Advent & Torture

The news is disturbing. The claims are bewildering in their gruesome detail. We are now digesting the grim findings of the “torture report” cataloging the treatment of detainees in the wake of September 11th. We read of “rectal feeding” as a way to exert total control over a suspect, and we shudder. Waterboarding. Prolonged sleep deprivation. Threats of death. Can this really be happening in the name of American security, safety, and effective intelligence gathering?

Torture is not something I want to think about right now, especially at this time of Advent anticipation and holiday cheer.  I want to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas and sip hot cocoa in the glow of a pine-scented candle. I want to whistle along with a crooning Bing Crosby in Macy’s as I scour the clearance rack. For crying out loud, our Advent theme this week is JOY! Joy I tell you! Torture talk is ruining my Christmas mood!

Forget and forge on to Christmas. That’s what I’d like to do.

Yet, the hideous reality of torture is precisely what this strange season of Advent is all about.

Advent is about waiting for “the arrival” (advent) of hope, love, joy, and peace.  We wait in excruciating expectation because they are not fully here, not yet complete, not the way things are.  We live in the tense times between “already” and “not yet.”  Already God’s life became flesh among us, but the way of God Jesus embodied is not yet fully embraced. Already God’s Spirit is at work doing a new thing with this broken creation and our broken lives, but the Spirit’s work is not yet—indeed far from—complete.

We live in the drama and trauma of the “in-between.”  Advent invites us to acknowledge and respond to our place in the “in-between.” Our Advent joy is not the stuff of cheery greetings and seasonal decorations, it is the stuff of profound longing for the way things are supposed to be. The news of suspected terrorists maimed for expediency, some of whom were mistakenly detained, brings us into the true urgency and intensity of Advent. Torture exposes the tragic brokenness of our world.

Advent is about torture precisely because Advent is about Jesus.

Advent invites us to wait in excruciating expectation on God’s saving work in the person of Jesus. We find ourselves connected in anticipation with those of long ago who longed for God’s hope, love, joy and peace to blossom and take hold—and who were surprised by that reality in the form of a person, in the piercing cry of an infant born to weary travelers in a barn.

That longing continues in the tortured body of Jesus. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born a threat to national security as Herod hunted and killed for him. And then the one who embodied God’s saving life was detained, subjected to enhanced interrogation, and brutally displayed upon a cross in the interest of national security. Crucifixions induced obedience to governing authorities through fear and intimidation. Jesus died as an enemy of the state upon the cross. Advent longing for all that is not yet crystalizes in the tortured, bleeding body of God.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ death by torture was a crucial climax in God’s surprising, saving work.  God saves us in a tortured body, not because God stands with states and agents who sanction torture—satisfying God’s bloodthirsty wrath—but precisely the opposite. God saves us in a tortured body because God’s relentless love absorbed and reversed the violence human beings visited upon Jesus. Resurrection is God’s active response to the sin-sick violence of humanity.

Advent longing is not despairing, it is an energetic response to resurrected reality, to the way things are supposed to be, to the glimpse of God’s fullness in Jesus Christ.

And so we wait.  Not with mouths closed, mute with spiritual self-satisfaction of our individual salvation. Advent is not a spectator’s sport.  No, we wait in excruciating expectation, longing for God’s final reversal of sin-sick human ways with the energized joy of joining God’s “NO!” to torture.  We wait by speaking up and speaking out, by witnessing to another way. Advent is resistance rooted in profound spiritual longing for what God has promised in the resurrected body of Christ. We cannot faithfully celebrate Advent this year and turn a blind eye to the brutal treatment of detainees.

Advent joy is not cheap cheer, it is a celebratory passion welcoming and embracing God’s reversal of torture, even as humanity finds ever-more insidious ways to extend and legitimate violence. To wait in excruciating expectation this season means nothing short of refusing to accept torture on any human being for any reason. No intelligence information, no national security, no terrorist plot, no preservation of “our precious lives,” no tactical re-definition of terminology ever makes torture acceptable before God.

So we wait in excruciating expectation this Advent season, lamenting the warped ways of torture and refusing to accept that this is the way it must be. We find ourselves not pulled away from Advent, but drawn deeper into it.




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