Thursday, August 13, 2009

William Cavanaugh on Torture as the Anti-Liturgy of the Omnipotent State

"It is clear from studying firsthand accounts of torture that the questions do not stand apart from torture as the motive but are in fact themselves part of the enacted drama of torture. It is the form of the answer, or the fact of answering, that is of prime importance: 'We know you are a communist, but we will hang you until you tell us in your own words.' The medieval ordeal used pain to seek truth; the crucial distinction here, in contrast, is not between lies and truth, but between those answers which conform to the torturers' reality and those which deviate. The victims are made to speak the words of the regime, to replace their own reality with that of the state, to double the voice of the state. The state's omnipotence becomes manifest in the horrifying production of power, what Scarry calls a 'grotesque piece of compensatory drama.' Torture may be considered a kind of perverse liturgy, for in torture the body of the victim is the ritual site where the state's power is manifested in its most awesome form. Torture is liturgy — or, perhaps better said, 'anti-liturgy' — because it involves bodies and bodily movements in an enacted drama which both makes real the power of the states and constitutes an act of worship of that mysterious power. It is essential to this ritual enactment that it not be public... The liturgy of the torture room is a disciplina arcani, a discipline of the secret, which is yet part of a larger state project which continues outside the torture chamber itself."

—William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Malden: Blackwell, 1998), p. 30

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In the midst of the horror and profundity that emanate intermingled from each page of Cavanaugh's book, all I can think is that it may be one of the most prescient works of theology since The Politics of Jesus. Just this week I was re-watching Soderbergh's Traffic, and the role torture plays in the Mexico scenes seems taken directly from between the covers of Torture and Eucharist. Some extraordinary work has been or is waiting to be written connecting Cavanaugh's work with Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Jack Bauer on 24, and Errol Morris's Standard Operating Procedure. Such incredible connections to be made between the state of our national culture and what probably constitute as the most hell-like human-manufactured situations in the history of the planet.

Marana tha, amen.


  1. Brad, I read your blog from time to time. I'm also a former Lipscomb student (you attended there, no?), friend of Lee's, was at the Scholars' conference this year, etc. Seems like we have much in common.

    Don't know if you've seen this, but Cavanaugh, as I too hoped he would do, wrote an article for The Other Journal connecting his 'Torture and Eucharist' with the more recent conversation on torture within American foreign policy:

    Andrew Krinks

  2. Hey Andrew,

    Thanks for the comment, and thanks for reading. I sat in on your panel with Billy Collins at Lipscomb, and greatly enjoyed what you had to say. (I would have been front row to your left, the one who asked about narrative and poetry.) I actually didn't go to Lipscomp; I graduated from Abilene Christian.

    Thanks for the link. I also saw a while back (before getting to T&E) that Cavanaugh contributed a chapter to a recent book called Torture is a Religious Issue or something like that. I'm looking forward to his new book next month, too, on religious violence and modernity.

    Glad to see the Amos House Community website; I'll probably email you sometime, especially for matters poetic. Again, thanks for reading, sir. Hope our paths cross again soon enough.

  3. Ah, yes! So glad you were there. That was a fun session.

    Cavanaugh's new one looks great.

    Do be in contact. I don't get to have poetic conversations as much as I'd like to.