Recently, I picked up a newspaper to find an article on page four about a secret Red Cross report detailing U.S. torture of terrorism suspects. On page three, there was an article about Dick Cheney, who did not use the word “torture,” but said that the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” had kept the country safe, and that Obama’s policies would not.1 The recently released memos detailing the justification of torture under the Bush administration has produced outrage on both sides of the political spectrum. On the right, the outrage is directed at President Obama for allegedly abandoning a strategy that kept us safe from terrorists and caused no real harm—right wing talker Sean Hannity has even volunteered to be waterboarded for charity. On the left, the outrage is directed at the Bush administration, with little awareness of the ways that Obama has continued Bush’s policies.

Why does the treatment of a handful of detainees get such prominent attention? Why such grandiose claims on both sides: either torture is the abandonment of all we stand for, or it serves to keep the whole nation safe from destruction? Clearly, torture has an important role to play in how we imagine who we and our enemies are. In this essay,2 I want to examine the role of torture in the U.S. popular imagination, and what a Christian response might be.

In my book Torture and Eucharist I describe the Church’s response to torture and disappearance in Chile, under General Augusto Pinochet’s regime. “Torture” and “Eucharist” denote two different types of enacted imagination. Torture and Eucharist are not imaginary, in the sense of being unreal, but rather are ways of seeing and narrating the world that are integral to ways of acting in the world.

Torture is both a product of—and helps reinforce—a certain story about who “we” are and who “our” enemies are. Torture helps imagine the world as divided between friends and enemies. To live the Eucharist, on the other hand, is to live inside God’s imagination. The Eucharist is the ritual enactment of the redemptive power of God, rooted in the torture, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In my book I describe some of the ways that the Church in Chile used the practice of the Eucharist to resist the imagination of terror and torture imposed by the military regime.

I lived and worked with the Church in a poor area of Santiago under the Pinochet regime. I now work at a university in the United States with a comfortable middle-class identity. The two situations seem worlds apart. But now I see the government of the United States resorting to torture in its Global War on Terror and debating the merits of torture in Congress and in the press.

In what follows I will use what I learned about torture from the Chilean experience and relate it to our own context. I will argue that torture is a way of imagining who our enemies are. I will then explore the Eucharist as the Church’s counter-imagination, a way of resisting the state’s creation of enemies.

The United States and Torture

Let us first look at the facts. Does the United States government torture? A secret Red Cross report completed in 2007 concludes that prisoners held in CIA “black site” prisons were subjected to techniques that “constituted torture.” According to the report, techniques included beatings, sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures, and near-drowning, or “waterboarding.” Techniques used by U.S. forces in Iraq also fit the United Nations definition of torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted by or at the instigation of a public official.”3 Such techniques include hooding and blindfolding, beating with fists and hard objects, sexual humiliation, hanging by handcuffs, sleep deprivation, hypothermia, administration of psychotropic drugs, confinement in stress positions for long periods, and waterboarding.4 Many in fact have been tortured to death: as of March 2005 the official count was 108 confirmed cases of death in U.S. custody in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay.5 More have died since.

Nothing included in the Red Cross report was unknown before. But the document is remarkable in that it is the first official report to use the word “torture” in a legal context. The government and the media prefer the term “abuse” or “harsh interrogation techniques” to “torture.” Much of the debate surrounding what is clearly torture steers clear of the word. The redefinition of torture has been central to the government approach; the government claims that we do not torture by redefining what torture means. The Justice Department memos written under Alberto Gonzales’s direction appeal to a reservation made by the United States as a condition for its ratification of the international Convention Against Torture. The reservation stated that, as the United States understood it, the intent covered by the convention must be a specific intent to torture, and mental suffering must rise to the level of physical torture in order to be considered torture.6

Another memo written by Bush administration attorney John Yoo restricted torture to those techniques that caused pain equivalent to major organ failure. A March 2003 memo by Yoo also argued that criminal statutes against torture don’t apply overseas, and gave the green light to any technique short of causing death.7 Abu Ghraib was dismissed by Bush Administration officials as the work of “a few bad apples,” but the paper trail reveals that the Bush Administration had long been at work on the legal redefinition of torture.8 In January of 2006, President Bush reluctantly agreed not to veto Senator John McCain’s bill banning torture of detainees by military personnel. At the same time, however, he quietly reserved the right to ignore the law under his powers as commander in chief by issuing what is known as a “signing statement.”9 Before leaving office, the New York Times reported on March 2, 2009, the Bush team destroyed 92 tapes of illegal interrogation techniques made by the CIA; 92 tapes, that is, of people being tortured.

Have things changed under our new president? The clear answer is “sort of.” President Obama has outlawed CIA torture and promised to close Guantánamo Bay. But President Bush also said that the United States would not and did not torture. It comes down to how torture is defined, and an Obama administration task force is still studying which techniques will be allowed.10 Guantánamo Bay has not yet been closed, and the administration is still debating what to do with the prisoners there. Will they be allowed access to the U.S. justice system? That’s not likely: the Obama administration has already filed a legal brief echoing the Bush claim that detainees in Afghanistan have no constitutional rights. The Obama administration has also continued to invoke a claim of “state secrets” in a lawsuit over the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program and in lawsuits challenging Bush era wiretapping. As a spokesperson for the ACLU has written about the continuity between Bush and Obama on these issues, “There are some troubling signs that can’t be ignored.”11 The market for torture has not dried up with Obama’s election. Newsweek’s cover story on January 19, 2009 argued that Obama should take cues from Dick Cheney and retain the “flexibility” to make exceptions to the ban on torture in some cases.12

Why is torture so attractive to some? What is torture for? In the popular imagination, torture often works to extract vital information from evildoers. Defenders of torture commonly use the “ticking bomb” scenario: a terrorist who has planted a bomb on a commercial jetliner is tortured to reveal the bomb’s location.13 This is the “Jack Bauer, Torturer as Hero” motif found in the popular TV show 24. In our living rooms, Jack Bauer has electrocuted, decapitated, and smothered people; shattered and ground their wrists; forced them to watch the simulated execution of their own children; and tortured his own brother, and it’s always to heroically to save others. Proponents of torture argue that torture saves lives.

Opponents of torture argue that information should only be obtained without compromising our moral principles. What tends to go unnoticed by both sides, however, is how few cases of torture actually involve the extraction of information previously unknown to the interrogators. In Chile, information was rarely at stake. Torture victims tell of finally relinquishing a piece of information after withstanding days of brutal treatment, only to be told by their interrogators “We already knew.” People were commonly forced to sign false confessions fabricated by the security forces. People said anything to stop the torture. According to one prisoner, “If they wanted you to reply that you had seen San Martín on horseback the previous day, they succeeded.”14 Thousands of people were arrested and tortured who had no connection to resistance against the regime.15 Similarly, a Red Cross report on Iraq states, “military intelligence officers told the ICRC that in their estimate between 70 and 90 percent of the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake.”16 Top U.S. commanders confirmed to the New York Times that they had learned “little about the insurgency” from all the interrogations.17 Former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger’s report states that the Abu Ghraib abuses were not “even directed at intelligence targets.”18 A former interrogator at Abu Ghraib says “I terrified my interrogation subjects, but I never got intelligence (mostly because 90 percent of them were probably innocent).”19 Moreover, FBI chief Robert Mueller believes that no attacks on America have been disrupted by the use of torture.20

It seems, then, that gathering information is only part – maybe even a small part — of the story behind the use of torture. What is the rest of the story? It has to do with fostering a certain kind of collective imagination. In what follows, I will identify four different but related effects of torture in the popular imagination.

1) Torture stokes fear

One significant part of popular imagination is fear, not just among the detainees themselves but in the subject population as a whole. A joke that made the rounds in Chile following the military coup went like this: “A terrified bunny rabbit runs off to the border. The guard who stops him on the other side asks, `What are you running away from?’ He answers, `They’re killing all the elephants in Chile.’ The border guard soothes him, saying `That’s OK, you’re a bunny.’ The bunny answers, `And how am I supposed to prove that?'”21 The joke reflects the popular knowledge that seemingly random victims were arrested and tortured and killed. If “mistakes” were made, then no one could feel entirely secure, and fear could spread throughout the entire society like a virus.

What does this have to do with U.S. torture of detainees? Torture certainly spread fear in Afghanistan and Iraq. But I am interested in its effect in the U.S. popular imagination. The use of torture stokes fear of barbaric enemies. Anyone worthy of torture must be beyond the pale of civilization. Torture is part of the theater of fear. Dick Cheney recently said we have much to fear from Obama’s moves away from torture; we are less safe under Obama because he has departed from the program of “enhanced interrogation techniques” as Cheney and others call them. Does Cheney want torture in order to make us more safe, and therefore less fearful? On the contrary, fear is essential. If we become less fearful, Cheney, like the bogeyman, will resurface to stoke our fears. The tragedy of 9/11 is incessantly invoked, not so that history will not be repeated, but so that – to the contrary – it will continually recur in our imagination. The fear of 9/11 and terrorism in general is kept ever before us, and it is used to justify everything from the war in Iraq to wiretapping to deficit spending.

2) Torture produces enemies

Torture is not just responsive, it is productive. It produces the enemies that a given regime needs. By this I don’t simply mean that Abu Ghraib made the Muslim world hate us, though it certainly did. I am speaking again primarily of the effect of torture in our imagination. As Michel de Certeau remarks, “The goal of torture, in effect, is to produce acceptance of a State discourse, through the confession of putrescence.”22 The omnipotence of the state depends on the manifestation of its other – the Marxist or the terrorist – as filth. The victim takes on the voice of the regime’s ememy, under conditions guaranteed to produce the degradation of the victim to his or her required place in the drama.23 In Chile, such filth assumed an important role in the regime’s morality play; witness one of the members of the Chilean Junta, Admiral Merino, publicly justifying the actions of the regime by referring to Marxists as “humanoids.”24

Terrorists are our humanoids. It is not simply that the demonization of people as terrorists allows us to justify their maltreatment. Torture is a kind of theater in which people are made to play roles, and thereby reinforce a certain kind of social imagination. The Abu Ghraib photos lay this dynamic out for all to see. The detainees in the photos are made to play the role of deviant, of the filth that the terrorist is in the morality play that we call the War on Terror. Hooded, contorted, stacked naked, chained to cages, cowering before snarling dogs, covered with excrement, dragged around on leashes, made to masturbate and howl in pain, the prisoners become what terrorists are in our imagination: depraved subhumans. The imagination of the War on Terror is inscribed on their bodies in a kind of ritual drama, or anti-liturgy.

Torture reinforces an imaginative distancing between us and the tortured. Not only the actual torturer but the rest of society must guard against identifying with the tortured body. The sympathy we might feel toward another body in pain is cut off by the beastly extremity of torture. The tortured person is not like us. As Ariel Dorfman says, if we felt their pain, we could not go on living.25 So we make believe it is not happening, or call it an aberration, or think darkly, “They must have done something to deserve it.”

Wars are about the imaginary dividing of the world into friends and enemies. And enemies must exist in sufficient abundance and sufficient monstrosity if a war is to be sustained. Nothing effects such an imaginative division better than torture, what General Fay in his report on Abu Ghraib called the “escalating ‘de-humanization’ of the detainees.”26 The Global War on Terror would not exist without such de-humanization. In other words, this war is not simply about response but production. It is not simply about responding to enemies who attacked us while we were minding our own business. American foreign policy has helped create enemies for us; the imagination of torture helps to demonize them. The GWOT is part of a larger social production. This war is not simply about oil or weapons of mass destruction or regime change. It is about a much larger imagination of a Clash of Civilizations, of progress and democracy versus archaic oppression, of the beacon of freedom and light versus those who hate our freedoms, of good versus evil, of Captain America versus the humanoids. Torture is this drama of friend and enemy brought to its most heightened realization.

3) Torture makes our leaders seem like they are protecting us

Once the Abu Ghraib photos made it out into the world media, many people saw the episode as a public relations disaster of epic proportions. As subsequent investigations have shown, however, the policy of brutalization was and is systematic; it is approved and justified all the way up to the highest levels of the administration.27 The revelations of Abu Ghraib may have decisively hardened opposition to the United States in the Muslim world, but they did not prevent the reelection of George W. Bush and his administration. Indeed, Abu Ghraib may have solidified support for Bush; Senator James Inhofe declared himself “outraged at the outrage” over Abu Ghraib. Torture is popular, as the fans of Jack Bauer and 24 know. Even John McCain, a longtime opponent of torture, appears to have learned his lesson; in the heat of the election campaign, in February of last year, McCain supported Bush’s veto of a bill banning torture by the CIA. Many American voters are comforted by the idea that the president would use torture to protect us from our enemies.

4) Torture makes us seem more righteous

This one seems very counter-intuitive. Even supporters of torture recognize that torture is bad; that’s why they insist on calling it something else. But listen to Dick Cheney, and you will hear moral righteousness attached to torture, or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” as he prefers. Cheney is on a pro-torture crusade. If we did not think of opponents of Western policies in the Middle East as enemies and backward fanatics, if we thought of them as rational beings, we would have to reconsider our own policies, and consider the possibility that opponents might have some legitimate grievances. The extremity of torture helps to erase such gray areas, not only by reducing the tortured to subhuman status, but also by identifying all righteousness with the torturer. This may seem counter-intuitive, but those who torture tend to think of their work in extremely high moral terms. Torture helps guard the nation against diabolical threats. Torturers sometimes imagine their acts as a kind of moral self-sacrifice on their part – “What terrible things I must do in order to defend my beloved people!” The private motto of the Chilean secret police, was “We will fight in the shadows so that our children can live in the sunlight.”28 It is a dirty business, but those who “take the gloves off” and “get their hands dirty” do so for a higher moral purpose. Indeed, and this is the crucial point, the moral purpose is made more righteous, is pushed to the extreme of righteousness, by the extremity of the act of torture itself. The threat against the nation must be extremely severe if such an extreme procedure as torture is used, and therefore the defense against such threats is invested with the highest moral seriousness. Only the most morally righteous nation could be trusted with the capacity to use torture for a good purpose.

An important part of producing enemies is the creation of a sharp distinction between our virtue and their depravity. The dehumanization of enemies must be accompanied by a magnification of our own virtue and a forgetting of our own sins. Every nation has a version of this dynamic, whereby the friend/enemy distinction can lead to amnesia about the nation’s past sins and amnesty for its current sins. In the United States, this dynamic is known as American exceptionalism, the belief that America’s history of democracy and freedom stands out from that of all other nations.

In the current debates over torture and terrorism, American exceptionalism takes on two forms. On the one hand, we believe that we do not torture. If torture occurs, it is so obviously contrary to our own best interests in spreading freedom that it must be an isolated instance, a few bad apples or, if it is more systematic, it is a recent deviation from our most sacred commitments as a nation. On the other hand, however, we believe that we are an exceptional nation that must reserve the right to use exceptional measures in exceptional circumstances. Because of our unique position as bearer of freedom to the world, our hands must not be tied in dealing with a monstrous enemy. Thus the Newsweek cover story asked Obama to retain “some flexibility” to use more aggressive interrogation techniques in “extreme cases.” These appear to be contradictory positions; one says we don’t torture, the other implies that we must. Nevertheless, George W. Bush managed to take both sides at once. The positions are not so different after all, because they both depend upon a larger common imagination of American virtue.

American arguments in favor of using “enhanced interrogation techniques,” are clearly troublesome to a Christian conscience, but the more benign version of American exceptionalism also leads to a forgetfulness of our sins and a distancing from our enemies. John McCain argued for his anti-torture bill by claiming that what is lost when we resort to torture is “the best sense of ourselves, that which is our greatest strength—that we are different and better than our enemies, that we fight for an idea, not a tribe, not a land, not a king, not a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion, but for an idea that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights.”29 Ironically, then, our convictions about the equality of all people lead us to regard ourselves as “different and better.”30

McCain’s narrative of American virtue relies on a sanitized version of American history. According to McCain, when he was abused as a prisoner in Hanoi, he could count on the fact “that we were different from our enemies, that we were better than them, that we, if the roles were reversed, would not disgrace ourselves by committing or approving such mistreatment of them.”31 As Naomi Klein points out, “by the time McCain was taken captive, the CIA had already launched the Phoenix program and […] ‘its agents were operating forty interrogation centers in South Vietnam that killed more than twenty thousand suspects and tortured thousands more.’”32 This claim is supported by press reports and Congressional probes.33 The truth is that the United States has been involved in torture through proxies for decades. The history of Latin America in the twentieth century is a deeply disturbing tale of torture and other atrocities being committed with the full knowledge, encouragement, and support of the United States. In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, and the Shah’s Iran are U.S. client states that have tortured with full U.S. support. The United States has sent many prisoners to such countries to be tortured, in a practice known as “extraordinary rendition.”

The whole Global War on Terror in which many nations participate depends on this type of forgetfulness. Consider what it means to be fighting a war on “terror.” Terrorism is not really an “ism”; it is not an ideology, but a tactic. If we are fighting a war on terror, then there is no need to consider the ideas, the aspirations, the historical grievances of the people who oppose us. We are simply fighting “terrorists”, people who believe in nothing, other than the blowing up of innocent civilians. History is erased. We have no need of examining, for example, the U.S. overthrow of a parliamentary government in Iran and the installation of the Shah’s brutal regime of torture with full U.S. support. Muslim fundamentalism is simply the irrational source of terror. The Global War on Terror is thus inherently amnesiac. When the enemy is imagined as crazy people who believe in nothing more noble than blowing up innocent people, there is no need to examine one’s own historical sins.

I am not, of course, justifying terrorism or making all acts of violence morally equivalent. What I am trying to do is to understand that the way that we imagine our enemies can cut off any possibility of the resolution of conflict. We can scarcely imagine common life without mortal enemies. Torture helps give us the enemies we so urgently need. At the same time, the friend/enemy distinction tempts us to remember only the victims on our side, and never the victims of our own sins. We thus find it difficult to tell the kind of truthful narrative about our common life on which any imagination of peace depends.


Where do we look for the kind of truthful narrative we need in times of self-deception? In this final section I suggest that the Eucharist is the heart of Christian resistance to torture and terror. The title of my book Torture and Eucharist is jarring because we are not accustomed to seeing the connection. If what I have said so far makes sense, however — if torture is a ritual drama that helps to create the enemies we think we need — then we can see the Eucharist as the ritual drama that helps undo this imagination.


Torture is the ritual inscribing of the state’s power upon a victim’s body. Where else would we look for the Christian response to torture than the ritual remembrance of the death by torture of Jesus Christ – that is, the Eucharist? As Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, the Eucharist is “the sacrifice of the Cross perpetuated down the ages… This sacrifice is so decisive for the salvation of the human race that Jesus Christ offered it and returned to the Father only after he had left us a means of sharing in it as if we had been present there.”34

Consider this extraordinary phrase for a moment: “as if we had been present there,” that is, at the torture of Jesus Christ. What role would we have played? Perhaps we imagine ourselves as friends of Jesus who would, like Peter, say “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” (Luke 22:33). But of course Peter and the rest of Jesus’s friends abandoned him at the cross. Those who were present there at the cross were mostly Jesus’s torturers and the crowds who had shouted “Crucify him!” (Luke 23:21). Who are we but the enemies of Christ?

But this is precisely the point. The sacrifice of Christ overcomes the distinction between friend and enemy. We are all enemies of God, and we have been made friends of God through the sacrifice of Christ. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us… For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:8, 10).

The term “sacrifice” has fallen into disrepute in many circles because of its association with appeasing a bloodthirsty God. In order to avert the wrath of God upon sinful humanity, we are told, the Father required the blood of his only Son. A true understanding of the term “sacrifice,” however, will show that it is based in love, not wrath. For Christ does not suffer the violence of the Father; Christ absorbs the violence of humanity. It is we who torture Christ to death, not the Father. In the sacrifice of Christ, God overturns our normal expectations of justice, such that, not only does God not destroy us for our sins, but God stands in our place to absorb the violence that we ourselves do. In other words, God defeats violence by becoming the victim of violence, thus showing the injustice of violence. The resurrection shows that it is God who has sided with the victims. Christ becomes the universal victim. As the vision of the final judgment in Matthew 25 makes clear, Jesus radically identifies himself with all of the least of this world. Whenever we care for or neglect the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick or the imprisoned, we do it to Christ himself.

Notice that, in Matthew 25, Christ does not merely identify himself with the good people who help the hungry, the imprisoned, and so on. What is truly radical is that Christ himself is the hungry and imprisoned person. If the Eucharist is a participation in the sacrifice of Christ, if we become the Body of Christ, then we too are called not just to minister to the victims of this world but to identify with them. The opposition of them and us, friend and enemy, even victim and helper, is overcome. Violence against the enemy is unthinkable, because we are the enemy. Raniero Cantalamessa says “the modern debate on violence and the sacred thus helps us to accept a new dimension of the Eucharist,” thanks to which “God’s absolute ‘no’ to violence, pronounced on the cross, is kept alive through the centuries. The Eucharist is the sacrament of non-violence!”35


In the Eucharistic rite, the commemoration of the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ spoken after the words of institution is called the anamnesis. This is the Greek word used by the New Testament in rendering Jesus’s command “Do this in remembrance of me” (e.g., Luke 22:19). The Greek word an-amnesis is the opposite of amnesia; it is literally an “unforgetting.” It is an odd term, for how could we forget about God?

Perhaps it is because we are constantly tempted to forget the victims of this world. We contrive to blame the poor for their poverty, or claim that their poverty is necessary for the smooth functioning of the free market. The friend/enemy dynamic has us make martyrs of the victims on our side, and ignore the victims of our own violence. We constantly invoke the victims of 9/11, for example, but we refuse to keep count of the number of Iraqi civilians killed in the current war. Enemies are dehumanized; if people are tortured, they must have done something to deserve it. The forgetting that the anamnesis seeks to undo is the forgetting that takes place whenever violence is justified, for the death of the Son of God on the cross has shown all such justifications to be a lie. This is what Paul means when he says that, in the cross, “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (I Cor. 1:27).

Johann Baptist Metz has written of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ as a “dangerous memory” that disrupts the forgetfulness of the world, what he sometimes calls the “forgetfulness of the forgotten.” The dangerous memory of Christ’s torture and death at the hands of the powers disrupts the march of the powerful. As Metz says, in this memory

the dominion of God among us is revealed by this, that dominion of men over men has begun to be thrown down, that Jesus declared himself to be on the side of the invisible, the oppressed and exploited, and thus proclaimed the coming dominion of God as the liberating power of an unconditional love.36

The dangerous memory of the anamnesis gives us hope that the way things are is not the way things have to be. To take part in the anamnesis is to live inside God’s imagination, in which, as Jesus tells us, no sparrow is forgotten, and the hairs of each person’s head are counted (Luke 12:6-7).

The unforgetting of the Eucharist involves telling the truth. In 1980 in Chile under Pinochet, the Catholic bishops issued a declaration of excommunication for anyone involved, directly or indirectly, in facilitating torture. Of concern were not just the souls of the individual torturers, but the greater sign value of the Eucharist for the Church and the wider society. What could be a greater forgetting than the fact that both torturers and tortured approached the same communion table? Amid the many sins of the military regime, torture was singled out because of its dramatic significance in the imagination of the state. The order of excommunication had the revelatory effect of telling the truth in a society fogged in by lies. Excommunication is not the expulsion of a person from the Body of Christ; it is a recognition that the person has already placed him or herself outside the body of Christ, and it is an invitation to repent and come back into communion.

Before we tell the truth about others, however, the Eucharist is about telling the truth about ourselves. Rather than try to secure the unity of the body by creating external enemies, in the Body of Christ we acknowledge and repent of the enemy within.37 We were present at the cross; we tortured Jesus to death, and we continue to do so. We must be freed from thinking that the only obstacle to peace are the crazy fanatics who mean to do harm to us innocents. We must seek the truth about why they hate us, and we must cease telling ourselves reassuring lies, such as “They hate our freedoms.” In the Eucharist we call to mind our sins and we remember how Christ made us God’s friends despite our best efforts to remain enemies.

Making the Body

The Eucharist is not just about seeing the world in a certain way, but about acting. Social imagination is not merely a mental act. The Eucharist is about the construction of a social body — the Body of Christ — that is capable of resisting the imagination of the state when resistance is called for. In the early Church, the term anamnesis was not a recalling to mind, but a re-membering of Christ’s body, that is, an action that knit together the members of the Body of Christ.

This image is used over and over again by Paul. The idea of individual bodies being members of a larger social body is not new to Paul, but is found in the ancient Greek idea of the body politic. For the Greeks, the idea of a body politic tended to stress order and obedience, especially the obedience of those excluded from citizenship, namely women, children, and slaves. In the Church, by contrast, all these are included in Christ. Moreover, for Paul, “[T]he members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor” (I Cor. 12:22-3). Most importantly, in the body of Christ both pain and joy are communicable. “When one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (I Cor. 12:26).

In this reality of shared pain, we see the distance between friend and enemy overcome. For the sharing of pain goes beyond a sharing with other members of the Church. If the Church is the Body of Christ, the sacrament and sacrifice for the world, then we are to be broken and given away as food for others. The Church is, as Paul says, to “make up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24), by suffering together with the victims of violence. If it is the case that the Eucharist makes the Body of Christ, then the Church does not simply commemorate God’s “no” to violence, but embodies God’s answer to violence in the world. We ourselves prefer to absorb the violence of the world rather than to perpetrate violence.

The Sebastian Acevedo Movement Against Torture in Chile was a group of priests, nuns, and laypeople who took this imagination of the Body of Christ to the streets. At a prearranged time, they would appear in front of torture centers and government buildings, block traffic, pass out leaflets, and perform ritual actions denouncing torture. They made visible in their own bodies what the regime tried to conceal. They were usually tear gassed, beaten and arrested. Their actions publicly revealed the truth of what the regime tried to keep hidden. The repressive apparatus of the regime was seen operating on their very bodies. As one member wrote “If to some extent we share the sufferings of the tortured, He who was tortured by Roman justice and nailed on the Cross accompanies us and we for our part accompany Him, because He identifies Himself with the tortured.”38 The “dangerous memory” of Jesus’ torture and death interrupts the imagination of the state and opens up new possibilities. The movement assumed the communicability of pain in the Body of Christ to reach out to those in clandestine prisons. “With symbolic gestures that expressed our desires, we were able to break the isolation of their incommunication, take their chained hands, embrace their broken bodies. We believe that there exist mysterious channels that can make the solidarity of friends reach those who languish in the deepest dungeons.”39

What would this solidarity of friends mean in our own situation today, as we confront torture? It would mean, I believe, first and foremost affirming our primary loyalty to the Body of Christ and not to the nation-state in which we live. We are Christians first, Americans second. This redrawing of imagined boundaries can have a dramatic effect. It helps us to unimagine the enemies that the nation-state has made for us. The Body of Christ is an international body, transgressing the boundaries of nation-states. In the Catholic Church, we have popes who are German, Polish, Italian, and so on to remind us that the Church is beholden to no national agendas. The 700,000 Christians in Iraq are just as central to the Church as we imagine ourselves to be.

This does not mean, however, that we are only concerned with the welfare of other Christians. Being a sacrificial body means being open to love others, especially our fellow children of Abraham. Our concrete solidarity should be with victims of all nations, the tortured and the disappeared, the victims of bombs in backpacks and bombs dropped from sophisticated aircraft.

Remembering all victims will help us to tell the truth, both about others and about ourselves. If we live inside God’s imagination, we will see that even the people we most demonize as enemies – fundamentalist Muslims, for example – are made in the image of God. Furthermore, they have something to teach us about ourselves. In Roxanne Euben’s phrase, Muslim fundamentalists are the “enemy in the mirror” for the Western world. Our fear of Muslims can tell us what we fear about ourselves. Our charges of irrationality and violence against them can tell us about our own unreasoning fanaticisms and our own violence. Peace will not be achieved by torturing and bombing them into democracy. We have been making terrorists faster than we can kill them. Only by addressing the underlying causes of terrorism honestly is peace possible.

But Christians cannot put too much faith in the nation-state to be peacemaker. To be the Body of Christ means not merely to speak the truth to power, but to live the truth. The Church is the politics of Jesus, and must oppose the politics of the world when it brings death instead of life. We have much to learn from the example of Chile, where the Church eventually realized that the government was not listening, and decided to act more concretely on its own. In our own context, this might mean protest and concrete acts of solidarity with the victims of our violence. It would mean especially that Christians must simply refuse to fight in unjust wars, and refuse to use unjust means.

The world did not change on 9/11; the world changed on 12/25. When the Word of God became incarnate in human history, when he was tortured to death by the powers of this world, and when he rose to give us new life—it was then that everything changed. Christ made friends of us who are enemies of God, and He thus made us capable of loving our enemies as ourselves.


1. Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 16th, 2009.

2. Some of the content of this essay appeared in a different form in my article “Making Enemies: The Imagination of Torture in Chile and the U.S.,” Theology Today 63, no. 3 (October 2006): 307-23

3. General Assembly of the United Nations, “Declaration against Torture,” December 9, 1975, quoted in Edward Peters, Torture (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 2.

4. The main difference is in the use of electricity in torture. Chilean agents used it extensively, whereas U.S. forces do not seem to have used it systematically.

5. “Report: 108 died in U.S. custody,” Associated Press, March 16, 2005 at

6. “Letter: John C. Yoo to Alberto Gonzales, August 1, 2002” in Danner, 108-13, and “Memo: Jay S. Bybee to Alberto Gonzales, August 1, 2002” in Danner, 115-66.

7. “Yoo explains how even if a particularly brutal interrogation might ‘arguably cross the line drawn’ by the law, ‘certain justification defenses might be available.’ Those are ‘necessity’ (the ‘choice of evils,’ the evils being torture and a terrorist attack) and ‘self-defense’ (‘If a government defendant were to harm an enemy combatant during an interrogation in a manner that might arguably violate a criminal prohibition, he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al Qaeda terrorist network. In that case, we believe that he could argue that the executive branch’s constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack justified his actions.’) Just about the only actions that were impermissible and indefensible in Yoo’s eyes, it seems, were those motivated strictly by malice or sadism”; Paul Kiel, “Today’s Must Read,” April 2, 2008, at

8. Mark Danner, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror (New York: New York Review Books, 2004.

9. Charlie Savage, “Bush could bypass new torture ban,” Boston Globe, January 4, 2006. .” As reported, “Bush issued a ‘signing statement’ … declaring that he will view the interrogation limits in the context of his broader powers to protect national security. This means Bush believes he can waive the restrictions, the White House and legal specialists said.”

10. Obama has created a Special Task Force on Interrogation and Transfer Policies, a group of high-level members of the Administration who will be reviewing U.S. interrogation policies and recommending changes. They will decide 1) whether all interrogation techniques will be made public, or if agencies can use a secret set of interrogation guidelines 2) whether all approved interrogation techniques will comply with the “golden rule” standard – that is, whether they would be considered both legal and moral if used upon a captured American, and 3) whether Appendix M is either modified or removed from the Army Field Manual. Appendix M currently allows techniques, such as prolonged separation – or isolation – that can be used to torture detainees.

11. Anthony Romero, quoted in Nancy Benac, “Bush policy leftovers lingering,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 1, 2009: A16.

12. Stuart Taylor Jr. and Evan Thomas, “Obama’s Cheney Dilemma,” Newsweek, Jan. 19, 2009.

13. Bagaric and Clarke. For another example, Alan Dershowitz, Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002). Dershowitz recommends the institutionalization of “torture warrants” to pry information out of terrorists who have information on imminent acts of destruction.

14. Daniel Eduardo Fernández, quoted in Nunca Más: A Report by Argentina’s National Commission on Disappeared People (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), 43. The reference is to José de San Martín, 19th-century hero of Argentina’s war for independence from Spain.

15. Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, trans. Phillip E. Berryman (Notre Dame, In.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993), 902.

16. Red Cross Report, in Danner, 257.

17. Danner, 23.

18. Schlesinger Report, in Danner, 331.

19. Anthony Lagouranis, “Tortured Logic” New York Times, February 28, 2006.

20. David Rose, “Tortured Reasoning,” Vanity Fair, December 16, 2008.

21. Manuel Antonio Garretón, “Fear in Military Regimes: An Overview,” in Juan E. Corradi, Patricia Weiss Fagen, and Manuel Antonio Garretón, eds., Fear at the Edge: State Terror and Resistance in Latin America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 25n5.

22. Michel de Certeau, “The Institution of Rot,” chap. in Heterologies: Discourse on the Other (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 40-1.

23. Ibid., 42.

24. El Mercurio, August 31, 1988, C4.

25. Ariel Dorfman, “The Tyranny of Terror: Is Torture Inevitable in Our Century and Beyond?” in Sanford Levinson, ed., Torture: A Collection (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 9.

26. General Fay, quoted in Danner, 45.

27. For complete documentation, see Karen J. Greenberg and Joshua L. Dratel, The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

28 Constable and Valenzuela, A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1991), 90.

29. John McCain, “Torture’s Terrible Toll,” Newsweek, Nov. 21. 2005.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. Naomi Klein, “’Never Before!’: Our Amnesiac Torture Debate,” The Nation, Dec. 9, 2005. The internal quote is from Alfred McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006).

33. See McCoy, A Question of Torture.

34. Pope John Paul II. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, §11.

35. Ibid.

36. Johann Baptist Metz, “’Politische Theologie’ in der Diskussion,” quoted in James Matthew Ashley, Interruptions: Mysticism, Politics, and Theology in the Work of

Johann Baptist Metz (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), 117.

37. Geoffrey J.D. Holsclaw, “Among other Bodies: On Augustine and a Eucharistic Politic,” unpublished manuscript

38. José Aldunate, “La Acción que Habla a las Conciencias,” in José Aldunate, SJ, et al., La No Violencia Activa: presencia y desafios (Santiago: ILADES, 1988), 5.

39. José Aldunate, SJ, “Por los Cuerpos Torturados… El Movimiento `Sebastián Acevedo’,” cited in Hernán Vidal, El Movimiento Contra la Tortura “Sebastián Acevedo”, (Minneapolis: Institute for the Study of Ideologies and Literature, 1986), 74