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Of sacrament and torture, blasphemy and free speech

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- on torture as the inverse of sacrament: from Palin's joke to Cavanaugh's rich theology ]
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Soon-to-be-martyred Archbishop Romero celebrates Mass in San Salvador's Basilica of the Sacred Heart

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Sarah Palin:

Sarah Palin, speaking to the NRA the other day, said:

waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists

And I have to say that as someone brought up within Christianity with a sacramental view of the world, I found that distasteful.

But.

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Tha Haggadah:

In a sprawling online conversation just last week, a Jewish friend pointed me to the Two-Minute Haggadah – A Passover service for the impatient. The Haggadah is the liturgical book which gives the rubrics and prayers for a Passover meal, and is thus in some ways comparable to a Catholic Missal, which does the same for the Eucharist…

Here’s an excerpt:

Opening prayers:

Thanks, God, for creating wine. (Drink wine.)
Thanks for creating produce. (Eat parsley.)

Overview:

Once we were slaves in Egypt. Now we’re free. That’s why we’re doing this.

Four questions:

1. What’s up with the matzoh?
2. What’s the deal with horseradish?
3. What’s with the dipping of the herbs?
4. What’s this whole slouching at the table business?

Answers:

1. When we left Egypt, we were in a hurry. There was no time for making decent bread.
2. Life was bitter, like horseradish.
3. It’s called symbolism.
4. Free people get to slouch.

I’ll admit I was a little irritated by that one, too.

Passover is the most sacred meal of the year for Jews, the time when they remember their expulsion from Egypt and all the difficulties — scatterings, pogroms, the extermination ovens — that have followed, and I didn’t want to see the sacred sullied.

But the thing is, there’s wine at the seder — and not just a sip of it, reserved for the priestly caste — and although there are bitter memories and bitter herbs, the atmosphere is in some ways one of family and festival… and whereas Christianity often emphasizes right doctrine or orthodoxy, Judaism seems more interested in orthopraxy, right behavior — and encourages certainly questions, laughter, and hey, dance.

For the purposes of this post, I might put it this way: religion can sometimes take a joke, sometimes not so much.

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Responses to Palin:

In any case, Palin made that remark, it drew applause from the crowd, and since it went public, various branches of the conservative US Christian right have raised religious objections…

As I said, I didn’t like Sarah Palin’s remark, but since I’m not part of her natural constituency in any case, I was interested to see whether others might bring the topic up.

It was Gary DeMar‘s American Vision — a Christian Reconstructionist outfit — that sent me the first email, and their comment first quoted Palin’s key phrase –

Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.

— and then commented sharply:

Wow. No matter how bad Islam may be, what Christian would stoop so low as to cheapen and denigrate the faith in order to advocate torturing them?

Rod Dreher‘s piece in The American Conservative was titled The Sacrilegious Sarah Palin. In it, he commented:

OK, stop. Not only is this woman, putatively a Christian, praising torture, but she is comparing it to a holy sacrament of the Christian faith. It’s disgusting — but even more disgusting, those NRA members, many of whom are no doubt Christians, cheered wildly for her.

and:

Palin and all those who cheered her sacrilegious jibe ought to be ashamed of themselves. For us Christians, baptism is the entry into new life. Palin invoked it to celebrate torture. Even if you don’t believe that waterboarding is torture, surely you agree that it should not be compared to baptism, and that such a comparison should be laughed at. What does it say about the character of a person that they could make that joking comparison, and that so many people would cheer for it. Nothing good — and nothing that does honor to the cause of Jesus Christ.

If I thought that kind of hateful declaration and abuse of the Christian religion was what conservatism stood for, I wouldn’t be able to call myself a conservative. Some conservatives do stand for that. They’re wrong, and they should be called out on it — not because some liberal somewhere is going to be offended, but first and foremost because we Christians who identify as conservatives are appalled by it.

I think blasphemy rather than sacrilege is probably the better term for a verbal act, but the two are often and perhaps easily confused…

The Federalist carried the story under the headline, No, Sarah Palin, Baptism Isn’t A Good Punchline For A Terrorist Joke and dug a little deeper into Palin’s theology:

Is waterboarding how we baptize terrorists? However powerful waterboarding might be (and whether or not it is defensible, a good idea or achieves the goals of those who advocate its use), it doesn’t hold a candle to the power of the Christian baptism, as historically understood. Does it deliver those who are subjected to it from the devil, as Christian baptism does? Does it give them eternal life, as Christian baptism does? Is it voluntary, as Christian baptism is? It is none of these things.

Joking about baptism in the context of this aggressive action suggests that we don’t think baptism is as life-giving or important as it is.

and:

Now, it’s also true that Palin, from what we know of her congregational affiliations, is influenced by subsets of Christianity that take a different and far lower view of what baptism accomplishes. They say that it’s mere symbolism rather than means of God’s grace. In fact, that’s exactly what the web site of Wasilla Bible Church says. But I would hope that even these traditions wouldn’t take it so lightly as to joke about it in the context of waterboarding. Or even if it is considered OK to joke about waterboarding being baptism by these folks, I’d hope they recognize how blasphemous it sounds to the ears of Christians who retain the historic and high view of the sacrament.

The Gospel Coalition‘s comments under the title Is Waterboarding How We “Baptize Terrorists”? took a different tack:

Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, author of Achilles In Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, found that dehumanizing the enemy during the Vietnam war caused psychological damage to American troops:

Restoring honor to the enemy is an essential step in recovery from combat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). While other things are obviously needed as well, the veteran’s self-respect never fully recovers so long as he is unable to see the enemy as worthy. In the words of one of our patients, a war against subhuman vermin “has no honor.” This in true even in victory; in defeat, the dishonoring makes life unendurable. (Achilles, pg. 115)

In our attempts to dehumanize our enemy we end up becoming less than human ourselves. It would be a Pyrrhic victory to save civilization and lose our humanity We must never hesitate to defend our culture, our future, and our lives against

Clearly I’m not alone in finding Palin’s words unortunate.

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William Cavanaugh:

I’d like to take this a little farther.

I can understand Palin making the joke, thinking it’s just a joke, and I can understand too that it’s difficult for individual members of a crowd that’s vigorously applauding a speaker to suddenly switch from applause to dismay. Having said that…

I mentioned William T Cavanaugh‘s book Torture and Eucharist in a post yesterday, and while it’s not treating of Baptism but of the Eucharist, it presents a view of the Church’s sacramental activity as the polar opposite of torture:

Techniques of torment taught by the master torturers place great emphasis on leaving no physical marks behind. And torture never surfaces, but does its work in the shadowy realm of the disappeared, in clandestine dungeons with no address and no escape. (p. 49)

Cavanaugh’s “case study” here is of Pinochet‘s Chile, the desaparecidos, and the church — and torture, in Cavanaugh’s analysis, by the hidden nature of its atrocities as well as the atrocities themselves, strips the individual of social presence, spirituality, mentality, activity, identity — of everything but pain.

By contrast, Cavanaugh sees the Eucharist as the affirmation of social presence, spirituality, mentality, activity, identity — through the creation of the body of Christ as ain inherently social organism, the Church:

… the Eucharist is much more than a ritual repetition of the past. It is rather a literal re-membering of Christ’s body, a knitting together of the body of Christ by the participation of many in His sacrifice. – (p. 229)

This brings us to how torture and sacrament relate to one another:

If we are to understand properly the workings of terror and the church’s response, however, we must see the strategies of disappearance and torture as ways to deny martyrs to the church. (p. 59)

Disappearance, in other words, removes individuals from society in a manner that denies others the possibility of being devotionally and socially encouraged by their death, by the sacrifice of their life. Thus:

It is not the heroism of the individual which is most significant, but rather the naming of the martyr by those who recognize Christ in the martyr’s life and death. Indeed, what makes martyrdom possible is the eschatological belief that nothing depends on the martyr’s continued life; if he dies, nothing is ultimately lost. (p. 64)

In sum:

Where torture is an anti-liturgy for the realization of the state’s power on the bodies of others, Eucharist is the liturgical realization of Chris’s suffering and redemptive body in the bodies of His followers. Torture creates fearful and isolated bodies, bodies docile to the purposes of the regime; the Eucharist effects the body of Christ, a body marked by resistance to worldly power. Torture creates victims; Eucharist creates witnesses, martyrs. Isolation is overcome in the Eucharist by the building of a communal body which resists the state’s attempts to disappear it. (p. 206)

This brings Cavanaugh to his practical ecclesiological conclusion:

If the church is to resist disappearance, then it must be publicly visible as the body of Christ in the present time, not secreted away in the souls of believers or relegated to the distant historical past or future. It becomes visible through its disciplined practices, but the church’s discipline must not simply mimic that of the state. – (p. 234)

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Archbishops Romero and Huddleston:

In the person of Archbishop Romero, pictured at the head of this post [photo via Super Martyrio's ROSARIUM: a reflection] — famous for broadcast sermons in which he named the names of the desaparecidos, shot and killed in 1980 while saying Mass, whose cause for beatification and sanctification has been approved by Pope Francis — the twin strands of our topic here, torture and sacrament, meet.

And I am reminded again of my own mentor, the [Anglican] Archbishop Trevor Huddleston‘s remark:

On Maundy Thursday, in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church, when the Mass of the day is ended, the priest takes a towel and girds himself with it; he takes a basin in his hands, and kneeling in front of those who have been chosen, he washes their feet and wipes them, kissing them also one by one. So he takes, momentarily, the place of his Master. The centuries are swept away, the Upper Room in the stillness of the night is all around him: “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” I have knelt in the sanctuary of our lovely church in Rosettenville and washed the feet of African students, stooping to kiss them. In this also I have known the meaning of identification. The difficulty is to carry the truth out into Johannesberg, into South Africa, into the world.

Whether we speak of baptism, as in the case of Palin’s utterance, or of the Eucharist, in Cavanaugh’s book, or the Maundy Thursday mandatum in Huddleston’s, the principle remains:

A sacramental view of man is entirely opposite in function to state-sponsored torture, and is thus both its refutation and its cure.

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New Article at War on the Rocks

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

I have a new op-ed up this morning on the Crimean crisis over at War on the Rocks:

Let’s Slow Roll Any Move Toward Crimean War II:

One of the more curious implicit assumptions about the crisis in Ukraine is that the subsequent occupation of the Crimea by Russia represents some kind of triumph for President Vladimir Putin and a defeat for the United States. It is a weird, strategic myopia that comes from an unrealistic belief that the United States should be expected to have a granular level of political control over and responsibility for events on the entire planet. We don’t and never can but this kind of political megalomania leads first to poor analysis and then worse policies.

Far from being entitled to do a victory lap, Putin’s mishandling of Ukraine has dealt Moscow a strategic defeat. With artful bullying and a $15 billion bribe, Putin had pulled off a diplomatic coup by getting President Victor Yanukovych to reverse Ukraine’s nearly finalized deal with the European Union and align itself vaguely with Russia and Putin’s shabby League of Eurasian Dictators. This would have been a tremendous strategic win for Russia to have Ukraine with its rich resources and key geographic location not only well-disposed to Moscow, but as a compliant satellite. Much like Belarus, Ukraine would have been isolated from the West and dependent upon Russia.

….While Russia’s occupation of Crimea merits condemnation and pressure from the world community, including the EU and the United States, the rush in some quarters to make this crisis into a military standoff between Russia and NATO instead of focusing on measures to quickly stabilize the new pro-Western government in Kiev is ill-advised and strategically unwise….

Read the rest here

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Review: Mussolini’s Italy: Life under the Fascist Dictatorship 1915-1945 by R.J.B. Bosworth

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a "zen"]

Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, 1915-1945 by R.J.B. Bosworth 

This book was Fascist Italy not of the newsreels of frenzied Roman crowds cheering bombastic speeches by Mussolini but how fascism’s imperial grandiosity were an ill-fitting facade for an Italy that underneath remained substantially an impoverished, traditionalist, parochial society of peasant squabbles and regional jealousies. Bosworth, one of the world’s top experts on the period takes a granular look at Italy under Fascism and the reader comes away amazed at how Mussolini fooled the great powers into taking his regime seriously for as long as they did.

At 692 pages, including 88 pages of endnotes, Mussolini’s Italy lays out in exhaustive detail how ordinary Italians carried on as best they could under the dictatorship, with the traditional reliance on corruption and the influence of kin and “men of respect” to undermine and ameliorate “totalitarian” rule. Repeatedly the regime sanctions dissidents (usually politically naive -or simply drunken – tradesmen or villagers) to “confino”, internal exile to faraway unpleasant regions only to have the intervention of some Fascist bigwig result in a swift amnesty.The brutality of the regime’s informal sanctions – the beatings, castor oil, kidnappings and murders – carried out by roving Fascist squadrists or at the orders of a local Fascist Ras (boss) like Cremona’s thuggish Roberto Farinacci, were by contrast, real enough.

Outside of the violent hooliganism of blackshirt squadrism there at times seems little to have held Fascism together as a political movement without Mussolini’s tin cult of personality, there was seldom agreement among fascists about such fundamental political issues as the role of the state vs. the party, capitalism vs. autarky, the sanctity of private property, the need for unions, whether Fascism should be antisemitic or the role of the Catholic Church in Italian life? An incoherence that left Mussolini, who was never much of a stickler for consistency, as supreme arbiter. A role he kept secure by arbitrarily moving his preening, intriguing, womanizing and feuding cabal of uniformed henchmen and party apparatchiks from job to job all the way into his bitter gotterdammerung of the Salo Republic, where Mussolini was reduced to being the puppet gauleiter of Lombardy and eventually patheitic victim of popular revenge.

Bosworth does a scholarly take-down of the original Fascist regime, demonstrating the deep propensity for cultural continuity in any society in the long term, even in one under the heavy hand of self-proclaimed revolutionaries and Roman tyrants.

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He must have a long spoon that must eat with the devil

Sunday, September 1st, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- borrowing my title from Shakespeare, though Chaucer and Erasmus said it first ]
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You may or may not like John Kerry. You may or may not like Assad. You may or may not like Mother Teresa, or Michèle Duvalier and Papa Doc. Rumsfeld and or Saddam. GW Bush or Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud. But paired photos of someone you dislike with someone many of us loathe is a neat visual tactic in which the not-so-bad party of the first part is tarred by association with the way-more-evil party of the second.

Does it ever work the other way around, though? is the party of the second part ever redeemed through contact with the party of the first? or even relieved of a few tens or hundreds of thousand dollars for authentic, charitable purposes?

What would I know?

The simplest way in which the two images above can be seen as similar to one another is that each one features someone named Teresa. But that’s not the point.

And I do have to say, that restaurant in Damascus looks pleasant enough.

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Immigration Bill to treat American Citizens as Conquered Subjects

Monday, May 13th, 2013

WIRED magazine so far is the only outlet to report on this nasty Creepy-State digital authoritarianism buried in the cosmically awful proposed Immigration “Reform”bill:

Biometric Database of All Adult Americans Hidden in Immigration Reform 

….Buried in the more than 800 pages of the bipartisan legislation (.pdf)  is language mandating the creation of the innocuously-named “photo tool,” a massive federal database administered by the Department of Homeland Security and containing names, ages, Social Security numbers and photographs of everyone in the country with a driver’s license or other state-issued photo ID.

Employers would be obliged to look up every new hire in the database to verify that they match their photo.

This piece of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act is aimed at curbing employment of undocumented immigrants. But privacy advocates fear the inevitable mission creep, ending with the proof of self being required at polling places, to rent a house, buy a gun, open a bank account, acquire credit, board a plane or even attend a sporting event or log on the internet. Think of it as a government version of Foursquare, with Big Brother cataloging every check-in.

“It starts to change the relationship between the citizen and state, you do have to get permission to do things,” said Chris Calabrese, a congressional lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union. “More fundamentally, it could be the start of keeping a record of all things.”

….“The most worrying aspect is that this creates a principle of permission basically to do certain activities and it can be used to restrict activities,” he said. “It’s like a national ID system without the card.”

For the moment, the debate in the Senate Judiciary Committee is focused on the parameters of legalization for unauthorized immigrants, a border fence and legal immigration in the future.

The committee is scheduled to resume debate on the package Tuesday. 

This provision is flatly unconstitutional, but the Bill of Rights is not held in high esteem by most members of Congress or the largest donors to the Democratic and Republican parties. Big Data  corporations intend to make enormous profits helping advocates of Big Government transform the “normal” of American life into what formally used to be considered appropriate for inmates in a minimum security prison.

Could a far less intrusive scheme be devised to validate employment status? Sure, but that would not hand bureaucrats and stringpullers of the Oligarchy enormous leverage to use someday over every man, woman and child in the United States.

Imagine, you have offended some local worthy with your letter to the editor or your campaign donation to their opponent and suddenly….your debit and credit cards stop working, your employer can no longer issue you your paycheck, you can’t enter any public facilities (the biometric scan rejects you as a “security threat”), the local hospital can’t provide you with medical care (“Access to records denied”). Maybe your driver’s license is suddenly void and the authorities therefore remotely disable your “smart car”. In a keystroke, you can be cyberoutlawed.

To where will you go to escape a powerful person manipulating an omnipresent data system? Or fix a “simple” computer error that is putting your entire life on hold? Or if a hacker gains access to your biometric records?  There are few good and reasonable uses for this kind of system, an enormous number of bad ones and none at all that justify being incorporated into an even a semi-free society.

The digital road to serfdom is being legislated one deceptively presented unread bill at a time.

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