Colonel Jessep did indeed order the code red. The punishment was excessive and the outcome tragic. But the instinct was essentially correct. Discipline and suffering stretch Marines to their maximum capacity. It works the same way for Christians who understand that their bodies proclaim the mysteries of the gospel.
“A Few Good Men” is a story of Marine honor and discipline. PFC William Santiago is an underperforming Marine stationed at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Unpopular, he tries to bargain for a transfer by going over the head of his superiors and blowing the whistle on another Marine, PFC Louden Dawson. Santiago claims Dawson fired an illegal shot towards the Cuban side of the island. On the morning of his transfer Santiago is found murdered. Dawson and Downey are charged with his murder.
The defense claims that Dawson and Downey were merely following orders – that Colonel Jessep ordered a code red. A “code red” is a euphemism for a violent extrajudicial punishment inflicted on a Marine who’s not measuring up. The intent is not murder but rather to inflict a degree of suffering that will stretch a Marine to his or her maximum capacity. This code red went tragically wrong.
The story’s instructive because the Marines understand how a disciplined mind and body are absolutely essential to their mission. You could say the military is an embodied tradition. The Christian faith used to be viewed this way (which might be why the Apostle Paul often used military metaphors). One of the best books on the embodied Christian faith is Christopher West’s Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing. West helps readers understand how and why bodily disciplines and suffering stretch believers to their maximum capacity.
He writes that throughout scripture (as well as church history) it is understood that our bodies as male and female proclaim the mysteries of the gospel. For instance, the promise to Abraham was for fruitful nuptial union (he would have offspring more numerous than the stars). The sign of this covenant was circumcision – the shedding of his blood and the sacrifice of his flesh – exposing the most intimate aspect of Abraham’s anatomy. Abraham’s bride would see this sign every time they consummated their marriage, thus hoping to fulfill the promise to Abraham of offspring.
This sign of the Old Covenant foreshadows the sign of the New. Eucharist is celebrating the shedding of Christ’s blood and the sacrifice of his flesh for the sake of the most fruitful union of the cosmos – the union of Christ and the Church. The human body as male and female proclaims the mysteries of the gospel.
We also see signs in the female body. In nuptial union, there is the tearing of the hymen. In the Catholic mystical tradition (rooted in Old Testament), a woman’s womb is understood as symbolizing “the holy of holies” of the temple. When Christ consummated his marriage at the cross, the curtain that veiled the “holy of holies” was torn from top to bottom, analogous to the hymen tearing in nuptial union.
Sadly, some Christians consider this kind of body talk to be bawdy. It’s not. It’s holy. It’s seeing our bodies as essential to the church’s mission. In a disembodied faith, believers only talk about the heart and head. In an embodied faith, believers appreciate how the male and female metaphors used to describe the process of salvation, or sanctification, include “circumcision of the heart” (Deut. 30:6; Rom. 2:25-29) and “labor pains” (Jn. 16:21-22; Rom. 8:22-24). “The masculine is not intended only for men; nor is the feminine intended only for women,” writes West.1 “Labor pains” can also be considered “dilation of the heart.” Circumcision, labor pains, and dilation are all instances of suffering. As West notes, the dilation of the heart “speaks of the need in both men and women for our hearts to be stretched to their maximum capacity – to the point that they are large enough and open enough to receive and even ‘give birth’ to infinity.”2
The idea of giving birth to infinity takes believers beyond what they can fully comprehend. Suffering seen this way reminds us there are limits to what we can understand. Christians who understand that their bodies proclaim the mysteries of the gospel recognize this. They see how suffering stretches them to their maximum capacity, opening them enough to receive that which is, humanly speaking, inconceivable.
This is the last week of Lent 2013. Lent is a time to practice restraint and remorse, appreciating how pain and suffering stretch us. I don’t think reading Fill These Hearts will prove painful. But it might stretch your imagination to embrace the mystery of suffering. That would be a good thing to begin learning as the Lenten season comes to a close.
1 Christopher West, Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing (New York: Image, 2012), p. 69.
2 West, Fill These Hearts, p. 69.