Jennifer A. Glancy

tortured truth

Five years ago, the journal Biblical Interpretation published an essay by Jennifer A. Glancy [pictured left] with the eye-catching title, “Torture: Flesh, Truth, and the Fourth Gospel.” I came across it while researching the gospel of John. In the article, she wonders, echoing Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” Continuing, she asks, “Does truth dwell in flesh?” (107)

The introduction to John’s gospel is filled with compelling ideas. Verse 14 of that first chapter serves as a bit of a summary: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” It is that combination of “flesh” and “truth,” as well as the passion overseen by Pilate, that prompts Glancy’s question, “Is it possible to embrace flesh as a locus of truth and still to condemn the practice of torture? Through my carnal reading of the Johannine passion narrative, I attempt to do so. I do not know if I succeed.” (109) I can’t help but appreciate her play on words—the Word becoming flesh, the incarnation, carnal.

I also appreciate Glancy’s stated humility, understanding the difficulty of her project. As to that project, she includes as a footnote to her title the statement, “July 10, 2004. I date this manuscript to situate it in a particular moment in the history of torture.” That phrase, “in the history of torture,” is especially appropriate, considering that tomorrow is Human Rights Day. Sadly, we have mirrored the imperial values of Roman law about torture, which meant “the infliction of anguish and agony on the body to elicit the truth.” (108)

We have our own law, or at least legal opinion, that guides our own attempts to wrench truth from flesh. For example, there’s the notorious August 2002 Justice Department memorandum arguing that the President, as Commander-in-Chief, has the authority to authorize torture (though in legalese, it’s not called that) in interrogations of suspected terrorists. Glancy remarks, “An Empire of torture recognizes no limits in its campaign to force truth from flesh.” (118) I wonder, is that us? Are we “an empire of torture”?

She speaks of three intentions of torture, which sometimes may overlap. There is “judicial” torture, in which the intent is to discover the truth. Secondly, there is “penal” torture, which is meant as punishment. Finally, there is “terroristic” torture, which “is part of an attempt to control the larger population to which the individual belongs.” (115) When we include the element of sexual humiliation (those crucified were naked), there are uncomfortable parallels with our own behavior in Iraq.

Does it matter that our torture is directed at the (suspected) terrorists? At the enemy? Aside from the stench of its blatant illegality and bankrupt political philosophy (despite whatever fig leaf of legality we devise), Christians should be the first to speak against torture. We worship the tortured one, one who identifies with the tortured.

Commenting on the strangeness of a resurrected body that retains wounds, Glancy uses almost mystical language. “Wounds tell the truth of flesh given for the life of the world, the indelible truth of flesh tortured, perhaps, simply, the truth of flesh…Skin demarcates the boundary of each self from the world, distinguishing what is me from what is not-me, what is you from what is not-you. Jesus’ open wounds blur what is Jesus and what is not-Jesus. Splinters stripe bloody flesh. Slivers of skin are pounded into a wooden beam. The ground is stained a ferrous red with fluid that hemorrhages from Jesus’ side. Jesus’ ‘spaces of absence’ gape open to expose his truth to the world.” (133-4, emphasis added)

Is it too much to hope that, in this new moment in the history of torture—Human Rights Day of 2010—we can repent of and investigate our own torturous practices and allow for some measure of justice?

[originally posted on 9 Dec 2010]