Readings for 4th Sunday of Advent: 2nd SAM 7:1-5, 8-12, 14A, 16; PS 89: 2-5, 27-29; ROM 16: 25-27; LK 1: 21-38 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/122114.cfm
Strange that according to a poll last week, more than half the “American” people think torture is permissible. I say “strange” because nearly 80% of Americans consider themselves “Christian.” And Jesus himself was a victim of torture. On the other hand, can you imagine Jesus torturing anyone?
You’d think the similarities between the Romans’ treatment of Jesus and the “Americans’” treatment of countless innocent victims would make devout Christians less accepting of torture. Maybe they’d oppose torture on principle, as a matter of faith.
Or perhaps it’s that they just agree with ex-VP, Dick Cheney. After all, he wouldn’t consider “torture” what the Romans’ enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) did to Jesus – not the prolonged beating we all witnessed portrayed in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” not the crowning with thorns, not forcing a beaten man to carry his own instrument of execution, not driving nails into his hands and feet, not leaving him for hours struggling for breath on a cross whose chief agony was bringing the victim to the point of asphyxiation (like waterboarding) and beyond.
According to Mr. Cheney, that punishment would have crossed the line to torture only at the point when death proved imminent. Unfortunately, as with untold (literally) victims of U.S. enhanced interrogation, that line was crossed in the case of Jesus.
But in the end, as supporters of U.S. Empire, “American” Christians probably understand and forgive what the Romans did. After all, like its U.S. counterpart, the Roman Empire was under siege on all sides. And the Jews were particularly rebellious. And Jesus (in Roman eyes) gave every indication of leading a rebellion. An empire’s got to do what an empire’s got to do – even if it means killing the innocent like Jesus.
I think however that there’s something more than compassion failure at work here. The “more” is the power of propaganda. That’s something addressed in today’s liturgy of the word. There the author of 2nd Samuel whitewashes the brutal King David and turns him from something like a mafia don into a national hero. In today’s gospel selection, even the evangelist, Luke buys the distortion. He makes Jesus the successor of David.
I’ll get to that in a moment. But let me first finish with the torture document. You see, (as Glen Greenwald has pointed out) it’s no wonder that “Americans” can’t identify with the tortured much less connect them with Jesus.
That’s because since the Report’s release on December 9th, the mainstream media (MSM) has treated us to an endless parade of torturers and torture enablers explaining away the conclusions of the Senate’s years-long study. We haven’t heard a word from the victims of torture or from the families of those whose sons and daughters were killed at the hands of sadistic representatives of our government.
The result of this one-sided silencing of the victims has been to rob them of their humanity – of their very existence. Given the deafening silence, why would we feel compassion for people who don’t even exist? Out of sight, out of mind.
Imagine how better informed we’d be if on “Meet the Press” or somewhere Mr. Cheney had to defend his policies against his victims – many of whom, Greenwald reminds us (because he has interviewed them) are incredibly articulate. Perhaps the victims might suggest waterboarding the ex-VP to see if he really believes that practice doesn’t sink to the level of torture.
According to University of Wisconsin –Madison Professor Alfred McCoy (the author of Torture and Impunity) this erasure of victims is all part of a five-stage policy on the question of torture. After the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2004, the first step was identifying the low level perpetrators with “bad apples.” The second stage kept rumors of more widespread torture at bay in the name of national security. Thirdly, President Obama adopted the “let’s look forward, not backward” approach. Fourthly came the move to exonerate all those guilty of torture or enabling the practice. Finally we’ve reached the stage which emerged last week: vindication before the bar of history of all those connected with U.S. torture.
Again, that’s where the battle has been joined today; we’re struggling over historical narrative. This is the stage all empires come to eventually as their crimes inevitably come to light. It’s what we witness in today’s liturgy of the word and the white-washing of Israel’s King David. The example is instructive. It suggests practical responses to the Torture Report at both the level of faith and political action.
You see, there are really two separate king David traditions in the Bible. One presents the good David, the other, the bad. The good David is the one largely presented in I Chronicles 10:14-29:30. He also appears in today’s first reading from 2nd Samuel and in the responsorial psalm.
This David is pious, and wants to build a temple for God. According to the story, God is pleased, and rewards him with everything a king could want: victory over his enemies, immortal fame, prosperity for his people, thriving descendants, and a dynasty that will last forever.
Then there’s the bad David who begins to appear in I Samuel, chapter 16. This David is a murderous tyrant. He rebels against Saul, Israel’s first king. He’s a womanizer, a murderer and an object of popular hate. Far from lasting forever, his dynasty ends with the death of his successor, Solomon. He’s the David whose death-bed instructions are worthy of any Mafia godfather. To Solomon he says, “Take care of my friends, Sol – and my enemies too (wink, wink). You know what I mean?” (IKGS 2: 1-9)
Besides that, the bad David bastardizes the Mosaic Covenant and its protection of widows, orphans, and resident aliens and turns it into a tool of the ruling classes – from Moses’ “I will be your God and you will be my people,” into David’s “You are my son, the king of Israel, and your dynasty will last forever.”
Of course, the bad David has been swallowed up by popular memory of its competing tradition. David is uniformly remembered by the majority of believers as the man “after God’s own heart.” As I said, in today’s familiar gospel selection, Luke falls into that trap. He makes Jesus (through his foster father, Joseph, no less) the successor of David. And this even though Jesus as portrayed by Luke is no friend of the Temple or of kings and emperors. Rather he is the friend of the beneficiaries of the Mosaic Covenant – the widows, orphans, aliens, prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, Samaritans. His values do not include enemies (much less victory over them) or prosperity, fame, or everlasting dynasties.
Recognizing this struggle over which narrative will prevail sheds light on the Torture Report. It enables followers of the simple man from Nazareth to judge that the struggle even before the bar of biblical history has been won by the likes of Cheney and Bush. It has been won by the bad David.
Our conclusion: we must not allow that to happen as we fight over whose story should prevail concerning the latest revelations about the powerful organized crime syndicate known as the CIA.
So what should we do? Our response should be at two levels.
At the level of faith believers should be exposed to the historical Jesus I’m attempting to present in these homilies. We neglect those powerful myths at our own peril. Even the uninformed can understand them. This means that the Jesus’ story represents a powerful tool for raising consciousness about torture (and other issues of social justice).
It’s true that the MSM might not expose the story of the tortured to that 80% of “Americans” who claim to be Christian. However, if those with the responsibility for explaining the sacred texts assume that responsibility and do their homework, there’s no reason why those wishing to follow Jesus can’t understand that:
- Jesus himself was a victim of torture at the hands of an empire very like the United States.
- He taught universal love.
- He was non-violent
- He said he considers what’s done to the least of the human race as done to him.
- He said we should love our enemies.
At the political level we should:
- Urge outgoing senator Mark Udall (D Colorado) to use his senatorial privilege of unlimited free speech to release the entire unredacted torture document.
- Pressure the media through phone calls and letters to the editor to present the other side of the torture story including interviews with torture victims and with the families of those whose sons and daughters, husbands and wives were killed under CIA torture.