Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ

By Levy, Sandra M. | Anglican Theological Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ


Levy, Sandra M., Anglican Theological Review


Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ. By William T. Cavanaugh. Oxford and Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1998. xi + 286 pp. $30.95 (paper).

This work is a scholarly, readable examination of the relationship between Church and state, and specifically the role the Church can play in resisting the state's employment of physical and psychological torture to further the state's powerful hold on its people's imagination. Cavenaugh develops his analysis by focusing on the situation in Chile and the Catholic Church there both before and during the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, 1973-1990.

According to this author, the ascendance of Pinochet to political power corresponded to a time of relative political passivity on the part of the Catholic Church hierarchy in Chile. Cavanaugh analyzes this passivity by tracing the influence of Jacques Maritain's writings on Church and state, and Maritain's notion of a 11 new Christendom," where the temporal and spiritual planes are drawn as quite distinct. The Christian as an individual citizen may influence the political domain through private action informed by a sanctified, Christian life, but the Church itself remains above the political, practical plane, nurturing souls through sacramental and other means. According to Cavanaugh, the importation and spread of Maritain's ideas among the Chilean hierarchy contributed to the Church's demise as an effective resistance to Pinochet's atrocious human rights violations, including the kidnapping ("disappearing"), torture, and murder of innocent citizens.

Cavanaugh's central thesis is that torture and the eucharist are opposing disciplines using different means and serving different ends. Where torture can be viewed as a kind of practice or liturgy for the realization of state power over bodies (as well as the souls who inhabit them), the eucharist is a practice or liturgy mystically forming the Church as the Body of Christ, marked by resistance to worldly power that runs counter to God's kingdom. "The Church and the Eucharist form the liturgical pair of visible community and invisible action or mystery... which together re-present and re-member Christ's his- torical body" (p. 212).

Of course, the notion of the Church as a resistant force to secular evil and the powers that be is not at all novel here, as the writings of Stanley Hauerwas, Walter Wink, liberation theologians such as Gutierrez and others quickly come to mind. (And since Hauerwas was Cavanaugh's dissertation advisor, one should not be surprised to hear echoes of his Resident Aliens and other works here.)

But what stands out in this work is Cavanaugh's focus on the effects of torture, both on the person tortured as well as on his or her community. For Cavanaugh as well as others, torture not only intimidates the public at large for fear that anyone could be next, but mutes the individual tortured through the infliction of unspeakable pain, "atomizing" and isolating the one so tortured. Cavanaugh argues that one major effect of such isolation and intimidation is the consequent destruction of opposition communities.

And it is in this analysis that I think Cavanaugh somewhat overstates his case. Drawing heavily from the writings of Elaine Scarry (see The Body in Pain, Oxford, 1985) on the effects of pain and methods of torture, the author stresses their isolating effects through the obliteration of language (the experience of pain robs us of words), disruption of community loyalty through forced confession, disorienting effects of random assault, loss of sense of time through indefinite incarceration, and so on.

Cavanaugh seems to imply that such means employed by the state in Chile under Pinochet either affected or threatened to affect the Church as community, atomizing that community into isolated elements, with the aim of obliterating it and any other body that would threaten to counter state power.

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