Origen, traditionally considered a 3rd century...

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For about a week now numerous people I have come in contact with have greeted me with the cliche “Happy New Year.” My first nonverbal response is “Really? Happy New Year?” You see every year around this time I begin my ritual practice of evaluating the goals I have set and the events of my life over the past year. Now normally it’s not that bad of an experience. However, this year as I was beginning the process I was interrupted by a news report that President Obama passed the military funding law that included a guideline that allows the government to endlessly detain US citizens who are accused of terrorism without due process. Okay, I recognize that this has nothing to do with my goals and that president Obama accompanied his signature with a statement assuring that his cabinet will not exercise this allowance. However, this got me thinking about my convictions and how strongly I hold to them.

Recently, I read an article by Paul Kolbet entitled, “Torture and Origen’s Hermeneutic of Nonviolence.” After reading this article, I began rethinking my stance on the current state of the peace witness to which I hold. When I first moved toward the Christian pacifist position I would have considered my conviction more along the lines of biblical nonresistance. Over the last decade or so I have come to embrace a stance that more resembles that which John Howard Yoder argued for more than twenty years ago in his Politics of Jesus. However, as I am always on a journey of learning and growth (at least hopefully I am), Kolbet’s article has got me thinking about this again especially in the light of our current political environment.

As I have always believed, Christians bear responsibility for the actions of any institution of which they consider themselves active participants. Not too long ago I recall being deeply disturbed by the government’s reinterpretation of interrogation in order to include some forms of torture. Moreover, I remember looking on in horror as the photos of Abu Grab prison came to light and hearing stories of the use of torture to ascertain information from prisoners. Why I was surprised (even shocked) by these revelations is beyond me. For a long time our society has cultivated an environment of violence which would inevitably birth these forms of actions. In essence through the methodical development of a political religion (nationalism or patriotism) in conjunction with the ever widening elevation of violence as a form of entertainment and the dehumanization of any entity that stands as other, we (and I intentionally us this pronoun because I believe that we are all culpable through our little compromises) have formed a hermeneutic[1] of understanding that not only encourages the use of violence but necessitates its use to maintain the “good life” of this society over-against any other that may stand in its way. What this means is that any one (whether individual or group or society) who is deemed a threat to the status quo can easily be classified as a terrorist which can in all likelihood lead to some form of torture.

I am aware that some may say that I am over-reacting to this political environment, but it is imperative that we consider the theological and spiritual implications of what it means to have created such a hermeneutic. If we consider the hermeneutic of violence as a lens through which an individual, society, or culture perceives reality, then the epistemological framework for said entities functions not only accepting violence as legitimate but even necessary to function and govern. The rationalization is that violence can legitimately and legally function as a means of controlling the other. It is not a long step to rationalize a reason to use torture. From a Christian perspective it contradicts the fundamental teaching of Jesus which requires his followers to radically abide by the law of love.

If Christians don’t live according to Jesus’ commands then it becomes a small step to accept and embrace the law of the land which functions according to the hermeneutic of violence. Origen exhorted Ambrose to remain faithful and die willingly in rejection of the violence. In the following excerpt Kolbet expounds upon Origen’s teaching:

 In his treatise exhorting his patron Ambrose to embrace martyrdom should it become unavoidable, Origen counsels him to prepare himself by first embracing an inner martyrdom, that is, a spiritual practice enabling him to die like the Maccabean martyr Eleazar who left an example of “how to die a good death willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws” (2 Mace. 6: 24-28). Making the extent of his commitment to nonviolence unmistakable, Origen draws Ambrose’s attention not only to every gruesome detail of the seven Maccabean brothers’ endurance of torture in succession, but also to their witnessing of each other’s suffering. Whether or not torture leads directly to martyrdom, Christians are to resist it with the same nonviolent stubbornness. Origen’s overriding concern is the absolute resistance to the torturer’s insistent demand for confession. The most definitive rejection of the torturer’s coercion is the nonviolent body of the martyr. Repeatedly, Origen instructed Ambrose that “during the whole time of testing and temptation,” he should not defile himself “by any word foreign to our confession, and … bear from opponents every reproach, mockery, laughter, slander, and pity.” Neither should he be diverted by affection “for children or for their mother or for any of those we hold dearest in life to hold onto them and to stay alive,” but instead “suppose, that we turn away from all of them and belong totally to God and to life with him and near him.”37 Ambrose was to suffer torture without ever yielding to the torturer’s demand for confession, but to do so willingly, without hesitation, or anger. His very tranquility was to be so deeply anchored that it would bring the uncontrolled rage of his persecutors into public relief. To do this would mean becoming the kind of “robust soul” whose thoughts “are put in harmony by the Word of God” so as to make “bodily suffering nothing but an insignificant scratch, indeed less than a scratch.”38 Origen describes such a fully trained soul as a “house built upon the rock” against which the torturers break themselves.[2]

If Christians passively accept torture as a legitimate exercise of our government’s power then they fail to engage in the real battle of salvation. Paul’s teachings state that the struggle is not with flesh and blood but against the powers and principalities (Eph. 6:12). The institutions of this world that wield their power to the detriment of the weak belong to these. Governments that practice torture engage in the demonic function of building hell on earth. I am reminded of a question that Jürgen Moltmann asked in his little book, Jesus Christ for Today’s World. He simply poses the question about whether there is a hell and he (my paraphrase) says that as long as there are holocausts and torture hell is a very present reality.[3] So I suppose while my thoughts may seem harsh, I think that the stakes are high for the soul of the church, and there is no “Happy New Year” in hell.


[1] Most often in theology the term hermeneutic is used to denote the method and interpretation of biblical texts. In this case I am using it in the wider sense that includes the means by which the individual (or community) apprehends and understands the reality in which they find themselves.

[2] Kolbet, “Torture and Origen’s Hermeneutics of Nonviolence” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, September 2008, Vol. 76, No. 3, pp. 554-555.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ of Today’s World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995) 58ff.

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