Torturing the Image of God: Reflections on Christmas, Our Current Problems, and G.K. Chesterton


IMG_0039Amidst all the glitz and glimmer of Christmas we sometimes ignore that this is one of the most important holidays on the Christian calendar. Christmas marks the celebration of the birth of God into this world, the moment when in order to redeem a fallen creation, God the Son took on our flesh in order to redeem it. While made in the image of God, we ran away from this image and denied our purpose, thus losing all purpose in living. The Incarnation serves to remedy our flaw and to bring us back to Christ. Christ came into the world to redeem it from the ills visited upon it by us, he came to save us from ourselves.

It is not without the greatest irony that as we are here during Advent, the time before Christmas, that our televisions are full of stories that run contrary to “peace on earth and goodwill toward men.” We’re told stories of how our leaders authorized torture of suspected terrorists, some of whom turned out to be innocent. We see multiple protests against the police brutality in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, and other places. We saw Congress pass a spending bill that all but showed that they no longer regulate Wall Street, but instead are regulated by Wall Street, creating a scenario that will eventually lead our economy into another collapse. This Advent, we’ve seen stories, with increasing frequency, that show we’re becoming more depraved, more individualistic, and more of what we don’t want to be. Is this not what Christ came to stop?

We live in a fallen world, one in which difficult decisions must be made and sometimes difficult actions must be taken. But does this mean we must sacrifice our souls in order to save our lives? Must we torture someone for information, especially when this information doesn’t really do anything? Must we, like former vice president Dick Cheney, be so callously evil in our apathy towards the torturing of innocent people? While torture goes against human nature and one need not be a Christian to oppose torture, why does it seem that so many Christians embraced the CIA torture with glee? Why is it that, like Cheney, we can say that “real torture was 9/11,” as though only Americans can suffer torture? How can Christians, who ought to be humanists because God both created humans and became a human, celebrate the destruction of their fellow image bearers?

Or what do we do with the constant berating of the late Michael Brown. We’re told that it couldn’t be a case of him making a bad decision in robbing a store, or allegedly a bad decision in going after Darren Wilson. No. He must be a “thug,” he must be evil incarnate, and no matter what, we must be better off that he is dead. We must mock his death, celebrate his eradication, and not care that the image was destroyed. The same story runs for Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, or the many others innocent victims (especially black males) of police brutality. Or what of those who end up on my end of the spectrum, who look upon the police with suspicion in these instances? Where is our compassion for the multitude of good police, the ones who do their jobs and sometimes lose their lives in service to their community? Where is the concern for the image of God in such discussions?

Christianity is a rough religion, it is not easy, and it’s quite impossible to actually follow it with any hope of consistency. To quote from G.K. Chesterton:

“My point is that the world did not tire of the church’s ideal, but of its reality. Monasteries were impugned not for the chastity of monks, but for the unchastity of monks. Christianity was unpopular not because of the humility, but of the arrogance of Christians. Certainly, if the church failed it was largely through the churchmen…But I have only taken this as the first and most evident case of the general truth: that the great ideals of the past failed not by being outlived, but by not being lived enough…The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” (from What’s Wrong With the World)

In the entire chapter Chesterton raises the point of how ideals are important, not because we hope to achieve them, but because we can hope to strive for them. We can hope to make the world better. A conservative looks to the past and says, “We must get back to that golden age.” A liberal looks to a utopia and says, “We must make this occur.” But a realistic idealist looks to the ideal and says, “We must strive towards this, away from the past which did not achieve the ideal, but away from a future in which we think we have obtained the ideal.” Christianity presents an ideal that, at least this side of eternity, will never be obtained. 

I must fully and readily admit that I fall significantly short of this ideal. Were our Christianity determined on actions alone, I fear that it would be of the utmost dishonesty to call me a Christian. I make no assumptions or claims to have figured out the Christian life or to live it as I should, nor to live it better than others; but such an admission does not negate that I can know something of the ideal.

That being said, the Christian ideal does not fit within the modern American context, which is to say it’s impossible to be a good American (in the modern understanding) and a good Christian. The two are absolutely, utterly, and completely mutually exclusive. A “good American,” at least by popular belief, is one who supports the torture of suspected terrorists, if for no other reason than revenge for 9/11. A “good American” supports the police no matter what, or protests them no matter what, and seeks to make all opponents the arbiters of evil. A “good American” sticks to his segment of his populace, ignoring the cries of the oppressed, believing they have brought such oppression on themselves. A “good American” supports any and all forms of Capitalism and thinks that Wall Street gaining more power and less accountability is a good thing, even if it means more of the poor shall suffer. All of the above runs contrary to the Gospel, it goes against the redemptive call of Christ incarnate coming into the world.

The Christian voice must be one that while calling for justice, must speak out against torture even if it proves effective. The question, “But does torture work” is an irrelevant question to the Christian; whether it works or not doesn’t matter, but what matters is the sanctity of all human life. It would be no different than a Christian entertaining the question of whether we ought to allow slavery since it’s economically viable; such a question is repugnant because the means are so evil that the end doesn’t matter. The same is true of torture. The idea of ruining God’s image bearer goes against the whole reason why Christ came into the world, which was to save us from such violence. While violence is, in the rarest of occasions, necessary in a fallen world, it should never be celebrated.

The Declaration of Independence declares that all men (people) are created equal. Though certainly not perfectly followed by those who declared it, how has the sentiment evolved from “All men” to “some Americans?” Chesterton again states,

The Declaration of Independence dogmatically bases all rights on the fact that God created all men equal; and it is right; for if they were not created equal, they were certainly evolved unequal. There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man. (from What I Saw in America)

No matter what the Founders thought, if Christians truly think that all humans are indeed equal by virtue of being created by God, then what does it say when we support torture, especially of innocent people? What does it say when we do not mind a foreigner being tortured, but would raise an army if a close friend was tortured? What does it say when we could not imagine a loved one going to bed hungry, but we allow millions of our citizens to do so on a regular basis and then blame them for their own hunger? Have we become the ungrateful servants, who’s massive debt has been forgiven by God, but who are unable to forgive the miniature debts placed against us?

We blame those tortured, even the innocent, for their torture, saying they should have been in a better place. We blame Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, and others for their deaths, saying they should have just cooperated with police (even though they really didn’t resist and in two of the cases weren’t given the time to cooperate). We call them thugs, we blame them for being innocent and thus must ensure they really aren’t innocent. We blame the poor for allowing Wall Street to cheat them out of money, we blame them for not having better jobs that aren’t available, we blame them for not having a better education they couldn’t afford, we blame them for being hungry and not eating food they couldn’t buy, we blame them for not making enough in wages at the multiple jobs they work. We blame them for not being born rich, for not being born to the right family, for not having hope when we’ve created a system in which hope belongs only to the blind fools who strive against the impossible. And all the while we’ll go to our churches, sing our songs, and thank God for his grace and mercy in saving us. We embrace God’s mercy for travesties we’ve committed, but refuse to offer an ounce of mercy to anyone else in this world.

Chesterton makes an interesting observation about Christmas being in the winter and not the summer (at least for those in the Northern Hemisphere), writing:

Any one thinking of the Holy Child as born in December would mean by it exactly what we mean by it; that Christ is not merely a summer sun of the prosperous but a winter fire for the unfortunate. (from The New Jerusalem)

Have we, as Christians in America, really displayed such a view? We saw the buildings burn on 9/11 and called for the torture of anyone who even looked responsible, regardless of their innocence, never thinking that these men and women share in God’s image with us. We saw the burning of Ferguson and mocked the rioters, never thinking to be a soothing presence in the midst of violence. We saw the deaths of innocent men at the hands of over-zealous police officers and blamed the victims, not realizing that Christ became incarnate to overturn such injustices. We saw the poor on the streets and condemned them for being poor, ignoring the message of the Incarnation, which is Christ came for “such as these.”

The Gospel is good news. What good news is there in torture, in systemic brutality, in hatred, in economic oppression, in our current system? What good news exists in what we’ve seen the past few months? Christianity is difficult and it requires us to do difficult things, but that doesn’t mean we ought not pursue the ideal. The ideal of Christianity is the person Jesus Christ and we are called to support him and pursue him, not the State. Perhaps it would be best this Christmas to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas, that Christ came to save all of humanity from death, and then apply that to what we’ve seen.

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