Torturing the Image of God

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

How are we to respond to a recent report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life that the more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of alleged terrorists?

According to Pew, 54% of Americans who attend church services at least once a week said the use of torture against suspected terrorists is “often” or “sometimes” justified. Only 42% of people who “seldom or never” go to services agreed.

The study did not include synagogue-attending Jews or Muslims, Hispanic Catholics, or Black Protestants (all of whom might be expected, out of the historical life-experience of their groups with being tortured, to oppose it more vigorously).

One response; This sense of public opinion may be influencing the policies of Obama Administration officials who oppose trying either actual physical torturers or high officials of the last Administration for criminal acts of ordering, permitting, or using torture.

These views could also call forth a quite different response from religious leaders and teachers of all persuasions: to undertake a concerted effort to remind their congregants what their own religions actually teach.

One of the central teachings of Torah is that all human beings are made in the Image of God. That teaching and what flows from it are at the heart of Jewish prohibitions on the use of torture -- and perhaps at the heart of Christian opposition to torture as well.

Indeed, the Rabbis – living under the Roman Empire – enriched that teaching about the Image as a direct challenge to the power of Rome, the Imperial fount of torture. One of them asked, “What does this mean, 'In God’s image?'” And another answered, “When Caesar puts his image on a coin, all the coins come out identical. When that One who is beyond all rulers puts the divine image on a 'coin,' all the coins [that is, human beings] come out unique.”

Torture tries to destroy the Image of God –- uniqueness, the diversity that is the only way the Infinite can unfold itself in the world -- and replace it with uniformity, Caesar's image on the human soul and body. In the experience of the Rabbis, it was Imperial Rome that used torture. To this very day, the liturgy for Yom Kippur, when more Jews are in the synagogue than at any other time, and in a more deeply devotional and covenantal place than at any other time, includes the graphic and horrific descriptions of Rome's torturing to death ten of the greatest rabbis of that or any age.

I think this understanding of the Image of God casts a profound light on the story in three of the Christian Gospels in which two troublemakers come up to Jesus and ask him a question: "Should we pay taxes with this coin?"

They evidently hoped to trap him into violating either Jewish or Roman law. For the coin had on it an image of Caesar, marked "Caesar, imperator, divus: Emperor, God." If Jesus said to use the coin, he might be violating the Jewish law against idolatry. If he said not to, he would surely be violating Roman law.

So Jesus, in a totally Jewish fashion, answers the question with a question. He asks, “Whose image is on the coin?” They respond, more or less -- “Caesar’s, dummy, that’s the point!”

So according to the Gospels, Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” and for 2,000 years Christians have been arguing about what that means. Many have said that it defines two separate realms of life -- one "political," one "spiritual."

But now take into account the Rabbinic teaching that Caesar puts his rigid uniformity upon his coins, whereas the Infinite God puts uniqueness into God's coins: that is, every human being. Surely Jesus, the radical rabbi from the Galilee, knew this teaching.

So I believe there is a missing line in the Gospel story. Either Jesus didn’t need to say it because his first question would reawaken the knowledge in those who were trying to trouble him, or it was later censored out because it was so radical:

“Whose image is on that coin?" he said, and they answered: "Caesar's."

And then I think he said, "And whose Image is on this coin?" as he put his hands on the shoulders of the troublemakers.

Only then did he say, “So give to Caesar what is Caesar's -- and give to God what is God's!”

And of course, as the Gospels say, the troublemakers themselves went away deeply troubled -- not because they had failed to trick him, but because he had forced them to think and feel and act anew as they opened themselves to experience the Image of God in themselves. And to understand that the Divine Image stood in radical contradiction to Caesar’s image, so that the world could not be neatly and comfortably divided into two different realms, one “spiritual” and one “political.”

This teaching needs to be renewed in every generation. One way that Jewish tradition does this in regard to torture is to insist that every Yom Kippur, the community relive the torture of ten rabbis by Rome. These ten rabbis have chosen to live their lives in the Image of God, resisting the image of Caesar. And they die still bearing God's Image, rising above the torture to affirm the One Who is Infinite. In parallel, Christianity insists that every Good Friday the community relive the torture of Jesus by Rome. And he too lives and dies in the Divine Image, resisting in body and soul Rome's attempt to force Caesar's image upon him.

These two practices also remind us what brought about the suffering that grieves us. For they remind us that empires torture. The US by its own hand in the Philippines a century ago, by proxies in Central America just a generation ago, again by its own hand in Iraq and Afghanistan. No empire can survive without resorting to torture against those who refuse to bow to its power -- by act or even by omission or even by sheer accident of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those who get in the way of its demand that human beings abandon their uniqueness and bow to uniformity, as Caesar forces his own image onto every human body, drowning the Image of God in a flood of agony.

So what does this teach us about America today? That we have a choice more basic than whether we close Guantanamo or – as is now being done by the Obama Administration -- we double the size of Bagram, a similar prison in Afghanistan.

America cannot celebrate both the Infinite God and the tyrannical Caesar, cannot remain both a citizenly republic and a domineering empire. How to choose? One way is to affirm that torture is both a grave sin and a major crime. Refusing to "look back" at the use of torture in the past, refusing to try as criminals those who committed the crime, failing to excommunicate those who committed the sin, means refusing to heal the future.

It would be the same as ripping the crucifixion out of Good Friday or the torture of the ten rabbis out of Yom Kippur. After all, it merely happened long ago. Under a long-gone Empire. What is the point of remembering?


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