Torture and Theology of the Cross


  • John F. Hoffmeyer

    1. John Hoffmeyer is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. He is currently at work on a book on trinitarian theology and consumer culture.
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Abstract:  A theology of the cross must (1) connect Christ's cross with the reality of torture, and (2) differentiate misuse of Christ's crucifixion from its power in the struggle against torture. To meet these tasks, a theology of the cross needs to (1) refuse to separate Christ's crucifixion from his life and resurrection, and (2) recognize that the crucified Christ can only be understood in relation to all Christ's suffering sisters and brothers.

Visiting the UCA

While working for the Salvadoran Lutheran Synod in 1992, I visited for the first time the Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas,” commonly known as the UCA. For many people around the world, the university is best known for the UCA martyrs. On November 16, 1989, Salvadoran military personnel invaded the university and murdered six Jesuit professors, the cook for one of the Jesuit communities at the school, and her daughter. Sadly, the murders were the latest in a long line of human rights abuses perpetrated by the U.S.-backed government forces.

When you enter the UCA chapel, you see a cross flanked by painted panels behind the altar front and center. The colorful images on the panels and on the cross itself are mostly images of joy and hope, although there are also images of militant death. Overall one could say that the artwork depicts in joyful confidence the ultimate victory that Christian faith claims for the God of life over the idols of death.

On the two sides of the front of the church are tributes and memorials to the UCA martyrs. On my first visit to the chapel I spent a long time studying the artwork, the poetry, the religious symbolism across the front of the church. Finally I turned to go. Only as I moved toward the door did I notice the back of the chapel. There hung fourteen very large drawings. They are outline sketches, black on a white background. Each depicts a victim of torture or execution (or both). My initial reaction was mixed. I appreciated the value of drawing public attention to the grave abuse of human rights that had gone on for years in El Salvador. My own presence in the country was part of an effort to protect human rights. Yet I also felt at first that such gruesome scenes were in dubious taste in a church. They were true, but they were shocking, even offensive.

I turned back for another look at the front of the church. There over the altar stood the cross. Suddenly the obvious broke through and redefined the setting around me. Jesus bore gruesome wounds just like the figures in the drawings across the back of the chapel. The cross was an instrument of torture. Indeed there were specifically fourteen of the drawings because they were that chapel's version of the stations of the cross, so frequently depicted in Roman Catholic churches. Like the persons represented in the drawings that had shocked me, Jesus was tortured.

Jesus, a Torture Victim

The explicit statement that Jesus was tortured is unusual, at least in my experience of nearly fifty years of life as a Christian in the United States. As my own reaction at the UCA chapel demonstrates, it is not just that the explicit wording is unusual. The substance of the statement may also be surprising. Philip E. Stoltzfus begins his 2004 article “A Passion for Torture: Jesus, Mel Gibson, and Abu Ghraib” with the following words:

How much was Jesus tortured? The gospels are not in agreement on the issue. The writer of Luke adopts the most minimal strategy—only one verse mentions torture: “Now the men who were holding Jesus began to mock him and beat him” (Luke 22:63, cf. Matthew 26:67; Mark 14:65; John 18:22). The other three gospel writers add to this a second verse, stating, in a later incident, that Pilate had Jesus “flogged” (Mark 15:15; Matthew 27:26; John 19:1). Mark and Matthew go still further to suggest a third scene: “They struck his head with a reed” (Mark 15:19, Matthew 27:30). As far as the textual evidence goes, though, that is the extent of it.1

The extent of it? After this careful comparative cataloguing of abusive treatments described in one or another canonical gospel, Stoltzfus omits the crucifixion itself as torture.

There is no need to argue the case that crucifixion is torture. A person executed by crucifixion suffers the horrendous torment of slow asphyxiation. If the victim is attached to the cross by nails driven through the flesh, that causes additional brutal pain. In his classic study of crucifixion, Martin Hengel titles one of his chapters “Crucifixion as a ‘Barbaric’ Form of Execution of the Utmost Cruelty.”2 Indeed the original title of Hengel's German article is a phrase from a Latin version of Origen's commentary on Matthew: mors turpissima crucis—“the foulest death, the death of the cross.”3 Hengel's study concludes with his reason for studying ancient crucifixion in the first place. He argues that the concrete death of Jesus, a “cruel and contemptible” death, “represents a scandal which people would like to blunt, remove or domesticate in any way possible.” Hengel hoped that thinking about “the harsh reality of death on the cross” would help to overcome an “acute loss of reality” in theology.4

The reality to which Hengel exhorted theology to attend soon intersected his article in a terrible way. Hengel's study originally appeared in a Festschrift for the great New Testament scholar Ernst Käsemann in 1976. That same year, the Argentinian military, inspired by the example of the military coup that had occurred in neighboring Chile three years earlier with the active support of the CIA, overthrew their country's government and established a military dictatorship that made torture a standard feature of its governance. Käsemann's daughter Elisabeth had been a social worker in Argentina for the better part of a decade. With the installation of the military dictatorship, she aided people seeking to avoid its claws, providing forged papers so that people could flee the country. In 1977 she was “disappeared” by security forces, tortured, and eventually executed. When the English translation of Hengel's long article appeared as a self-standing book later that same year, Hengel drew the connection between Golgotha and the torture chambers of Argentina, dedicating the new book to Elisabeth Käsemann.

Like the torture and murder of Elisabeth Käsemann, the torture and murder of who knows how many persons at the hands of the U. S. government during the so-called War on Terror cry out for theology not to suffer an ‘acute loss of reality.’ This article will not detail the lamentable history of legal opinions justifying torture, a U. S. prison camp designed specifically to operate outside the reach of U. S. law, ‘extraordinary renditions,’‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ descriptions of parts of the Geneva Conventions as ‘quaint,’ and the infliction of acute humiliation, deprivation, pain, and death in the name of spreading democracy and diminishing terror. I imagine that some of my fellow authors in this issue will do that, or that an introductory editorial will provide that context. Instead, I shall turn to the most famous location of torture in the Christian story: the crucified Christ. My goal is to think theologically about what the crucified Christ has to do with those who suffer torture today. How does the central place of the crucified Christ equip Christian faith to work effectively against torture? Does the central place of the crucified Christ also carry dangers for Christian faith that could undermine effective work against torture?

The Cross as a Symbol of Torture

A first step for such reflections is the one that I have already been trying to take in the opening paragraphs of this article: namely, to remember that Jesus suffered torture. How is it that I could initially fail to see the connection between the torture exacted by Salvadoran death squads and the torture visited by the Roman imperial army on Jesus? How is it that Philip Stoltzfus in his article could simply pass over crucifixion itself as a form of torture? Each in our own way, we provide examples of how the scandal of the cross can be “blunted, removed, or domesticated.” Perhaps seeing the cross so frequently in so many forms, including as jewelry, makes it hard to remember that in Jesus' world, the cross was not a piece of inspirational religious art, but an instrument of torture. Perhaps the polished gold crosses standing on church altars or hanging from jewelry chains so smooth the rough edges of the cross that it becomes easy to disconnect the cross from excruciating pain. Perhaps so many of us use the word ‘excruciating’ for such relatively minor annoyances—like a boring meeting—that we are surprised to notice that the root of the word ‘excruciating’ is crux the Latin word for ‘cross.’

The status and prevalence of representations of Jesus' crucifixion can get in the way of recognizing that it is a story of torture. As Susan Neiman puts it in her book Evil in Modern Thought, “To force a condemned prisoner to drag through the jeering crowd the instrument that will shortly be used to torture him to death is a refinement of cruelty that ought to take your breath away.”5 Near the end of a recent article focusing on Sabrina Harman, one of the military police who participated in and photographed the heinous treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris comment:

Of course, the dominant symbol of Western civilization is the figure of a nearly naked man, tortured to death—or, more simply, the torture implement itself, the cross. But our pictures of the savage death of Jesus are the product of religious imagination and idealization. In reality, he must have been ghastly to behold. Had there been cameras at Calvary, would twenty centuries of believers have been moved to hang photographs of the scene on their altarpieces and in their homes?6

Gourevitch and Morris do not assume that photographic recording is necessarily the best way to convey revulsion at the violence that torture does to human dignity. They contrast unambiguous photographs of gross violence, which “have the quality of pornography,” with pictures that are much less clear, leaving more to imagination, and thus having far greater power to serve as symbols.7 But their reflections do serve as a caution against forms of symbolization of torture that make it possible to forget that behind the symbol is real torture.

Christian Denunciation of Torture

Faced with the ongoing horror of torture in our world, one approach taken by Christians committed to struggling against torture is to emphasize that Jesus suffered real torture. The organization Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT), begun in France in the 1970s and now spread to many countries, describes itself as working “in memory of the Passion of the Christ who endured the horror of torture.” It is the responsibility of Christians “to permit every person not to have to live through what Christ underwent.”8 Sr. Dianna Ortiz, the Ursuline nun and first Executive Director of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC), the only international organization composed completely of torture survivors, emphasizes that Christianity is a religion, indeed the only world religion, ‘founded by a torture victim.’9 The Italian theologian Paolo Ricca says flatly, “We are disciples of one who was tortured.”10 For ACAT, the focus on the fact that Jesus suffered torture places the struggle against torture at the center of Christian life. “At the hour of his Passion, Jesus not only manifested his brotherhood with mortal humanity, he went so far as to make himself a brother of tortured or executed persons … . The denunciation of torture thus cannot constitute merely an option of Christian life. On the contrary, it is part of the very essence of that life, part of what makes up the heart of that life.”11

The Good News of the Cross

The unambiguous account of all four canonical gospels is that Jesus was tortured to death. From a Christian perspective, torture is first of all a human means of rejecting God's salutary presence among us. John 1:14 describes Jesus as the word of God become flesh. In v. 11, John says that the Word came into or among the things that were proper to the Word—proper in the sense that all things are created through the Word—but those who properly belonged to the Word did not receive the Word. From a Christian perspective the most prominent and most revelatory torture narrative, the narrative of Jesus' passion, is the paradigmatic instance of sin, of human failure or refusal to receive the divine, of human enmity toward God. At the same time, that narrative is central to Christianity's account of how God deals with human enmity toward God. For Christianity, the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth—i.e., not an abstract cross and resurrection, but the cross and resurrection of this particular person who lived this particular life and was tortured and killed for doing so—declares the very good news that God is for us rather than against us, indeed so much so that God refuses to be God without us. As Ingolf Dalferth puts it,

With each one of us God's own self is at stake, because in the resurrection of the crucified Christ, God's self-determination is to actualize God's own being not without us or at our cost, but only by way of our own free recognition, and thus in recognition of the freedom of our otherness, thereby taking account of and including our finitude.12

Yet how can the paradigmatic revelation of human enmity toward God also be the revelation of the surpassing goodness of a divine love willing in all vulnerability to stake its very being on us? How do the simultaneous badness and goodness of Christ's crucifixion sit together?

The Cross and the Scapegoat Mechanism

In recent decades René Girard and others who have taken inspiration from his work have pointed to the prevalence of human sacrifice—in one form or another—as a way of establishing or reestablishing social order. A community ridden with internal fractures is able to reunite in opposition to a sacrificial victim, a scapegoat. The victim is typically put to death or banished from the community. In what may at first seem a paradoxical development, the victim enters into the mythic imagination of the community as a divine or quasi-divine figure. This development follows a particular logic. The process of victimization reestablished a unified order in the community. Accurate memory of the prior internal divisions is not allowed, since such a memory would: (1) open the door to a return of similar divisions, since they were never healed, but only supplanted by the unifying power of shared victimization; (2) bring to community consciousness the fact that its identity rests upon a heinous crime. Since it is not permissible to remember how the unified order actually arose, an alternative story emerges, which attributes the superhuman power of founding the community order to the victim, whose cruel and unjust victimization is swallowed in this new mythic identity.

According to Girardian theory, Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection explode the dynamic of sacrificial victimization from the inside out. In Mark Heim's appropriation of Girardian theory, the gospel narrative of Jesus' crucifixion gives an extreme example of disparate and deeply divided sectors of society uniting in the process of making Jesus a sacrificial victim: the Roman occupying military, the native leaders whose power centered around the Jerusalem temple (the group around the chief priest and the Sadducees); the local populace in the streets, which goes from acclaiming Jesus on his entry into the city to denouncing him and calling for him to be taken out of the city to Golgotha for execution; Jesus' disciples, who engage in betrayal, denial, and abandonment of Jesus; a local political authority who is neither a Roman official nor a religious authority (Herod). Yet the gospel story undermines this quintessential story of sacrificial victimization to its very depths. There is no apotheosis of the victim, so that his victimization is lost from memory. Jesus is raised from the dead with the marks of his torture very much present. When the resurrected Jesus appears to the gathered disciples for the first time in John, he shows them his wounded hands and side. In seeing Jesus with his wounds, the disciples are able to rejoice in “seeing the Lord” (Jn 20:20). The resurrected Jesus is a victim who refuses to stay invisible as victim. He does not disappear as a victim into a mythic apotheosis that obscures the historical operations of sacrificial victimization. In this way he throws a wrench into those operations.

The ‘Good Bad Thing’

The resurrected Christ undermines the whole structure of sacrificial victimization in a second way. Jesus is not risen from the dead seeking revenge for the violence perpetrated against him. The resurrection is not a step toward the production of more victims. Rather the resurrection of the crucified Jesus is God's full identification with the victim who says no to continuing the cycle of victimization.

One of the primary strengths of Heim's work is the richness and clarity with which he presents the cross of Christ as a “good bad thing.”13 Jesus' torture unto death was a grotesquely bad thing—an awful example of the mechanism of sacrificial victimization. Yet through it God does something very good—fundamentally unmask and unhinge the system of sacrificial victimization. Heim's great contribution at this point is that he does not just apply the tension of a “good bad thing” to an analysis of the past event of the crucifixion of Jesus. Heim recognizes that the tension of Jesus' crucifixion is a tension that the church must permanently negotiate. There is always the temptation to use the story of Jesus' death not as a rejection of sacrificial victimization, but as a continuation and reinforcement of it.

The paradigmatic form of succumbing to this temptation is Christian anti-Semitism. Christian anti-Semitic use of the passion narratives sees the scapegoating mechanism at work in them, then blames and victimizes ‘the Jews’ for that scapegoating. Heim writes:

The darkness of anti-Semitism goes to the very heart of the revelation. It is not just wrong, but perfectly and diabolically wrong. It makes the very best into the very worst. It makes the revelation against scapegoating the excuse for scapegoating. It does to Jews what was done to Jesus. It makes of the cross an incitement to cast the first stone.14

The historical virulence of anti-Semitism in direct connection with remembrances of the passion of Christ demonstrates the vulnerability of the undermining of sacrificial victimization in the cross and resurrection of Christ. It is always possible for Christians, in the very name of the cross of Christ, to fly in the face of God's saving work in and through the cross.

The ‘Dangerous Memory’ of Jesus' Torture

Jesus' death and resurrection, precisely in order to do their saving work of fundamental liberation from the violence of victimization, harbor the danger of being taken as a story that repeats and reinforces that violence. Response to the cross of Christ must always negotiate this complexity. This insight provides important orientation for theological reflection on the role of the cross of Christ in contemporary work against torture. Learning from Heim's analysis, Christian theology must remember that Jesus was really tortured. Theology must be alert to the danger of mythical abstractions that would block access to the “dangerous memory”15 of Jesus' torture. At the same time, theology must recognize that the memory of Jesus' torture is dangerous in a complex sense. Its salutary danger lies in subverting those powers whose interests are served by sacrificial victimization and torture. Its vicious danger lies in the potential for reinforcing sacrificial victimization by seeing Jesus' death by torture not as a rejection of all sacrificial victimization and torture, but as a divine appropriation of such victimization and torture. In this view, the Son's torture and death are somehow in themselves willed by the Father as a way of working salvation. If God somehow wills the torture of God's own Child—a specter that haunts much Christian atonement theology—then the mechanism of sacrificial victimization, far from being subverted by the cross of Christ, receives its cosmic grounding therein.

There is an important distinction to be made here about what God wills with regard to the cross. Jesus does pray in Gethsemane, “Father, all things are possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mk 14:36b par). The will of the Father here is not some atonement calculus that requires blood, suffering, and death for its satisfaction. What God wills is that Jesus keep living as he has lived throughout his ministry, rejecting the deviations and compromises paradigmatically described in the story of Jesus' temptation by the devil/Satan in the wilderness. Up to this point the gospel narratives have charted the increasing likelihood that remaining true to that way of life will bring upon Jesus horrible suffering and death. It is not the torture and death that are in any direct sense the will of God, but the way of Jesus' life. The torture and death are responses by human beings and human systems to Jesus' God-willed way of life.

Jesus' ‘God-willed Way of Life’

To clarify the distinction between willing suffering and death, on the one hand, and willing a life that might lead to suffering and death, on the other hand, consider the case of Jean Donovan, a U.S. lay missionary who, along with three of her co-workers, was raped and murdered by Salvadoran security forces on December 2, 1980. As violent repression increased in El Salvador, Donovan's family sought to persuade her to leave her work there and return to the United States. Donovan agreed and decided to do so—repeatedly decided to do so. But each time that she decided, she said, she then thought, “What about the children here, the children with and for whom I am working?” She stayed, not because she willed the suffering of violence, but because she felt called to a way of life—a way of life that others willed to meet with violence.

Jon Sobrino divides his major christological work Jesucristo liberador16 into three parts. Part 3 is entitled “The Cross of Jesus,” and includes four of the book's ten chapters, as well as two of its three excursuses. Each of these four chapters shares the general title “The Death of Jesus,” as well as having a specific title of its own. In our present discussion the distinction between chapter 7 and chapter 8 is particularly important. Chapter 7 bears the title “Why They Kill Jesus,” while chapter 8 is entitled “Why Jesus Dies.” Chapter 7 examines the forces that, in their opposition to God's will, visited violence upon Jesus. Chapter 8 focuses on how Jesus' identity and the content of his life in harmony with God's will led him to confrontation with those forces of violence and destruction, and how that confrontation, in indissoluble connection with Jesus' life and resurrection, is saving.17

One of the theologians who has led the way in the English-language discussion of the negative potential of the cross of Christ is Rita Nakashima Brock. She casts light on ways in which Jesus' crucifixion can be used to reinforce mechanisms of violence, both producing more victims and re-traumatizing those who have suffered violence in the past. Sometimes she seems to want simply to disconnect Jesus' torture and death from any talk of salvation. In her article “The Cross of Redemption and Communal Redemption,” she insists that “violence never saves, for it only has the power to destroy or prevent something worse. It cannot create life or restore broken relationships.”18 For Brock, Jesus' “crucifixion is a reminder of the human legacy of violence, not of salvation.”19

Yet she concludes that article by adumbrating an ‘ecclesial soteriology’ with the help of the images from the UCA chapel in San Salvador with which I began this article. In that chapel images of violence are not the sole images, nor are they univocally dominant, but they are certainly prominent. Front and center in the chapel is a cross, to be sure, but it is a cross that emphasizes resurrection. It depicts Archbishop Oscar Romero, risen from the death to which an assassin's bullet sought to confine him on March 24, 1980. Bright colors paint scenes of daily life, including thriving corn plants, the staff of life in Central America. Brock then turns to the painting at the front right of the chapel. At the beginning of her article she had introduced it as:

a large portrait of the two women and six Jesuit priests assassinated at the university by the military in 1989. Behind their faces, the gaunt, bare torso of Jesus hovers in shadows like a protective ghost. His arms extend in the pose of crucifixion, and his thumbs are tied in the characteristic torture method used by the Salvadoran military.20

Now she comments that “Jesus hovers over the risen martyrs, as if to say, ‘Whatever the terrorists of the world may do, God has gone before us and is with us always.’ This accompaniment, too, is a sacred task of the church, its pastoral work of giving comfort, of facing pain with compassion and care.”21

In a third step, Brock turns to the brutal images of the stations of the cross. She names their subject for what it is: torture and murder. The images “invoke outrage at carnage, sorrow for loss, resolve to hold fast to the truth of what happened, and commitment to stop such injustice.” They call the church to another dimension of its sacred word: “to shelter truth and accurate, integrative memory, to raise prophetic voices against injustice and violence, and to organize communities to resist the principalities and powers of this world.”22

Despite her clear insistence that violence itself never saves, Brock values all three sets of images. Each is important; there is no master image or master concept that sums them up. “The three sets of images do not harmonize well. Their styles clash. They allow no easy integration, no cheap reconciliation.”23 Each set of images is indispensable, in its difference from and in its interaction with the others.

I interpret Brock this way. She is warning against a fixation on violence and against forms of Christianity that make Jesus' violent death their center, pushing his life, both pre-cross and resurrected, into the background. What she seems to appreciate about the UCA chapel is the dynamic tension of crucifixion and resurrected life, and the fact that salvation is depicted communally, ecclesially, rather than overwhelmingly concentrated on Jesus as an individual.

The ‘Crucified People’

What I find particularly interesting about Brock's article is that, although it charts what she sees as a historical decline from the early centuries of Christian art, which emphasized resurrection life, to an increasing obsession with Jesus' torture and death, it has as its framework an appreciation of the UCA chapel art, which refuses to let anyone forget the crucified Christ, and refuses to let anyone separate the crucified Christ from those whom one of the UCA martyrs, Ignacio Ellacuría, called the “crucified people”24 today. Although Mark Heim does not use Ellacuría's language of crucified people, one of Heim's central points about how Jesus' death and resurrection are saving is that they keep Jesus visible as victim, and thereby have the power to keep all victims or potential victims of sacrificial violence visible. As Heim puts it, God made use of our terrible practice of sacrificial victimization “so that victims of such acts would never be invisible—they look too much like Jesus.”25 The connection between Jesus and other victims of torture was the inspiration for an organization mentioned earlier in this article, Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture. Tullio Vinay, an Italian pastor returning from the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, planted the seed that turned into ACAT when he asked, “How long will we Christians keep allowing the face of Christ to be disfigured without reacting?”26

At the same time, the fact that other victims ‘look like Jesus’ can tragically serve to reinforce sacrificial victimization and torture. We have already heard Heim's insistence that God's turning the mechanism of sacrificial victimization against itself is always vulnerable to being perverted into a reinforcement of that very mechanism. Christian theologies that say too quickly and too simply that Jesus ‘had to suffer and die’ for our salvation risk losing their critical edge against processes of victimization. In the extreme form, such a theological approach could suggest that of course the victims look like Jesus, because he was the great cosmic victim. His suffering was necessary to accomplish a great good; perhaps their suffering, unpleasant as it is, is also necessary to accomplish an important good.

Standing in Solidarity with the Tortured

In recent years many Christians have found ethical orientation by asking, “What would Jesus do?” Growing out of this question is the more specific question, “Whom would Jesus torture?” It is a very important question. Can we imagine Jesus torturing anyone? Can we imagine Jesus standing by and tolerating or even approving the torture of any human being?

This article has been working in from the other side, as it were. Rather than a counterfactual imagination of Jesus in the shoes of a torturer, this article has been considering Jesus as torture victim. Paolo Ricca says it very well:

In becoming human, God chose, in Jesus, the condition of one who was tortured, not that of the torturer. We are called to be, or to become, the community of that one who was tortured. This means, of course, discerning in every tortured human being the features of Jesus whipped and mocked, according to the paradigm of Matthew 25, to which one could add a verse: “I was tortured, and you gave me help and relief.” And if we asked him, “When did we see you tortured?,” he would answer us, “As often as you have given relief or deliverance to a tortured person, you have done so unto me.”27

The incarnation is not just the assumption of human flesh in the abstract, but flesh that is vulnerable to torture, and that in all too many particular cases has been subjected to torture.

In identifying the tortured Jesus with every one who suffers torture, it is important to think about the nature of that identification. The just-cited story of the sheep and the goats from Mt 25:31–46 provides essential orientation in this task. In the story the king praises some of the people for their acts of compassion and solidarity by saying, “I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink,” etc. (vv. 35–36). Those who are praised reply that they never did such things for the king. He assures them, “Inasmuch as you did it unto one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me” (v. 40). Those who are blessed by the king were not making any conscious connection with the king in their acts of compassion and solidarity. They were not treating the hungry persons they encountered as opportunities to serve the king or to be in contact with the king. Their response to the hungry persons they encountered was simply that: a response to hungry persons they encountered. It is precisely in honoring these persons, “the least of these,” without disrespecting them by treating them as stepping stones to service of the king, that the characters in the story call forth the king's praise. They relate to the king in the best possible way by, in a sense, forgetting about the king and giving their attention to the person in need whom they encounter.

Similarly, the identification of Jesus with every person who is tortured is in no way an invitation to treat persons who suffer torture as stand-ins for Jesus. Their individual value and identity is not secondary to that of Jesus. They are not just means to the end of seeing or encountering Jesus. In an important if perhaps paradoxical sense, the appropriate relation to the tortured Christ today is to forget about Jesus and to stand in solidarity and compassion with persons in our world who are suffering torture today, and to stand in opposition to the ongoing practice of torture. Precisely because torture is such a basic assault upon human dignity, it is especially important that a Christian theological identification of Jesus with those who suffer torture not end up being an affront to the specific dignity of each tortured person, reducing him or her to another “instance” of Jesus suffering in every age.

Shared Embodiment with the Tortured

Some readers might object that my talk of ‘forgetting about Jesus’ goes too far. After all, we have heard the story of the sheep and the goats, so we know that in standing with those who suffer torture, we stand with Jesus. It is important to remember, though, that the story does not praise Christian readers of the story who draw christological connections. It praises people who feed a hungry person and who do so without making the connection that they are feeding the king (in the story itself) or Christ (in standard Christian interpretation).

The profound insight of Mt 25 runs in the other direction as well. Just as encounter with “the least of these” is always also encounter with Christ, it is impossible to encounter Christ without encountering “the least of these.” The fact that Christians so often seek such disconnected encounter with Christ is not evidence against the claim I have just made, but testimony to the pervasiveness of sin, including in what Christians claim as encounters with Christ. Paola Ricca, whose brilliant short essay on Christian faith and torture I have already cited more than once, draws out the implications for Christian engagement with those who suffer torture.

Communion with Jesus, the axis around which all Christian existence turns, brings with it communion with every tortured human being. Because Jesus never comes alone. He is accompanied. One can not have him without having, along with him, his company, his community. Jesus is with the tortured person before being with us. The tortured person precedes us into the community of Jesus. The tortured person is already there, Jesus' traveling companion. It is thus not simply a question of seeing in the other who is tortured the features of Jesus, but of understanding how the connection between Jesus and the tortured person affects our connection with Jesus, of understanding that being the body of Christ, as Church, means being one body with tortured humanity.28

This recognition of shared embodiment is already a tremendous step against the heinous reality of torture. As William Cavanaugh argues in his very important book Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, torture aims at breaking not just individual bodies, but social bodies. Torture works for atomization, seeking to turn its victims into “isolated monads,”29 convinced that they are fundamentally alone in this world. As the torturers of Sr. Dianna Ortiz told her, “No one gives a damn about you.”30 Actually, aloneness is not quite the right concept to describe the brutality. Those who suffer torture wish with all their heart that their torturers would leave them alone. The problem is that torture seeks to make the sufferer feel that she or he has no one else that matters except the torturers. As Cavanaugh points out, torture is so traumatic not just because it is intense suffering, but because of “the realization that this is being done to me by another human being. It is a perversion and destruction of the very idea of human relationship.”31 At the heart of the letter-writing campaigns for which Amnesty International is famous has always been the desire to communicate to political prisoners—who are so often tortured or threatened with torture—that they are not alone, or alone with their torturers, that other human beings care about them.

Knitting Together a Social Body of Resistance

Perhaps the reference to Amnesty can serve as a cue for turning in closing to some practical possibilities for engaging in the vocation of working for the abolition of torture. In the face of the profoundly atomizing aims of torture, knitting together a social body of resistance to torture is of paramount importance. A central element of the wisdom of Cavanaugh's book is the appreciation of the eucharistic body of Christ as diametrically opposed to the atomization of torture. Of course, eucharistic living for the abolition of torture can not stop at the still somewhat abstract opposition between community and atomization. The language of “body of Christ” makes clear that eucharistic community is embodied community, and bodies are always concrete, traveling with or against concrete currents of power. Cavanaugh details concrete forms of eucharistic practice of the Roman Catholic Church in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship. The church hierarchy excommunicated torturers, thereby recognizing that torture's assault on personal bodies had put those who practiced torture fundamentally at odds with the body of Christ.32 The church wove together a eucharistically-based fabric of “programs covering legal and medical assistance, job training, soup kitchens, buying cooperatives, assistance to unions,” etc.—a social fabric in the face of the atomization of torture.33 Members of the church made their bodies visible and audible in public demonstrations against torture, even going to those locations where they knew government forces were practicing torture.34

Churches could also learn from the artwork at the UCA chapel about showing the connections between the tortured Jesus and people tortured today. One step is simply to remember that Jesus was tortured. Sermons, eucharistic prayers, and other references to Jesus' passion can sometimes explicitly use the word ‘torture.’ Another step is to remember persons tortured today. Pray for them. Have congregational letter-writing sessions on their behalf: for example, for the repeal of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, with its various provisions that tolerate or hold the door open to torture. Include in the church budget a contribution to a treatment program for those who have suffered torture, such as the Center for Victims of Torture. A third step is to make explicit the connections between persons tortured today and Jesus. Prayers for those who suffer torture today can sometimes recall that Jesus, too, was tortured.

Some of the suggestions in the preceding paragraph follow on Mark Heim's argument that Jesus' death and resurrection make victimization visible. Since this is the case, part of the work of the church is to participate in making victims visible, not letting them be forgotten or ignored. At the same time, the resurrected Christ is not only a victim. He lives, embodying hope even on the other side of torture. An important part of the church's work is to listen to torture survivors. Rather than confining them to the status of victims, the church needs to listen to them as survivors, to learn from them, to let them be our guides. A good place to start is the website of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC)— A next step might be to invite someone from TASSC's Truth Speakers program.


  • 1

    Philip E. Stoltzfus, “A Passion for Torture: Jesus, Mel Gibson, and Abu Ghraib,”Mennonite Life 59, no. 2 (June 2004),, accessed 4/30/2008.

  • 2

    Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM Press, 1977), 22.

  • 3

    Martin Hengel, “Mors turpissima crucis: Die Kreuzigung in der antiken Welt und die ‘Torheit’ des ‘Wortes vom Kreuz’,” in Rechtfertigung: FS Ernst Käsemann, ed. Johannes Friedrich, Wolfgang Pöhlmann, and Peter Stuhlmacher (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1976), 125–84.

  • 4

    Hengel, Crucifixion, 90; Hengel, “Mors turpissima crucis,” 181; translation slightly altered.

  • 5

    Cited in John Perry, S.J., Torture: Religious Ethics and National Security (Ottawa: Novalis, 2005), 17.

  • 6

    Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris, “Exposure,”The New Yorker, 24 March 2008, 57.

  • 7

    Gourevitch and Morris, “Exposure,” 57.

  • 8

    “En mémoire de la Passion du Christ qui a enduré l'horreur de la torture”; “permettre à tout homme de ne pas vivre ce que le Christ a subi” (, accessed 5/3/2008).

  • 9

    Sr. Dianna Ortiz, “The Color of God,”Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, vol. 4, no. 2 (Fall 2004): 195–202, 201.

  • 10

    “Nous sommes les disciples d'un torturé” (Paolo Ricca, “Au coeur du questionnement sur le lien entre foi chrétienne et lutte contre la torture: Chrétienne, l'ACAT?,”ACAT Courrier, December 2005,, accessed 4/8/2007).

  • 11

    À l'heure de la Passion, Jésus n'a pas seulement manifesté sa fraternité avec l'humanité mortelle, il est allé jusqu'à se faire frère des personnes torturées ou exécutées . … La dénonciation de la torture ne saurait donc constituer une option facultative de la vie chrétienne. Elle participe au contraire à l'essence même de cette vie, à ce qui en fait le coeur” (, accessed 5/3/2008).

  • 12

    “Mit jedem von uns steht Gott selbst auf dem Spiel, weil er sich in der Auferweckung des Gekreuzigten dazu bestimmt hat, sein eigenes Sein nicht ohne uns oder auf unsere Kosten, sondern allein auf dem Weg der freien Anerkennung durch uns und damit in Anerkennung der Freiheit unseres Andersseins und unter Berücksichtigung und Einbeziehung unserer Endlichkeit zu verwirklichen” (Ingolf U. Dalferth, Der auferweckte Gekreuzigte: Zur Grammatik der Christologie[Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1994], 160).

  • 13

    S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2006), 108.

  • 14

    Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, 210.

  • 15

    The oft-quoted phrase is from Johannes Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Fundamental Theology, trans. David Smith (New York: Crossroads, 1980), 88–99.

  • 16

    The English translation is entitled Jesus the Liberator, but the Spanish title harbors a rich ambiguity. The word liberador is both an adjective and a substantive: both “liberative” and “liberator.” Sobrino's book presents both “Jesus Christ, Liberator” and a “liberative Jesus Christ” (as opposed to misrepresentations of Christ that obscure his liberating action and effect).

  • 17

    Jon Sobrino, Jesucristo liberador: Lectura histórica-teológica de Jesús de Nazaret (San Salvador: UCA Editores, 1991).

  • 18

    Rita Nakashima Brock, “The Cross of Resurrection and Communal Redemption,” in Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today, ed. Marit Trelstad (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 242.

  • 19

    Brock, “The Cross of Resurrection,” 249.

  • 20

    Brock, “The Cross of Resurrection,” 241. I do not see the painting in quite the same way. Although the arms are outstretched, the palms are not, which they would be in a typical crucifixion pose. Moreover, the thumbs are no longer tied together (if they were, the arms could not be outstretched). Trailing cords now hang free from the thumbs, suggesting that the thumbs were bound before, but no longer. This, along with the fact that the torso is framed by the most light in the entire painting, are the two strongest features suggesting a resurrection reading. The fact that the naked, wounded torso is accompanied by a blindfold still intact over the eyes calls a resurrection reading into question.

  • 21

    Brock, “The Cross of Resurrection,” 251.

  • 22

    Brock, “The Cross of Resurrection,” 251.

  • 23

    Brock, “The Cross of Resurrection,” 251.

  • 24

    Ignacio Ellacuría, “El pueblo crucificado: Ensayo de soteriología histórica,” in Escritos teológicos, Colección Teología Latinoamericana 26 (San Salvador: UCA Editores, 2000), 137–70.

  • 25

    S. Mark Heim, “Saved by What Shouldn't Happen: The Anti-Sacrificial Meaning of the Cross,” in Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today, ed. Marit Trelstad (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 224.

  • 26, accessed 5/5/08.

  • 27

    “En devenant homme, Dieu a choisi, en Jésus, la condition du torturé, non pas celle du tortionnaire. Nous sommes appelés àêtre, ou à devenir, la communauté de ce torturé-là. Cela veut dire, bien sûr, discerner dans chaque humain torturé les traits de Jésus fouetté et raillé, selon le paradigme de Matthieu 25, auquel on pourrait ajouter un verset: ‘J'ai été torturé, et vous m'avez secouru et soulagé.’ Et si nous lui demandions: ‘Quand t'avons-nous vu torturé?, il nous répondrait: ‘Toutes les fois que vous avez soulagé un torturé ou que vous l'avez délivré, c'est à moi que vous l'avez fait’” (Ricca, “Chrétienne, l'ACAT?”).

  • 28

    “La communion avec Jésus, sur qui toute existence chrétienne est axée, entraîne la communion avec chaque humain torturé. Car Jésus ne vient jamais seul. Il est accompagné. On ne peut pas l'avoir sans avoir, avec lui, sa compagnie, sa communauté. Jésus est avec lui avant d'être avec nous. Le torturé nous précède dans la communauté de Jésus. Le torturé est déjà là, compagnon de route de Jésus. Il ne s'agit donc pas seulement de voir dans l'autre torturé les traits de Jésus, mais de comprendre combien le lien entre Jésus et le torturé affecte notre lien avec Jésus, de comprendre qu'être, comme Église, le corps du Christ veut dire faire corps avec l'humanité torturée” (Ricca, “Chrétienne, l'ACAT?”).

  • 29

    William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 34.

  • 30

    Quoted in Victoria Lee Erickson, “Book Review of The Blindfold's Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth,”The Christian Century, 25 January 2003,, accessed 4/30/2008.

  • 31

    Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, 43, emphasis in original.

  • 32

    Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, 253–64.

  • 33

    Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, 264–73, quotation from 264.

  • 34

    Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, 273–77.