as an individual citizen the church and Mr. Smith's neighbors are left on the sideline. The problem is between Mr. Smith and the state. So the church and concerned neighbors stay sidelined. What business is it of ours? It's just a sad and tragic day for the Smith's, but not for us or for the body of Christ. It's a private matter

This is what Cavanaugh means by the state disappearing the church. What right does the church have to insert itself in a matter between the state and Mr. Smith?

But if the church lays claim to the body of Mr. Smith--if Mr. Smith isn't an individual but one of us, a member of the body of Christ--then the church is collectively mobilized to protest Mr. Smith's disappearance and demand his safe return. This action makes the body of Christ visible with a group of individuals now identifying with each other and standing in solidarity with one another. Rather than picking off individuals the state now has to deal with the church. The battle has been joined between church and state and resistance can begin in earnest.

Here is Cavanaugh making these points:
If we are to understand properly the workings of terror and the church's response...we must see the strategies of disappearance and torture as ways to deny martyrs to the church...[because] martyrdom makes the church visible...torture works to create victims, not martyrs.
...the strategy of repression employed by the Pinochet regime in Chile [was] not the production of martyrs but rather the denial of martyrs to the church. The effect of the regime's strategy was to produce not martyrs but victims. Martyrs by their public witness build up the body of Christ in opposition to the state. For precisely this reason the regime's strategy was predicated on the elimination of spectacle, and therefore the disappearance of the visible church...Those that were killed had their bodies disposed of secretly, left in clandestine graves, dumped into rivers or the ocean, or dynamited...It was crucial to the Pinochet regime to have complete control over bodies. The regime understood perfectly well that the body could become a focus of resistance to the state's power. 
By laying claim to bodies--when you torture Mr. Smith you torture us--the church was able to resist the state's desire to deal with its citizens as isolated individuals, picking them off one by one. To resist the torture regime individuals needed to stand together in community, to recognize themselves as a social body, to identify themselves and each other as the body of Christ.
The techniques of invisibility which the secret police structure perfected were capable of fragmenting the church body while depriving the church of martyrs, visible witnesses to the conflict between the church and the powers of the world. The bodies of the martyrs make the church visible as the body of Christ.
In tomorrow's post we'll discuss three practices that allow the church to claim martyrs and "make a spectacle" in order to organize resistance to the torturing state.

Part 3

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2 thoughts on “Torture and Eucharist: Part 2, Making the Body Visible”

  1. "To resist the torture regime individuals needed to stand together in
    community, to recognize themselves as a social body, to identify
    themselves and each other as the body of Christ."

    Please let's qualify the terms "community" and "social body."

    For a faith community to establish credibility (with me, though I doubt I'm alone), authenticity is key.  (See Dr. Beck's book The Authenticity of Faith, which scales up to a community model quite nicely, if you ask me.)  Authentic communities don't deny differences among individuals, or simply politely tolerate differences; authentic communities recognize differences, and even *value* differences/diversity as a good thing.  Authentic communities see this as a way to be stronger -- each unique person bringing their gift(s) to the altar of service.  An authentic community is open to and welcoming of new people and ideas.

    For a social body, secular or religious, to be cohesive and make a positive impact, it has to be a healthy one.  I have encountered and been a part of enough social bodies that were sick and ineffectual.  Toxic, even.  Healthy social bodies care for all its members with the same TLC and commitment.

    The body of Christ:  taken, blessed, broken, and given for the world's sake.

    I see the insidious nature of the divide and conquer strategy.  Politics as usual...  Sad and ugly.

    Sign me, today,
    No Peace and Short on Patience.

  2. Those are Important clarifications.

    One of the challenges with Cavanaugh's work is trying to make connections with Protestantism. Cavanaugh is writing about the Catholic church. Thus the "community" and "social body" he is speaking to is more institutional in nature and something deeply interwoven in Latin American society. Thus, for the church to start to speak out was to have an important and culturally influential institution begin to challenge the power of the state.

    In short, in these posts when I write about "community" and "social body" we need to be thinking of the Catholic church in Latin America rather than cliquish Protestant gatherings sharing donuts and prayer requests. (i.e., when you go to the Mass you're not going for "authentic community," you are going for the Eucharist). The struggle, then, becomes how to translate Cavanaugh's analysis into these Proastant contexts. That's not Cavanaugh's problem, he's Catholic, but I've been thinking about it.

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