Torture and Eucharist (1998)

It’s important to understand the importance of imagination. Or so Cavanaugh’s book, Torture and Eucharist, suggests over and over and over again. Specifically, Cavanaugh contrasts the state’s imagination and the church’s imagination through the lens of torture and Eucharist. The former being the imagination of the state; the latter being the imagination of the church.

The central thesis of the book, then, is that through torture, the state seeks to disappear bodies while the church, through the Eucharist, seeks to transform bodies into the Body of Christ necessarily making them visible.

The Pinochet regime in Chile serves as the case study for Cavanaugh’s thesis. The regime, while nominally Christian, was ruthlessly and systematically disappearing persons and torturing them behind closed doors, carefully so as to not leave any marks. The effect of this hidden torture was that social bodies collapsed as did individual bodies. Social bodies were dismantled. Individual bodies were withdrawn.

The church too was disappeared. But, as Cavanaugh points out, this was due as much if not more because of poor ecclesiology. The church’s position was that of the New Christendom. Having at least learned some lessons from the medieval conflation of church and state, the church relegated itself to the spiritual realm. Unity, then, was to be found in the nation-state, while souls only were bound to the church. This philosophy allowed French Christian and German Christian to kill one another — unified by their respective states — while their souls could be united in the spiritual realm. Obviously, the New Christendom is still problematic. In Chile, it manifested itself through the church’s stance of not being political. It was instead social — an invented dichotomy, as Cavanaugh points out. At the social level, Christians were to act clandestinely as Christians for the sake of the world. At the political level, Christians were to be good Chileans. Thus the church relegated itself to the state. The church disappeared itself.

The church also left itself without a way to combat torture. Other than rather weak appeals to the torturers to stop torturing.

The church did, however, eventually begin to see that something had to be done. Cavanaugh argues that when the church instituted Committee of Cooperation for Peace in Chile (COPACHI) and the Vicariate of Solidarity, it signaled an ecclesiological shift.

The ecclesiological shift, Cavanaugh argues, was Eucharistic. That is, the church started living out, started becoming, the body of Christ. Central to his argument is de Lubac’s thesis about the mystical body of Christ, the true body of Christ, and the historic body of Christ.

As I understand it, the church in Chile in the early days of the Pinochet regime bought in to the notion of the church as the mystical body of Christ. Again, this had to do with the distinctions in planes—political vs. spiritual. Because it saw itself as a mystical body, the church wanted to maintain hold of peoples hearts, their souls, their interiority. The church would not speak to the disappearance of persons because that was political. The church mystically held together torturer and victim, regardless of what the former was doing to the latter. De Lubac claims that this tendency—that is, the tendency to see the church as the mystical body separating a spiritual plane from a earthly plane—was an medieval reorienting of the notion of mystical body.

For the early church (as well as the early medieval church), according to de Lubac and Cavanaugh, saw the church as the corpus verum and the Eucharist as the corpus mysticum. The historical body was the actual body of Christ in first century Palestine. Instead of experiencing unity through a separation of planes—that is, privatized spiritual unity as opposed to public political unity—the church understood the separation to be temporal, a separation in time among the historical body and the true body and the mystical body. Therefore, for early Christianity, the Eucharist—the mystical body—made the historical body present for the true body. Which is to say that the temporal distance between the historical body and the true body is dissolved in the Eucharist. The Eucharist makes present the very person of Jesus in the midst of the church. The Eucharist feeds the church, and as the church consumes the body of Christ, the church becomes what it consumes—the body of Christ, truly. The church can therefore go forth as the true body of Christ to live truthfully in the midst of the world and for the world. The Eucharist reminds the church that Christ suffered and died for the good of the world. The church must therefore go and do likewise. As Cavanaugh says, the church becomes Eucharist for the world.

This is important. Instead of being a private, interior church, the church must be public and missionary. It learns this through the encounter with Christ in the Eucharist.

Cavanaugh concludes his book with three examples, three practices of the church in Chile living as the body of Christ, living as Eucharist: excommunication, COPACHI/the Vicariate of Solidarity, and the Acevedo Movement Against Torture . First, the church excommunicated torturers. Cavanugh helpfully shows that excommunication is not a punishment per se doled out by the church but that it is instead a recognition by the church that the excommunicated person has already placed himself or herself outside of the church. Excommunication is a discipline of the church to show a person that they have forsaken the unity demanded by the Eucharist. Excommunication allows for reconciliation with the Lord and with the community. Second, the Vicariate was the church’s response to the shut-down of COPACHI by the regime. The Vicariate placed itself as an alternative to the death-dealing politics of the Pinochet regime, providing legal services to victims as well as general, day-to-day-type helps for the people of Chile. And third, the Acevedo Movement was a protest group of victims who came together to make the abuses they suffered visible. Because torture creates unseen victims, the Acevedo Movement tried to support victims by publicly declaring the abuses of the regime, often singing songs or reciting litanies such as the following that Cavanaugh quotes.

The arrest of Juan Antonio Aguirre; and the justice system is silent
They lock him up in Precinct 26; and the justice system is silent
They torture him; and the justice system is silent
The make him disappear; and the justice system is silent…

For Cavanaugh, excommunication, COPACHI/the Vicariate of Solidarity, and the Acevedo Movement Against Torture put flesh on the church as the body of Christ.

So what?

The importance of this book cannot be overstated, especially for Christians in America. Our own recent history of sanctioning torture must be addressed. And to the extent that Christians were responsible, we must repent, be reconciled, and find unity with victims of torture. American Christianity is deeply interiorized, by and large. American Christianity has disappeared itself, desiring Jesus be a personal (read: private) Lord and Savior while allowing the state to be a public lord and savior. Abuses result and we are culpable.

As I said at the beginning, imagination is central. Will we continue imagining Christianity and the encounter with Jesus at the Eucharistic table to be an interior, private, personal encounter? Or will we imagine the Eucharist forming us into the self-emptying body of Christ united with the historical body of Christ, resurrected and seated at the right hand of the Father?

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