Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Temples and Torture

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
- (Mark 13:1-2; cf. Matt. 24:1-8, Luke 21:5-11)

V. Give peace, O Lord, in all the world;
R. For only in you can we live in safety.

- The Book of Common Prayer, p. 97

Whenever we place our trust in anything other than God to secure our lives, we make an idol of it. The essence of an idol is that it is an illusion: it purports to provide what it can never deliver. “National Security” is a commonplace idol in post-9/11 America, much as it was during the Cold War. In the Cold War period, the chief symbol of this idol was a nuclear warhead. It seems to me that the dominant symbol of idolatry today is the torture chamber.

Much as we were tempted to believe that “The Bomb” would keep us safe by deterring the Communist threat, so now we are tempted to believe that torturing our enemies will protect us from terrorist threats. Those who were unwilling to support the nuclear arms race were branded weak, even traitors. Similarly, those who are unwilling to practice torture are dismissed as naïve if not unpatriotic. Already, the Obama administration is backtracking on its commitments to undo the Bush torture regime, for fear that it will be held culpable for any future terrorist attacks on American soil.

As Christians who pray each morning, “Give peace, O Lord, in all the world; for only in you can we live in safety,” we are morally obligated to question the veracity of the national security ideology. Do we really place our trust in torture, of all things, to keep us safe? How can those of us who live under the sign of the cross possibly do so? Isn’t it an inversion of our deepest commitments, turning the meaning of our most important symbol on its head? That those who claim Jesus, who was tortured and executed by a global empire, as their Lord, would now think water boarding is a great idea, is more than ironic. It is a tragic betrayal of Christian faith.

Of course, none of this is new. In his own day, Jesus’ contemporaries claimed the temple in Jerusalem as the symbol and guarantee of their nationalist aspirations. They believed it was impregnable, the last bastion of protection for the righteous. Those who defended it could never be defeated.

In the face of this religious ideology, Jesus’ claim that not one stone of the temple would remain standing was outrageous. His conviction that the temple’s symbolic deployment to justify violence was idolatrous was an affront to both Roman imperial and Jewish nationalist pretensions, because it undermined the systems of domination, exclusion, and scapegoating on which they depended. If God could not be relied upon to legitimate national interests, then what purpose could He possibly serve? Do we really want a God who showers life-giving rain on both the just and the unjust?

Jesus offers an alternative vision of a God who is compassionate, and whose kingdom is signified not by inviolable temples or torture chambers, but rather by indiscriminate healing and table fellowship. Jesus taught us to love our enemies. I think we can safely say that rules out water boarding, attack dogs, and placing electrodes on people’s genitals. National security was not Jesus’ overriding interest. His ultimate loyalty, and ours, was and must be to a more inclusive and peaceable kingdom.

The truth is that nothing, and no one, can guarantee our security. The good news is that we do not need such guarantees in order to be joyous and free. We need only embrace our vulnerability and common humanity as God’s beloved children, and become willing to be compassionate as God is compassionate. Jesus never promised us a risk-free world. What he did promise is that the risks we take for the sake of the kingdom will never be in vain.

Jesus didn’t seem to have much use for the ideology of either Jewish zealots or Roman imperialists, or for the violence justified by each. What is the difference, after all, between a terrorist and a torturer? Those who trust in the idol of national security, eventually become what they hate. Idolatry always leads to death. The politics of fear inevitably leads to the construction of crosses – and enemies to crucify.

The seeds of compassion, by contrast, always bear new life; resurrection beyond the crosses created to provide the illusion of security. As followers of Jesus, let us renounce safety in favor of reality. Let us see beyond the false choice between terrorism and torture to perceive the blessedness of peacemakers, who are children of God. Let us have the courage to take up our cross and follow Jesus for the sake of God’s kingdom, and leave it to the likes of Pilate to justify torture for the sake of empire.

1 comment:

David@Montreal said...

for another thoughtful, prophetic sermon
only another proof of the very real gift you are to our Church.

love an prayers to you, Andrew and Nehemiah for a truly blessed new year, which finds the three of you continually surprised by joy.