Tuesday 5 June 2012

Martyrs and Villeins: the Extradition of Julian Assange

William T. Cavanaugh is a US-based theologian who has done some important work on the privatisation of faith, the politics and economics of the Eucharist and related areas. In one paper he reflects on the relationship between the state, the martyr, and the Eucharist.

Cavanaugh's ideas may help us understand the current de-legitimising and persecution of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. We are reminded to re-member the martyrs and not let them become empire's villeins.

Martyrs and the Eucharist
The Eucharist, a ritual meal in Christian tradition, sees bread and wine as 'being to us' the body and blood of Jesus. It re-members his execution at the hands of the Roman Empire and her co-conspirators. The Jesus movement went viral soon after his martyrdom with subversive claims that God and brought him back from the dead as a sign against his executors.

For Cavanaugh, those who are persecuted for the sake of justice now are following the way of Jesus - taking up their cross of execution - and demonstrating what the Eucharist re-members.

"The eucharist is the central act in this communal remembrance of martyrdom, because the eucharist is first the remembrance of Jesus' death at the hands of the powers." 

Cavanaugh claims that, because state-executions of political activists creates public martyrs, the first task of the state is to deligimitise the activist. Only then can she or he be got rid of. Cavanaugh writes that "A martyr is a public witness who makes the truth visible in her or his own body." This was true of Jesus as it was of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who he writes about.

Romero and The Eucharistic Sacrifice
Romero, an outspoken critic of the elites of El Salvador was shot while celebrating the Eucharist - where bread and wine are shared to represent our membership and participation in the Body of Christ. we "stand in the line of fire" he claims, when we share bread and wine together we also call to mind all those who were witnesses to the shadow world of state and corporate elites and paid the price of disappearance, torture, or execution.

Cavanaugh sums up, simply, the way the state deals with the knotty problem of martyrdom:

"Finally, the state-controlled media referred to people killed, not as martyrs, but as subversives, communists, terrorists, criminals, and delinquents. The intent of these strategies was to inflict suffering and death on those who would challenge the status quo while simultaneously preventing the revelatory nature of that
suffering from coming to light. " (p. 180)
Before you make a martyr, make a villein. This observation brings us neatly to the case of Julian Assange.

Assange the Villein-martyr 
Catholic Workers and Veterans for Peace (UK) vigil for Asange
Julian Assange is the founder and spokesperson of the news agency 'Wikileaks'. Unlike other news agencies (Associated Press, for example) Wikileaks staff have developed an extremely secure means of whistle-blowing - insiders releasing information on the immorality or illegality of their operators.

Thanks to Assange the video "collateral damage" in which US soldiers wantonly gunned down civilians, journalists and even children. They also leaked huge amounts of damaging information about US foreign policy matters that related to all kinds of regimes.

Julian Assange is due to be extradited to Sweden next week, not on charges of espionage, but on investigation of rape and another sexual offence. These relate to allegations from two incidents in Sweden involving to different women who both went to the police and were encouraged to press charges.

No charges have ever been pressed against Assange and no evidence put forward beyond witness statements. Nonetheless the UK judicial service have agreed to a European Arrest Warrant. Assange and his supporters fear that extradition to Sweden will not lead to charges of rape and sexual assault but to a quick extradition to the USA to face charges of spying.

I was at one of the appeal hearings last summer and sat through the details of the case. Despite the huge impact of Assange's work, few activists gathered outside the court. Before you make a martyr, make a villein.

Over the last two years I've lost count of the number of people and agencies Assange has public fallen out with: a publisher, newspapers, former colleagues, have all taken a chunk out of this strange, charismatic figure.

The work done by Wikileaks has suffered massively as a result. Perhaps if the news agency had been a little more anarchic it would have moved slowly but with greater resilience. With so much depending on Assange it is easy for the US to decapitate and thus immobilize the organisation.

Reclaiming the Subversive Messenger
Assange dared to do something few in contemporary news media engage in - he reported the unreportable. For this he is being personally slandered from every possible angle in preparation for his imminent disappearance.

What is to be done then? Anyone who cares about the future of press freedom, but particularly activists in Sweden, need to work hard to expose the Swedish governments hideous capitulation to US interests. We all need to continue to support the work of Wikileaks and emerging groups like Openleaks that take a similar, but crucially more manageable approach.

If we want to challenge the demonisation of Assange we need to keep the focus on the aims of Wikileaks:  the self-destruction of secret systems of power-elites and the return of a truly Free Press. As Mark's Jesus aptly puts it:

"For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light." (Mark 4:22; NRSV).