Ziya Meral – A Theology of Guantanamo Bay


Note: My Turkish friend Ziya Meral wrote this six years ago. Today, my Lebanese friend Martin Accad sherd it on his Facebook wall. Nothing more appropriate, in light of the recent report on the CIA use of torture.

This is a sobering and dangerous text. Read and pray. I may change your worldview. It is also worth reading the comments.

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Thursday, 27 December 2007

Philosopher Giorgio Agamben reminds us of the Roman figure homo sacer – the Sacred Man – who, according to the Roman law, can be killed with impunity but cannot be sacrificed to gods. His biological life is divorced from political life putting him outside of the boundaries of what constitutes a human and what the rights of that human are. He not only does not belong to the realm of the ‘human’, but neither to the reality of the gods. What is not human and what does not have a ‘value’ can not be sacrificed to gods since its sacrifice would defile the sanctity of gods. Thus, homo sacer exists only as a biological body, not as a human. A theology which ascribes such a status inevitably shapes political forms.

During the 19th and 20th centuries a similar systematisation of which biological bodies would be ascribed the status of a ‘human’ was accomplished with the marriage of theological assumptions and the ‘findings’ of science that cemented the difference between biological life and political life. Theologically, there was developed the order of creation, levels of perfection and purity, and at which of these levels the Image of God is expressed in its perfect condition. Out of this cosmic ordering, there emerged the political theology that identified the nation, its security, significance and rights with this stage of advanced human lives, whose superiority has been proved by the shape of their skulls in line with the predetermined intellectual and athletic potential of ‘races’. Thus, Jews, Gypsies, mentally and physically handicapped were nothing but mere bodies that could and should be done away with so that they won’t ‘contaminate’ us.

Now racism—that is, the exclusion of a group on perceived grounds of difference and reasons—shows itself in properties of belonging, not in scientific criteria. You are either with ‘us’ or with ‘them’. But who are ‘we’? The bearers of civilization, justice, advancement, everything that is pure, good, noble, above all ‘we’ are the bearers of the Imago Dei, the Image of God! Who are ‘they’? Political representations of ‘them’, as seen visually in media representations, are whatever ‘we’ are not: evil, destructive, barbarian, uncivilized, backward. “They” are the bearers of the Image of the Devil! Therefore let us unite around a ‘crusade’ against the devil! The reproduction of ‘we’ and ‘them’ in this most common way is a theological one.

‘We’ act politically on such a theology in the never-ending war on terror, an infinite war with no visible enemies but only a theological embodiment of who ‘they’ are. This informs our ‘right’ for preemptive strike to secure ‘our way of life’, and in this process we theologically allocate the death tolls as well for which lives we can mourn. Some lives are more worthy to protect, mourn and cover in the media; say one life of ‘ours’ versus 3,000 of ‘them’ that die within a month, as Judith Butler powerfully argues in her book “The Precarious Life”. In this disproportionality, what we mourn is the ‘collateral damage’. The ‘sin’ is that we could not live up to the militaristic precision and skill that ‘we’ possess, not the sin that ‘we’ have reduced ‘them’ to biological lives we can kill with impunity.

If one can be killed, since one is really not a human but only that of a biological being that embodies evil, then we can easily place such a being in an ‘indefinite detention’. We don’t even have to call them Prisoners of War, or have evidences of their crimes, or deal with them in the ‘justice’ which we embody. ‘We’ can keep them outside of the political sphere of international treaties, human rights conventions and not grant them even the right of a fair trial. These are all for ‘human beings’ who carry the Image of God, not for those biological bodies that still insist on living and breathing like a ‘human’ while all along who they really are is just the Devil. And the Devil is bad!

Even if now ‘we’ cannot show anything they have done thus far, since evil is so integral to their ontology they will surely one day do something wrong. Keeping ‘them’ outside of human community is a price ‘we’ have to pay. ‘We’ do not want to do these dirty and brutal things. President Bush ‘wishes’ to close down Guantanamo Bay. However, sacrifices have to be made for this ‘just’ war.

Theology enters into the stage at this point and helps us to assume that we live in a ‘just’ world, in which people get what they deserve and if the natural events do not provide that, those who believe in ‘justice’ should fight to settle the accounts. Yet, this blurs the deep-seated suspicion that we do not live in a just world, but rather a fallen one, and ‘justice’ is never met in such a context but remains to be the exclusive property of the powerful, of ‘us’. Thus this war is ‘just’ in the sense that it is just for ‘us’ the human beings. This imagined ‘we’ has to be protected at the exclusion of the ‘other’, by the grace and help of God, ‘our’ God. And surely, God is on the side of non-evil and the righteous, isn’t he?

When we turn our eyes to our God, we see his Son who stands in front of the angry crowd, declaring that he came to set the captives free, to restore the sick, poor and sinful, meaning the outcasts, back to human community. We are told he is the one that leaves all of the flock behind to go after the lost sheep and that rejoices when one of the coins which were lost is found and is returned. At the very core of his gospel lies inclusion, restoration and integration of those who have been dehumanized by the religious saints, pure ones, the civilized, ‘we’. Much of his teachings criticise the hypocrisy of those who claim to know and love God when all the while their self-righteousness blinds them from the very core of knowing and loving God.

The core which produces the Good Samaritan. The core which eats and drinks with the ‘unclean’, sinful, weak and sick. The core which turns the other cheek. The core which chooses to forgive, show mercy and love, rather than wage a campaign of retribution and vengeance. In fact it is this core which Nietzsche despised the most about Christian faith. He saw this Christian reaction towards revenge and retribution to be decadence. That is why he didn’t find the Christian notion of God ‘noble’. He saw such a God who chooses mercy, forgiveness and inclusion, as unworthy of worship.

Jesus not only declares a completely opposite theology of relating to the ‘other’ who may have offended us, or may have even harmed us or may do so in the future, but also demands the same attitude from his followers. His imperative brings with it an automatic judgement, one will either hear his voice and follow his call or one will continue to develop a pure and godly ‘we’. One will either seek his face in the zone in which dehumanization takes place or amongst ‘us’ , which is in its worst form when we presume to see his face when we look into the water.

We seek him in vain in our modern-day cathedrals of glory and power and higher values. He is in the prison, with those who are hungry, naked and vulnerable. He warns us that he will hold us accountable, not because we have failed to meet him among ‘us’, but because we have not run to his image, the image of God, which is in prison, naked and hungry.

Jesus identifies himself not with the powerful–who presume to decide which biological lives will be given the status of a human and thus granted political rights, and which ones will be reduced to mere physical existence—but rather with the despised, with the Homo Sacer. If Jesus were caught living the vicious subversive Gospel today, he would not be on a wooden cross, since the wooden cross no longer symbolizes what it did then: the dishonouring and dehumanization of the individual in the presence of the entire city as a punishment. He would be wearing an orange jumper, living in a cage, dishonoured and dehumanized, in the presence of the entire world who behold all this on the TV screen.

It is no surprise Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared that those who do not speak for Jews have no right to sing Gregorian chants, because failing to do so – failing to stop the dehumanization and death of millions of people in impunity–contradicts the very thing, the Gospel, that the church and Christianity is based upon. When the Church forgets the core which gives birth to her with an eternal imperative to follow, all of her functions, activities and sacraments become a self-judgement and a joke like that of the king who still believes in his majesty while all along the world recognizes that he is just naked.

In a milieu such as this, the church can assume its most usual role. The church can raise funds, do advocacy and organize protests for the release of the inmates, when she recognizes that the answer to our prayers for peace on earth is actualized when she assumes her calling. Yet, this reactive role is only a temporary band-aid to deep wounds.

There is one more thing the church can do that (if she does it) has the potential to literally change the world we live in. Surprisingly, this ‘thing’ is what we speak about the most: to live the Gospel of Jesus. Perhaps it is so familiar that we are now completely blind to its implications to the post-9/11 world we live in.

What is this Gospel? It speaks of love of the neighbour, which requires trust in God and taking the risk to care for the wounded Samaritan. It promotes inclusion of the ‘other’ and the restoration of their dignity rather than exclusion and dehumanization, which Jesus sharply and repeatedly condemned. This Gospel cherishes meekness and vulnerability, of loving and caring and humbling ourselves, rather than Nietzschean visions of great politicians who embody “strength” and “determination” to establish “our security” by moving beyond good and evil. It deconstructs the metaphysical “we” and “them” and unites us in the knowledge of our interdependence, createdness, vulnerability and need of forgiveness in the presence of a Holy God.

The Gospel gives no room for concepts such as “collateral damage” or Machiavellian means. For this Gospel, every human being is precious and every human life is worth living, saving and mourning for. After all, this is exactly why Christ died on the cross. Finally, this Gospel is about forgiveness and reconciliation, rather than seeking revenge and brutal retribution.

Several years have passed since 9/11, and none of us can really say that we now live in a better and safer world. At that junction in time, the Western church had a brilliant opportunity to actualize the Gospel and change the course of history. There is a growing consensus that masculine politics which followed 9/11 are not the solution, and now talks of inclusion, forgiveness, reconciliation and meekness dominate the secular circles. And I wonder why those who have a reason for their hope still keep quiet or are unable to see the profound implications of their faith to such debates…

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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