Center for Strategic Communication

[ by Charles Cameron — on torture as the inverse of sacrament: from Palin’s joke to Cavanaugh’s rich theology ]

Soon-to-be-martyred Archbishop Romero celebrates Mass in San Salvador's Basilica of the Sacred Heart


Sarah Palin:

Sarah Palin, speaking to the NRA the other day, said:

waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists

And I have to say that as someone brought up within Christianity with a sacramental view of the world, I found that distasteful.



Tha Haggadah:

In a sprawling online conversation just last week, a Jewish friend pointed me to the Two-Minute Haggadah – A Passover service for the impatient. The Haggadah is the liturgical book which gives the rubrics and prayers for a Passover meal, and is thus in some ways comparable to a Catholic Missal, which does the same for the Eucharist…

Here’s an excerpt:

Opening prayers:

Thanks, God, for creating wine. (Drink wine.)
Thanks for creating produce. (Eat parsley.)


Once we were slaves in Egypt. Now we’re free. That’s why we’re doing this.

Four questions:

1. What’s up with the matzoh?
2. What’s the deal with horseradish?
3. What’s with the dipping of the herbs?
4. What’s this whole slouching at the table business?


1. When we left Egypt, we were in a hurry. There was no time for making decent bread.
2. Life was bitter, like horseradish.
3. It’s called symbolism.
4. Free people get to slouch.

I’ll admit I was a little irritated by that one, too.

Passover is the most sacred meal of the year for Jews, the time when they remember their expulsion from Egypt and all the difficulties — scatterings, pogroms, the extermination ovens — that have followed, and I didn’t want to see the sacred sullied.

But the thing is, there’s wine at the seder — and not just a sip of it, reserved for the priestly caste — and although there are bitter memories and bitter herbs, the atmosphere is in some ways one of family and festival… and whereas Christianity often emphasizes right doctrine or orthodoxy, Judaism seems more interested in orthopraxy, right behavior — and encourages certainly questions, laughter, and hey, dance.

For the purposes of this post, I might put it this way: religion can sometimes take a joke, sometimes not so much.


Responses to Palin:

In any case, Palin made that remark, it drew applause from the crowd, and since it went public, various branches of the conservative US Christian right have raised religious objections…

As I said, I didn’t like Sarah Palin’s remark, but since I’m not part of her natural constituency in any case, I was interested to see whether others might bring the topic up.

It was Gary DeMar‘s American Vision — a Christian Reconstructionist outfit — that sent me the first email, and their comment first quoted Palin’s key phrase –

Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.

— and then commented sharply:

Wow. No matter how bad Islam may be, what Christian would stoop so low as to cheapen and denigrate the faith in order to advocate torturing them?

Rod Dreher‘s piece in The American Conservative was titled The Sacrilegious Sarah Palin. In it, he commented:

OK, stop. Not only is this woman, putatively a Christian, praising torture, but she is comparing it to a holy sacrament of the Christian faith. It’s disgusting — but even more disgusting, those NRA members, many of whom are no doubt Christians, cheered wildly for her.


Palin and all those who cheered her sacrilegious jibe ought to be ashamed of themselves. For us Christians, baptism is the entry into new life. Palin invoked it to celebrate torture. Even if you don’t believe that waterboarding is torture, surely you agree that it should not be compared to baptism, and that such a comparison should be laughed at. What does it say about the character of a person that they could make that joking comparison, and that so many people would cheer for it. Nothing good — and nothing that does honor to the cause of Jesus Christ.

If I thought that kind of hateful declaration and abuse of the Christian religion was what conservatism stood for, I wouldn’t be able to call myself a conservative. Some conservatives do stand for that. They’re wrong, and they should be called out on it — not because some liberal somewhere is going to be offended, but first and foremost because we Christians who identify as conservatives are appalled by it.

I think blasphemy rather than sacrilege is probably the better term for a verbal act, but the two are often and perhaps easily confused…

The Federalist carried the story under the headline, No, Sarah Palin, Baptism Isn’t A Good Punchline For A Terrorist Joke and dug a little deeper into Palin’s theology:

Is waterboarding how we baptize terrorists? However powerful waterboarding might be (and whether or not it is defensible, a good idea or achieves the goals of those who advocate its use), it doesn’t hold a candle to the power of the Christian baptism, as historically understood. Does it deliver those who are subjected to it from the devil, as Christian baptism does? Does it give them eternal life, as Christian baptism does? Is it voluntary, as Christian baptism is? It is none of these things.

Joking about baptism in the context of this aggressive action suggests that we don’t think baptism is as life-giving or important as it is.


Now, it’s also true that Palin, from what we know of her congregational affiliations, is influenced by subsets of Christianity that take a different and far lower view of what baptism accomplishes. They say that it’s mere symbolism rather than means of God’s grace. In fact, that’s exactly what the web site of Wasilla Bible Church says. But I would hope that even these traditions wouldn’t take it so lightly as to joke about it in the context of waterboarding. Or even if it is considered OK to joke about waterboarding being baptism by these folks, I’d hope they recognize how blasphemous it sounds to the ears of Christians who retain the historic and high view of the sacrament.

The Gospel Coalition‘s comments under the title Is Waterboarding How We “Baptize Terrorists”? took a different tack:

Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, author of Achilles In Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, found that dehumanizing the enemy during the Vietnam war caused psychological damage to American troops:

Restoring honor to the enemy is an essential step in recovery from combat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). While other things are obviously needed as well, the veteran’s self-respect never fully recovers so long as he is unable to see the enemy as worthy. In the words of one of our patients, a war against subhuman vermin “has no honor.” This in true even in victory; in defeat, the dishonoring makes life unendurable. (Achilles, pg. 115)

In our attempts to dehumanize our enemy we end up becoming less than human ourselves. It would be a Pyrrhic victory to save civilization and lose our humanity We must never hesitate to defend our culture, our future, and our lives against

Clearly I’m not alone in finding Palin’s words unortunate.


William Cavanaugh:

I’d like to take this a little farther.

I can understand Palin making the joke, thinking it’s just a joke, and I can understand too that it’s difficult for individual members of a crowd that’s vigorously applauding a speaker to suddenly switch from applause to dismay. Having said that…

I mentioned William T Cavanaugh‘s book Torture and Eucharist in a post yesterday, and while it’s not treating of Baptism but of the Eucharist, it presents a view of the Church’s sacramental activity as the polar opposite of torture:

Techniques of torment taught by the master torturers place great emphasis on leaving no physical marks behind. And torture never surfaces, but does its work in the shadowy realm of the disappeared, in clandestine dungeons with no address and no escape. (p. 49)

Cavanaugh’s “case study” here is of Pinochet‘s Chile, the desaparecidos, and the church — and torture, in Cavanaugh’s analysis, by the hidden nature of its atrocities as well as the atrocities themselves, strips the individual of social presence, spirituality, mentality, activity, identity — of everything but pain.

By contrast, Cavanaugh sees the Eucharist as the affirmation of social presence, spirituality, mentality, activity, identity — through the creation of the body of Christ as ain inherently social organism, the Church:

… the Eucharist is much more than a ritual repetition of the past. It is rather a literal re-membering of Christ’s body, a knitting together of the body of Christ by the participation of many in His sacrifice. – (p. 229)

This brings us to how torture and sacrament relate to one another:

If we are to understand properly the workings of terror and the church’s response, however, we must see the strategies of disappearance and torture as ways to deny martyrs to the church. (p. 59)

Disappearance, in other words, removes individuals from society in a manner that denies others the possibility of being devotionally and socially encouraged by their death, by the sacrifice of their life. Thus:

It is not the heroism of the individual which is most significant, but rather the naming of the martyr by those who recognize Christ in the martyr’s life and death. Indeed, what makes martyrdom possible is the eschatological belief that nothing depends on the martyr’s continued life; if he dies, nothing is ultimately lost. (p. 64)

In sum:

Where torture is an anti-liturgy for the realization of the state’s power on the bodies of others, Eucharist is the liturgical realization of Chris’s suffering and redemptive body in the bodies of His followers. Torture creates fearful and isolated bodies, bodies docile to the purposes of the regime; the Eucharist effects the body of Christ, a body marked by resistance to worldly power. Torture creates victims; Eucharist creates witnesses, martyrs. Isolation is overcome in the Eucharist by the building of a communal body which resists the state’s attempts to disappear it. (p. 206)

This brings Cavanaugh to his practical ecclesiological conclusion:

If the church is to resist disappearance, then it must be publicly visible as the body of Christ in the present time, not secreted away in the souls of believers or relegated to the distant historical past or future. It becomes visible through its disciplined practices, but the church’s discipline must not simply mimic that of the state. – (p. 234)


Archbishops Romero and Huddleston:

In the person of Archbishop Romero, pictured at the head of this post [photo via Super Martyrio’s ROSARIUM: a reflection] — famous for broadcast sermons in which he named the names of the desaparecidos, shot and killed in 1980 while saying Mass, whose cause for beatification and sanctification has been approved by Pope Francis — the twin strands of our topic here, torture and sacrament, meet.

And I am reminded again of my own mentor, the [Anglican] Archbishop Trevor Huddleston‘s remark:

On Maundy Thursday, in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church, when the Mass of the day is ended, the priest takes a towel and girds himself with it; he takes a basin in his hands, and kneeling in front of those who have been chosen, he washes their feet and wipes them, kissing them also one by one. So he takes, momentarily, the place of his Master. The centuries are swept away, the Upper Room in the stillness of the night is all around him: “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” I have knelt in the sanctuary of our lovely church in Rosettenville and washed the feet of African students, stooping to kiss them. In this also I have known the meaning of identification. The difficulty is to carry the truth out into Johannesberg, into South Africa, into the world.

Whether we speak of baptism, as in the case of Palin’s utterance, or of the Eucharist, in Cavanaugh’s book, or the Maundy Thursday mandatum in Huddleston’s, the principle remains:

A sacramental view of man is entirely opposite in function to state-sponsored torture, and is thus both its refutation and its cure.