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To “Safeguard the Nation”: Redemption, Torture, and #BlackLivesMatter: Advent Reflections

Timothy McGee is a doctoral student in systematic theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX.

The Midtown South branch of the NYPD recently tweeted (and promptly took down) an image of Jack Nicholson playing Col. Jessup in A Few Good Men, along with the full quotation that begins with the famous line, “you can’t handle the truth,” and includes the troubling statement, “You have the luxury of not knowing what I know, that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives!”

Posted two days after more than twenty-thousand people marched in New York to protest the killings of unarmed black men and women, this quote reveals the deep cultural as well as material connection between the military and police, such that the defense of one institution serves as the identical defense of the other. It thereby also reminds us that the domestic killing of unarmed black men and women should be connected to the international killing of unarmed civilians via drone warfare, and the torture of “enemy combatants” held in secret CIA detention centers overseas.

The reasoning provided by Jessup and quoted by the NYPD was recently repeated, even more callously, by Dick Cheney. Cheney argued that he was fine with the brutal treatment of innocent detainees as long as the objective of “saving lives” was fulfilled. No tragedy even, as long as “we” triumph.

The redemptive logic displayed in the tweet and defended by Cheney collapses the notion of “saving lives” into a larger project to “safeguard the nation.” It is not simply empirical individuals whose existence has been threatened but a whole idealized mode of life that has come under threat. What ultimately connects the militarization of the police to the imperialist policing of the world by the military is the sense that “America” is under attack and its salvation requires an increasingly violent response.

Talal Asad, an anthropologist and post-colonial theorist, has pointed out that Western Christian and secularized understandings of redemption have always been accompanied by a kind of cruelty or disregard for human life. The goal of redemption is to bring out the potential humanity of those not fully human others—whether poor black urban youth or Arab Muslims—and to contain and extirpate (culturally or biologically) those internal and external inhuman others who refuse and resist being “humanized” or redeemed by the West.

The current population self-identified with this redemptive project of humanizing potential human others, that is, the middle-class white U.S. citizen, is facing a crisis of legitimacy that it perceives as a threat. No longer able to sustain the fiction that its own interests are the nation’s best self-interests let alone the self-interests of the human species as a whole, it interprets this loss as attack or threat, doubling down on the myth of “American awesomeness” in the face of torture reports, police brutality, economic downturn and instability, racialized and gendered violence, and the increasingly strained position of the U.S. as the political and economic leader of the globe.

In face of the realization that its power and prestige cannot be assumed, the salvific defense of this class and its self-interests turns violent. If torture or the shooting of unarmed black civilians happens, these are simply, at worst, tragic necessities so that this threatened way of life—America—can continue. And it must continue, it must be saved, for it, in fact, is what redemption means. As the Jamaican essayist Sylvia Wynter has argued, human redemption has become materialized and now simply is entrance into the cultural mode of life defined by and structured for the sake of white, middle class America.

These tremblings of an Empire and its way of life are happening during Advent, a time in which we Christians remember that the prophesied birth of the Jewish Messiah sent the ruling elite of another Empire into a murderous, genocidal tirade. The “tragic sacrifice” of innocent life was deemed necessary to preserve the structures that would ensure global peace, the Pax Romana. But beneath and against these tremblings of Empire, other forms of life were emerging. In the language of the Gospels, the Kin(g)dom of God was breaking in, not in the pompous glory of power, but in the birth of a child in a stable, welcomed by poor shepherds and foreign wise men.

In the opening of Luke’s Gospel, Mary praises God for granting her the honor of mothering this Messiah. She sings,


He has shown strength with his arm;

    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

    and lifted up the lowly;

 he has filled the hungry with good things,

    and sent the rich away empty.

 He has helped his servant Israel,

    in remembrance of his mercy…

If we white U.S. Christians cannot echo Mary in this song of praise, it might be that we are more interested in preserving our self-proclaimed role as universal saviors than in embracing the form and mode of life in which Jesus of Nazareth actually came, and into which he continually calls us. On the other side, I can think of no better summary of Mary’s song happening today than the refrain Black Lives Matter. Not all lives matter, but black lives matter, for in a very biblical way, we do not seek to include the part into the whole—the covenant with Israel into creation, the Jew into the Gentile, black lives into all (human) lives—but constantly challenge the proposed whole for the sake of the part: creation for the sake of covenant, Gentiles grafted into Israel, and all lives matter only because black lives matter.

Perhaps then, as one marcher in New York wrote on a sign, the black liberation theologian James Cone was (and is) right, and the Gospel can and still should be summarized for us today as “Jesus Christ is Black.” A Black Christ is not antithetical to us white people. Christ is, however, quite clearly opposed to the redemptive violence unleashed against non-white bodies at home and abroad for the sake of saving what our bodies represent: the form of life that falsely claims to enact, bring, and secure the peace that will redeem or humanize all peoples. Against this redemptive life we too must learn to shout and hope and pray and live and act and work so that God’s kin(g)dom will come and Shut It Down.

Christian College Cancels George W. Bush Event


In 2003, literally the Student Center at my college had a large gathering of students. In fact, it was standing room only. In the post-9/11/2001 world, specifically the four years after the tragedy, patriotism was at an all-time high, especially on college campuses. So, every time the President gave a national address, it became a big deal . The same night President Bush gave the State of the Union, declaring North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as the Axis of Evil, I experienced marginalization and shame. When total strangers walked up to me and asked why I wasn’t interested in watching the President give his address, I answered, “I don’t believe in war.”  Of course, I was asked, “How come you do not respect the President?”

Right, because it’s all about me and my partisan dislike, right? It’s not like it could not be a matter of principle. Or maybe I should have just handed over my brain to the crowd. Maybe that would have made them feel better.

So, it brings me glee, yes, glee that President Bush now faces this same marginalization for his decision to go to war with Iraq. W was scheduled to speak at an evangelical Christian college in Toronto, Tyndale University College and Seminary (leave it to Canada to have 3 names for a college). A group of alumni sent an open letter and an online petition protesting the event. The event was NEVER about dialogue, as Craig Carter claims. It never is. It’s about ideology and money. You could get any other college professor or dean to come to talk about the value of a Christian education.

Just because someone is Christian does not mean “THE CHURCH” has to blindly and uncritically support them. The value of a Christian education, should above all, glorify the Creator, and teach the sanctity of all human life. George W. Bush, in his policies and witness, does not meet this bare minimum standard (yup, the one I just made up– no one is above ideology). I will agree with Carter on one thing:

“n this frenzy of hate stoked by the Left one thing has been forgotten. George W. Bush is also a man. He is a son, a father, a husband, a sinner, a believer and a flesh and blood human being.”

Yes, President Bush is a human being, and I do love him as a brother in Christ. But the women and men tortured at Guantanamo Bay and at Abu Ghairab are also human beings, flesh and blood. They too, are sons, daughters, wives, husbands, sinners, believers, and as such, being made in the image of God, they were due humane treatment, and not racist objectification, torment, and death.

I respect the former President. My respect of human life is far greater.

**Editor’s Note:

I now realize that there has been some vitriol by the victorious dissenters. Again, my position is not anything personal against George W. Bush, I am not trying to overcompensate like so many evangelicals and former evangelicals today by being anti-everything W; I just always just had honest policy differences with W even in my fundamentalist Christian/moderate Democrat days. Here is a post that shows there has been a lot of editting over at the protest site with mean comments: Chris Lewis, Out. Thanks to Amanda Mac for the heads up! See, I can be fair and balanced 😉 **

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Jesus, tortured and humiliated: A Palm Sunday Sermon

A while back, I posted a facebook note by my friend Reverend Brad McDowell on The Death of the Program Church.

Today, he has given me permission to share his sermon from Sunday. It speaks for itself, and I could not agree more.

Jesus Tortured and Humiliated

April 17, 2011

Ashland Terrace Christian Church

Pastor Brad McDowell
Mark 15:16-20
The Soldiers Mock Jesus

16 The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. 17 They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. 18 And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” 19 Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. 20 And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

I want you to picture a man in a Nazi Concentration Camp. Now you’ve probably pictured a Jewish man, but this man happens to be a Christian. And unlike many of the early victims of the Nazi’s Final Solution, this man knows exactly why he is here and exactly what is going to happen to him. He is about to be hanged. What he doesn’t know is that the Allied forces are less than two weeks away from liberating his Concentration Camp, but that won’t matter. The guards are at the door ready to take him to his death.

A man about to face a death more gruesome and painful than any of us here could imagine. What would he look like? How would he carry the worry and anguish that any of us would have? Is he in tears? Is he physically ill with fear? Does he instead have a blank face, a steely resolve in the face of an unchangeable fate?

Now I want you to picture a totally different situation. One of the most well respected pastors and theologians in the world is being welcomed to teach at Union Theological Seminary. He is a foreigner, who has one of those accents that makes everything he says sound smarter. Students at the seminary are asking, “have you seen the new professor yet?” and “Would it be rude to ask him to sign my book of his?” They fighting over each other to get into his class, just hoping that his greatness will brush off on them. They’re telling their families and friends about him, hoping to make them jealous. Now it’s no ticker-tape parade, but in a nerdy seminary setting, this is a hero’s welcome.

In just 6 years, that great theological hero will be hanged in a Nazi Concentration Camp. His name is Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

He stayed in New York for less than two months before he willed himself back into Germany to resist the Nazi regime. He caught the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic before World War II erupted. He joined a group who conspired to kill Hitler. He smuggled dozens of Jews out of Germany. And he was hanged in the Flossenburg concentration camp on April 9, 1945. A doctor from the camp who watched him die later recalled:

“I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer … kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

I’m struck by the contrast between two images: a hero and a criminal, a man revered and a man abandoned, a man celebrated and a man executed. In the 65 years since VE Day we have talked a lot about the Holocaust, mostly because none of us can imagine anything more horrific. In this particular example, though, I’m drawing an analogy with something that was even more horrific: Jesus being tortured and humiliated.

Today is Palm Sunday. It’s a fun day when we get the kids involved and we wave Palm Branches and sing upbeat songs. We praise Jesus just the way he was praised when he entered Jerusalem with shouts of “Hosanna! God saves us!” When I was planning this sermon series on the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life, I laid out all the readings for the Sundays approaching Easter and I got to this Sunday and I said, “Oh no.” We’re gonna read about Jesus being tortured and humiliated on Palm Sunday. Uh oh, that’s not going to go over well. But here we are.

It’s amazing to think that Jesus could go from such a high to such a low from Sunday to Friday. Welcomed by a crowd of people who openly acknowledge that this is the Messiah, and then abandoned by absolutely everyone and being tortured by Roman soldiers. A hero to a criminal. A man revered to a man abandoned. A man celebrated to a man executred. And all that happened before the city of Chattanooga could pick up your trash twice.

A major part of my job every week is to come into this worship service and in a 20 minute sermon, hopefully, offer you some meaning from scripture. This is one of those few weeks when I’m not really sure what to say. We read about our Savior being handed over to Roman soldiers. They caught wind of the charge against him, “King of the Jews.” They decide to have some fun with that, putting him in a fake robe like a King and make a mocking crown of thorns to put on his head. Some of them even bow down on the ground, I’m sure having a good laugh. I mean, when I see our Savior going through this, what am I supposed to say? What’s the meaning in that?

And we haven’t even gotten to the worst of it. The Romans had a designated person, called a Lictor, who was an expert at flogging and whipping and inflicting as much pain as possible. The end of their whips (this is hard for me to talk about) were braided with stones and glass shards specifically designed to tear through skin. Some even had metal spikes, like nails. Their goal was to inflict as much pain without actually killing the victim. And they did this to Jesus.

How am I supposed to offer some meaning for this? What am I supposed to say?

We Christians 2000 years later are not good at dealing with suffering. We say the darndest things. When someone gets cancer, we might say, “God has a purpose” as though God physically planted the tumor in our friend. If a parent loses a young child in a car accident, I’ve actually heard people say, “Well God just needed another angel” as though God looked around in heaven and said, “Y’know I could really use one more” and then twitched his nose and made two cars crash into each other.

And this is the part of the crucifixion that becomes hard to understand. Last week I told you that if you wanted to know how the cross gains salvation for us, just ask Barabbas. He walked away free while Jesus took the punishment he deserved. But when we come to this scene today, we might very well ask if this is God’s punishment being acted out by the Romans. Is God the force driving the whip so that Jesus can pay for our sins?

I’m not so sure. I think if we had the chance to ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer why the Holocaust happened, he would certainly say this is not God’s doing, but humans’ doing. If we asked him why he was about to be hanged, he would say this is not God’s doing, but humans’. He would say that he was being hanged because he stood up for what he believed was right. He was being hanged because he couldn’t just let the Nazis keep doing what they were doing.

Now that we have 65 years of perspective, the Nazis’ actions speak for themselves. Their ruthless slaughter of innocent and noble lives doesn’t require a judge or jury. Their Final Solution is shamed, their entire belief system indicts itself.

So maybe Jesus was tortured not by God but by an awful and unbelieving world. We would like to distance ourselves from such violence, but honestly we can’t. Just in 2004, the torture and abuse in Abu Ghraib prison reminded us that given the chance, just about any of us are capable of such violence. We may not have wielded the whip in the Roman’s hands, but the notion that such violence can still solve our problems still surrounds us.

Even when we believe justice is being served, and that a murderer being executed is “getting what they deserve,” Jesus’ way of dying makes us all look inwardly and ask, “What if I got what I deserved?”

So maybe Jesus was tortured to shame that way of working in the world. One perfect, innocent, wonderful man being tortured in such an unspeakable way shows how “just” that method ultimately is. The actions indict themselves.

In the quote I’ve put in your bulletin this week, Walter Wink says it like this:

“Something went awry [with the plans of the Powers that Be] in Jesus’ case, however. The Powers scourged him with whips, but each stroke of the lash unveiled their own illegitimacy. They mocked him with a robe and a crown of thorns, spitting on him and striking him on the head with a reed, ridiculing him with the ironic ovation, “Hail, King of the Jews!” –not knowing how their acclamations would echo down the centuries.”

You know, initially I was pretty sad that I wasn’t going to get to give the usual Palm Sunday sermon. It’s a fun sermon to preach: Jesus is celebrated with an impromptu parade, riding on a donkey. If we didn’t sing and shout “Hosanna!” then the rocks will cry out in our place. That’s how awesome Jesus is. I love that sermon.

And honestly, all of us would rather have Palm Sunday Jesus than Tortured and Humiliated Jesus. So did his followers at the time. That’s why there were so many there on Palm Sunday and no one there by the time he was handed over to the Roman lictor.

But it had to happen. Ultimately we don’t need another celebrity to praise and celebrate. Those are a dime a dozen. Ultimately we need a Savior. We need the world to be changed, because our way of doing things ends up with the Son of God under the whip. Palm Sunday is wonderful but that first Holy Week tells us that it doesn’t change the world. Suffering and being tortured by an unjust system can change the world.

We need a new system. We need a new script. We need a new story. We need a story other than the one that says the only answer to evil and violence is more violence and more evil. We need a new script where someone with ideas different from ours isn’t immediately put on trial. We need a new system that doesn’t crucify God’s Son.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided that he had no right in preaching about a new world unless he shared in the suffering of his people. In the same way, Jesus knew that he had no way of offering a radical alternative to our story of violence unless he suffered under that violence. He hoped to put our system to shame by showing it at its worst.

While Jesus rejected our systems, we have to remember why he is doing all this. We have to remember that when he came out of that brutal night of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, he set his sight on his own crucifixion and never lost his focus. There was a reason he was doing all this, suffering, shaming our system. The reason is us. The reason is that he loved us enough to not let us be the victims of our own violence. He loved us even though we’re like dogs who eat our own vomit. He wanted to save us from ourselves, he wanted to set us free, and invite us to a radical new Kingdom, with a King who is just, and loving, a merciful, and completely different from anything we could create on our own.

I could have worshiped Jesus for one day, on Palm Sunday. Seeing everyone else worship him, sure I would have joined in. But just like everyone else, in a few days I probably would have forgotten about him. But I could have worshipped him for one day. But when I what Jesus is going through to give all of us a new life, being tortured and humiliated as he was, that makes me want to worship him with my entire life.