I did not remember Sara the second time I met her. She reminded me, without much grace, that we had, in fact, met not that long ago. When we met – for the second time, that is – Sara was two weeks into her orientation for Brethren Volunteer Service, one among the thirty or so volunteers that I was meeting for the first time that fall, one among the seventy or so volunteers I meet for the first time every year.
But Sara was insistent that she knew me already, an insistence on connection that I would find in coming years to be one of the best parts of her fierce existence. And, it turned out, she was right. We had met earlier that year when we sat next to one another at a young adult retreat. She remembered, I did not: another pattern that our relationship would follow for several years.
Sara is one of the hardiest women I know. Adopted from Russia as a toddler, and then adopted a second time not long after arriving in the U.S., she’s weathered three entire families’ worth of abandonment. She tells her story much better than I will ever be able to, and there are whole chapters of which I remain completely ignorant. What I know is that Sara survives, leaving created communities of care in her wake.
Not too long after that second meeting, Sara came to live with me in our church’s parsonage. And not too long after that, she discovered that – through some fluke of neglect or paperwork – her American citizenship was not exactly documented. The discovery led to three intense and absurd years of navigating the cruel, byzantine, systematically dehumanizing bureaucracy of the USCIS. I got to witness the process, and to walk – along with our entire congregation – alongside Sara on the journey.
I have very few words to explain my incredulity in the face of what we refer to as our American immigration “system.” It became clear, over the course of visits, phone calls, delay upon delay and form after form that no one – not a single person – employed by the federal government was interested in listening to my friend long enough to understand what the legal implications of her situation were.
The story is Sara’s to tell, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it even if I tried. Suffice it to say: even as a citizen, adopted as a child, a graduate of American public schools, a holder of several official forms of identification, upstanding member of church and community represented by competent legal counsel, a woman filled with integrity and patriotic love of this place, it still took Sara THREE YEARS to finally stand in a bland conference room with ill-prepared employees conducting an underwhelming ceremony completely inappropriate for her situation and receive the paperwork that allowed her to vote and work and live legally in this country.
We live in Rome. By that, I mean that we live in the center of modern-day empire, the place where power dwells, the nucleus of the perpetrators of unimaginable violence and oppression. Max Weber defined a “state” as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” “Empire” really only means a group of states under a single authority, but its modern-day connotations ring a much more nefarious tone. The word catches whiffs of colonialism, war, totalizing hold over vocabulary and imagination. Simone Weil, in her 1940 essay on the Iliad, talks about an “empire of force:”
To define force – it is that X that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was there, and the next minute there is nobody here at all; this is a spectacle the Iliad never wearies of showing us.
Empire runs roughshod over humanity. It transforms people into things, communities into territories, relationships into commodities. The biblical prophets knew the force of empire – the Israelites were forever having to claim their right to existence as people, as a people. The gospel writers knew it, too. Jesus is always tangling with the authorities, refusing to forfeit any person’s existence to the totalizing power of Rome: not a Samaritan woman, not a woman caught in adultery, not his disloyal disciples. Jesus refuses to relinquish even agents of the state itself, recognizing centurions and executioners as his brothers. Even these are children of God, not instruments of empire.
We live in Rome, in Empire, in the center of all that threatens to deny us our status as beings made in the image of God, sisters and brothers made for community and connection. Mostly, we assume that the physical violence of empire happens far from us, but more and more our comfortable distance is being interrupted by tiny storms of reality. Everybody feels it; everybody knows that crisis is coming, and soon. Empire doesn’t last forever – never has, never will. Totalizing power cannot survive the irruption of the reality of human identity and connection. We feel the end on its way, and – depending where we’re standing – it is intensely encouraging or intensely frightening. Depending on where we’re standing, it might even be both.
I have been formed in a tradition that knows Empire, and knows the wisdom of how to resist its power and survive its reign. I believe that wisdom to be embedded in scripture, and I know the practice of it is part of this particular stream of Christianity that grew me and forms me and keeps luring me forward, ever onward, into the thick of it.
Which brings me to William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist. Cavanaugh writes an ecclesiology, an exploration of the Catholic church under General Pinochet’s reign of terror in Chile. He is reaching for what the church is and can be under the thumb of empire, and the Church – the Chilean Council of Bishops in particular – proves a striking example of both the failure and success of the church’s task of living as an alternative reality in the midst of torture, exile, and society’s dissolution.
Cavanaugh’s understanding of the Pinochet regime is that the general and his forces perpetrated a hidden, secret violence: disappearing its opponents, carrying out torture in psychological and other invisible ways, distancing people from one another psychically and spiritually, wreaking havoc on the bonds that sustain civil society. The practice of torture “atomizes the citizenry through fear, thereby dismantling other social bodies which would rival the state’s authority over individual bodies,” (2).
Since the Chilean torture practices were aimed not only at individuals but also and blatantly at the organization of civil society, our standard appeal to the language of human rights was not sufficient to confront the realities. In this way, the regime created enemies of ordinary citizens, since “to unite for any purpose with one’s neighbors, to participate in a soup kitchen or a sewing circle, is enough to bring one under suspicion,” (38).
In this context of fear, distrust and anxiety, the Chilean church was the only major civilian organization to survive the military takeover. Since Pinochet considered himself deeply Catholic and his reign allied with the Church, he could hardly afford to antagonize it. This alliance, however, made it difficult for the church’s leaders to understand what the dictator was doing, how the people were suffering, and what havoc Empire was wreaking on the country.
Cavanaugh goes into great detail about how the bishops – in particular and as a group – came to the awareness and the motivation to begin offering sanctuary and siding with the people of the country as opposed to its torturous regime, but that is not the part of his argument that interests me the most. I am far less concerned with how the powerful bishops come to conscience than I am with the ways that the church – long before the bishops joined them – was embodying an alternative reality, a community against empire, a body that not only offered social glue and interpersonal relationships but, in fact, served as a bold and effective weapon against a torturous regime.
The Chilean church, both because its structure remained intact AND because it already imagined itself as a BODY – in particular, the body of Christ – was able to resist and repel the dissociative torture of Empire. We ourselves are often at a loss for how to fight the horrors of modern-day empire: war, racism, oppression, slavery. The tactics closest at hand insist that we craft our argument and action around the sacred idea that every human being is, first and foremost, an autonomous entity endowed with certain rights
But Cavanaugh argues that this tactic was fruitless in the face of Pinochet’s regime. We’ve experienced this ourselves, as even a declaration of human rights cannot stop torturous regimes and military coups, Boko Haram and ISIS from tearing us apart from one another. The genius in the Chilean church’s response, according to Cavanaugh, is that “Christians…make the bizarre claim that pain can be shared, precisely because people can be knitted together in one body,” (272).
What in the world does this have to do with Sara, or with my average suburban congregation? Sara’s drawn-out fight with the USCIS was a drawn-out struggle with the forces of Empire. The process threatened not only her ability to vote or work, but her origin, her belonging, her name, her very identity. The USCIS, arm of Empire, tried and tried and tried to turn Sara – living, breathing, blessed and blessing, fiercest woman I know, beloved child of God and member of the Manassas Church of the Brethren and the Body of Christ – tried to turn this precious person into nothing more than a disposable, disregarded thing.
Long before I met her, Sara had become a part of the Manassas congregation. By the time she moved in with me, she’d lived with two other families from the church, joined the close-knit youth group, loved and been loved by dozens of Brethren, and she’d been baptized – three dunks and a prayer, she says – claimed by God and by these particular people. Sara already knew, long before the USCIS attempted to strip it from her, who she was. Sara already knew she was loved, already knew that she belonged.
And it was the church that taught her this. Don’t take my word for it, read it in her own gorgeous poetry. “Manassas,” she writes, “you are exactly what love is.” The USCIS did not succeed in getting the best of Sara. A large part of that is because of who she is, her inner strength, her sense of humor, her simple refusal to back down even in the face of towering absurdity. But another large part is, I believe, because the church, this church, this particular piece of the Body of Christ, assured Sara of who she was, loved her well, and created a place where she was SARA: beloved and loving, blessed and a blessing.
Cavanaugh sums up his argument with a picture of an alternative reality: “The church creates spaces of resistance where the Kingdom of God challenges the reality and inevitability of secular imaginations of space and time,” (272). I’m sold. Not only does his ecclesiology live up to my own rather high expectations of what the Church can and ought to be, but I have SEEN IT HAPPEN.
I have watched the church – this church – refuse empire’s insistence on making a person into a thing.
I have seen the church – this church – persistently and consistently offer a space where the Kingdom reality opens up and challenges the imposed reality of Empire.
I have experienced the church – this church – care not only for its people’s souls but for the immediate, grubby realities of their bodies.
I have known the church – this church – to house and feed and invite and hug and share and wash feet, proclaiming again and again, over and over, day in and day out that we belong to each other, that our bodies join together in The Body, that when one of us suffers, we all suffer, when one of us rejoices, we all rejoice.
One of Cavanaugh’s great lines in the book: “The body of Christ is liturgically enacted, not institutionally guaranteed,” (221). Put your money where your mouth is, he means. Just do it. Stop talking about justice and practice it. Stop whining about the clenching fist of Empire and live out an alternative reality. Stop complaining about the commodification of your friends and your lives and start living in a way that values each Other as a precious part of your own Body.
We are not a Church because that’s what the sign out front says, or because that’s what the graying steeple on top of the building indicates, or because we have a duly ordained minister or properly appointed bishop standing in our pulpit or working in the office. We are the Church because we act like it.
We are the Church because we create space and live in it, space that holds each one as a member of the Body of Christ. We are the church because we treat people as people, born for relationship and connection and incapable of being turned into things.
We are the Church because – get this – we act as an alternative to torturous regimes.