Body Politics: Tortured Bodies, Black Bodies and the Resurrected Body

It has been a tumultuous month here in the United States. Not only has a dark shadow been cast over U.S. policing but now we have been alerted of yet another horrible truth: The CIA has been torturing people who are suspected to have ties to terrorist organizations. “Alerted” is perhaps the wrong word as it denotes something new coming to the fore. Grotesque as it is, here in the U.S., we’ve known since before President Obama that when it comes to “Muslim jihadists,” the U.S. will take any measure to ensure the Homeland Security Advisory chart does not surpass blue.

To the untrained eye, Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride et al. and those tortured by the CIA have little in common. I myself wouldn’t have been able to connect the dots if not for the public thinking of individuals such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and J. Kameron Carter (I consider Carter to be the “Michael Jordan” of theology right now). In what follows, I attempt to make a case that Eric Garner and the nameless tortured are byproducts of a “normalizing gaze” that attempts to delineate between non-citizens and citizens. In conclusion, I suggest that the only way to overcome the bipolarity of non-citizen vs. citizen is by looking to the resurrected body of Jesus Christ.

Citizens vs. Non-Citizens

A little over a week ago, I made a fairly controversial statement on Facebook:
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As one might have guessed, I received some interesting feedback. The discussion successfully avoided the pitfall of turning into a cyber-boxing-match and was instead a dialogical spar. I am grateful to all who added to the discussion–especially those who disagreed with me.

No doubt the statement is controversial on its face. It might even be read as triumphalistic considering the fact that I draw a comparison between Muslims and the God-man, Jesus Christ. I get all that. I knew I would run the risk of being misunderstood when I posted the statement. However, what I was attempting to get at runs deeper than sexy statements or covert evangelism.

My concern begins with people who identify as Christians but wish to either downplay or moralize torture. These individuals tend to argue the following: 1) The reasons for torture are complex, 2) If citizens lives can be spared, the torture of non-citizens can be justified, 3) It is unfair to set up a strict dichotomy between Christians who disdain torture and (pseudo-)Christians who “reluctantly” accept torture. As one might guess, none of these reasons appeal to me.

But before we go any further I need to lay all my cards on the table and just admit that the prism from which I interpret all of life is one that is highly influenced by the Orthodox Christian faith. Therefore, I take for granted the sanctity of all human life based solely on the grounds that YHWH created us in his image; God created us, male and female. In God’s image we were created. Female and male God created us (Gen. 1:27).

In his tome on Race, James Kameron Carter suggests that the social construct of race serves the dubious purpose of differentiating between non-citizens and citizens. While this is the political aim of race, religion also attempts to buttress racial distinctions by providing ways to label certain persons “in” and other persons “out.” Thus, the black souls who arrived in Virginia in 1619 were not only viewed as non-citizens, but they were also understood to be barbarians who needed to be disciplined in a “Christianity” that sought to subjugate their bodies. Carter classifies this move as a pseudotheological one. This pseudotheology is not unique to the corridors of the church. In fact, pseudotheology makes its presence felt in the construction of the modern nation-state as politicians, anthropologists, scientists and philosophers all attempt to justify violence towards certain persons based on the “sovereignty” of the state in conjunction with the social construct of race.

Carter heavily criticizes Immanuel Kant for his contribution to the violence of Western hegemony. Someone such as Kant insists that the state’s responsibility must be understood in terms of “transforming” bodies so as to display its unbridled power. Germane to our current discussion is Carter’s use of Michel Foucault as Foucault was perhaps one of the most volatile critics of the modern nation-state. Whether it be through a “normalizing gaze” or more overt measures such as imprisonment, the state seeks to conform “disobedient” persons to its conception of what is normal, right and beautiful. If the chasm proves to be too great to overcome, the state holds the authority to terminate individuals who refuse to “fit the mold.”

The Seduction of Pseudotheology

It seems to me that the Christians who wish to pontificate on the merits of torture as a viable option to “save lives” have been seduced by the pseudotheology that Carter criticizes. If the torture of a few “crazy Muslims” prevents civilian casualties here in the states, the end would seem to justify the means, wouldn’t it?

This sort of consequentialist thinking is not only problematic theologically, but it also proves to be incorrect based on what we know concerning the “success rate” of torture. It doesn’t matter that the data regarding torture deems it to be a fruitless endeavor. In my view, Christians–liberal and conservative alike–make an exception for torture not based on data, but based on an unwavering obedience to the state (Kant strikes again!). This blind obedience also harbors a deep seeded belief that “Muslim extremists” deserve the punishment that they receive. Thus, while Sarah Palin makes an easy “fall-girl” for her suggestion that “terrorists” can be baptized into the Christian faith/American democracy via waterboarding, her sentiments cannot be isolated to a single political party or a monolithic form of Christianity. Since its illegitimate beginnings, this nation has sought ways to control those who’s culture, religion and bodies differ from their colonial counterparts.

The slave master’s whip and the torture dungeons of the CIA tell us something about normalizing or disciplining “disobedient” bodies here in the states. What it tells us is that the U.S. has a long tradition of dealing with the “other” in a way that seeks to control them. What makes the joke all the more tragic is that the possibility of citizenship is said to be attainable for all but in actuality this is a false promise. Eric Garner had “rights under the law” and yet his “rights” as a citizen were unable to give him the oxygen he needed to sustain his life. This is why the prophetic voice of Ta-Nehisi Coates is necessary as he refuses to interpret the American project from an ahistorical perspective. Furthermore, Coates recognizes the nexus between pseudotheology and the plundering of persons who look different than the prototypical American.

The police officer who preformed a dive-by shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice is in reality performing his civic duty: eliminate those who are unable to “fit the mold” of a true American citizen. Not only did police officer Darren Wilson valiantly rid America of yet another “thug,” but in Wilson’s own pseudotheological imagination, he acted as a sort of exorcist when he shot Brown who resembled a “demon” rather than a human being. Whether it be baptism by waterboarding or a vigilante cloaking his heinous act in divine equivocation, pseudotheology remains to be employed by the nation-state and its citizens.

The Resurrected Body (Conclusion)

In what has already been a long post I seek to offer a concluding section on ways to combat the pandemic of pseudotheology. But before I offer a way out, it is necessary to make a few observations about the life of Christ pre-resurrection.

Jesus’ body perpetually existed in “disobedience.” It is no secret that during the 1st century the Roman Empire tyrannically oppressed the socio-religious group of Jesus. The Jews were typically faced with two options: they could either “hellenize” or maintain their socio-religious particularity at the cost of being pushed to the outskirts of society. As Israel’s long awaited Savior-King, Jesus fully embraces the Jewish ideal of God’s reign that sets itself in opposition to the Roman Empire (Lk. 1:46-55). YHWH is King, Caesar is not (Lk. 20:25). The poor will inherit the Kingdom while the rich will fade away (Mt. 5:3; Lk. 6:24). Dissimilar to the tyrannical rulers of the Gentiles, God’s Kingdom is one where the last are first and the first are last (Mt. 20:25-28). Not peripheral to Jesus’ ministry, he reminds everyone that the temple is not a rendezvous point for the movers and shakers but is instead a sacred space for all tongues, tribes and nations (Mk. 11:15-19). With a litany like this, we can see why Jesus tended to get himself into trouble.

As I have argued elsewhere crucifixion was a form of social control. Crucifixion was to be the way the powerful reminded the powerless that death would be the final word. Indeed, to be among those crucified is to be remembered in the annals of history as someone who refused to be molded to the patterns of the empire. Jesus is not only tortured and executed because of a few controversial statements–or because of his “heretical” religious claims. No, Jesus is flogged and murdered because the body he occupies continuously presents itself as a threat to imperial power (Mt. 2; Jn. 18:28-38, 19:12-16).

What truly confounds the principalities and the powers of Jesus’ day is his unlikely triumph through the cross (I Col. 2:15). Christ defeats death and all its friends through his bodily resurrection (Eph. 1:20-23). This is where I stake my claim: Despite its best efforts, the empire is ultimately unable to discipline the body of Jesus Christ. If the church at large represents the body of Christ, what might this mean for those who worship the God who says no to the disciplinary tactics of the state?1 God’s saying “no” to imperial hegemony can be further seen in God’s saying “yes” to the Gentiles despite the fact that their bodies do not bare the mark of the Abrahamic people (Gen. 17:9-14; cf. Acts 15; Gal. 2:11-21). To gain citizenship into the Kingdom of God does not necessitate violent contortion at the hands of those in charge. On the contrary, this new social space known as the ekklesia welcomes all who pledge allegiance to the Lamb of God regardless of their sex, class or race (Rom. 10:12; I Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:11-22; Col. 3:11). Thus, Brian Bantum’s classification of life in the Christian colony as “mulattic” correctly captures the biblical mandate for inclusivity.

All that to say, it seems to me that those who wish to claim the title of Christian but deny the racial components of policing or justify the existence of Guantanamo Bay are actually “pseudo-Christians.” In a comical but chilling sense, those executed or tortured by State authorities are a better representation of Christ than the pseudo-Christians who take no issue with the social conditions that lead to the oppression of certain people groups. I would like to argue that to be a Christian, in the proper sense, requires a denunciation of state-sanctioned torture and execution; especially when this torturing and killing is exerted over/against marginal communities. It is evident, made plain by the resurrection, that within The Kingdom of God there is no room for violent subjugation of the “other” (Mt. 5:43-48; Lk. 6:27-36; Rom. 12).

Ultimately, I hope that we Christians would learn to align ourselves with the Apostles in declaring that “we believe in the resurrection, we believe in a life that never ends.”

resurrection-ivan-filichev

The Resurrection by Ivan Filichev

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Josiah R. Daniels

END NOTES:

[1] In hopes of avoiding the conversation altogether, I wish to direct the reader to Ted Grimsrud’s exegesis of Romans 13. Perhaps you remain unconvinced. Hobby and Patton’s summarization of John Howard Yoder’s Politics of Jesus proves to be especially helpful (especially ch. 10). As a last resort, I would suggest allowing Stanley Hauerwas to nonviolently cajole you into the correct reading of Romans 13!

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  • Michael Wiltshire

    Josiah–as always, I have to stop and think before I totally agree with you uncritically! And because I can’t find much disagreement with you, here is my thought on maybe why some others might.

    It seems like one of your main assumptions here is that to be Christian is primarily to allow oneself to live in the way and example of Jesus. Or maybe, one must attempt to incarnate the gospel of Jesus in all spheres of life. Would you say that’s fair? I ask because I wonder if some of your readers are operating out of a different definition of Christian. And perhaps that definition is one which is more dependent on a religious heritage which, in the case of America, is so fused with the state that challenging certain social structures/norms is puzzling and ultimately self-inflicting. I don’t want to draw lines but I’m just not sure how else one could read the gospels and then conclude that “tortured bodies” or the dehumanization of “black bodies” is congruent with Christianity. I’d welcome your thoughts on how to define what definition/identification of Christian might contrast yours (or what I interpret to be yours).

    Secondly, precisely because I see your identification of Christian to be other to the American norm, I am tempted to draw a parallel between your project here and the reformation. Whereas Luther called Christians out of the state and into ” Sola scriptura” I hear you calling for a more incarnational Christianity wherein one puts the way/person of Jesus (i.e. ethics, teaching, example, spirituality, telos, etc.) as both a tool for reformation and also the marker for authentic Christianity.

    Those are some of my initial thoughts but regardless I am thankful for your post and the time it must have required.

    • Josiah Daniels

      Michael,
      These are all good thoughts. Your comment especially helps in revealing my Christocentric interpretation of scripture (i.e. I’m an Anabaptist).

      You’re right. Basically I want to argue that you can’t serve two masters. While we could exegete our way out of some of Jesus’ harder sayings, I ultimately find my home among those who label themselves as postcritical/postliberal. These camps, in my opinion, are more open to postmodern interpretations. Postmodernity naturally critiques power–I think this fits nicely with Jesus’ work.

      Your parallel between me and Luther is generous. While I’d like to think that I’m just as intense as Luther, I ultimately I have to say that I’m not. Nonetheless, you’re insight about me trying to call Christians out of Babylon is right on.

      Word.

      • Michael Wiltshire

        Speaking of deliverance out of Babylon, we need more Rich Mullins in this place.

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