This is part of a series: Rituals for Resistance. If we take seriously the idea that churches are to be base communities for resistance then our rituals as communities should strengthen us for the work of resisting the dominant narratives of the United States. I want to think through some of the things a lot of church communities already do and reframe them as tools for resistance. If you’ve missed any, you can catch up!
I think one of the most interesting/vital rituals that the church has is the Eucharist. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been looking at the Eucharist and the ways in which it can become a ritual for resistance. In week one I shared some of my experiences with the eucharist while I was growing up. I shared how the way we did communion always made me feel anxious and unworthy and not at all part of the community. Last week I talked about the idea of the “open table” and how claiming our place at the table as queer people can be an act of resistance. I ended the post by asking the question:
What happens when we are asked to eat with our oppressors?
Sometimes, when I think about going to the Eucharist table, I don’t want to eat with my oppressors. I don’t want to have to pretend that everything is all right so that we can all have a nice spiritual moment together. This isn’t about personal injury; a singular insult or wronging, but about systemic and ongoing oppressive behaviour. I don’t want to be in fellowship with people who have abused (and continue to) abuse me. Often we make church (and therefore the Eucharist as well) into a place where vague notions of “love” and “community” override justice. We make “forgiveness” the word of the day without also requiring change on the part of the person who has done the injuring. We put the onus of making things right on the oppressed and we guilt trip people who have been hurt when they say they are not ready to be in communion yet. We’ve turned forgiveness into an easy apology that requires nothing of the person saying it, but that requires everything of the person receiving it. It should be the other way around. This reconciliation shouldn’t be about making the person who has done the bad thing feel better; it should be about making amends and making a change so that the injury doesn’t happen again.
So what about that open table? Should I be required to eat with my oppressors? Should I be forced to break bread with Fred Phelps or with people who have called me horrific names? Should I eat with people who deny my humanity? Who say that I don’t belong in the church? People who would do violence to me if given the chance?
In William T. Cavanuagh’s book Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Challenges in Contemporary Theology) he talks about the situation in Chile where the government tortured and disappeared thousands of people. Many of the people who were doing the torturing (or who were commanding it be done) were Catholic and belonged to the church. In his book he describes the act of torture as an “anti-liturgy”. It is designed to capture both the imagination of people and the soul of people; designed to make them feel powerless before the state. In Chile people knew that torture was happening, but since the people being tortured were then being disappeared people were kept in a state of suspense. He says about those disappearances, “The effect on rival bodies such as the church is to disappear them by breaking them up into individual units easily subjected to the state’s discipline and written into its performance. In this contest over bodies, both individual and social, Christian resistance will depend on having a visible body, that is, a counter-discipline and counter-performance.” (page 58) The state, when disappearing people, “work(s) to refuse a visible body to the church by denying it the possibility of martyrs, those who keep alive the subversive memory of Christ through their public witness, and thus make the body of Christ visible.(page 58)
He then goes on to say that when the liturgy of the church is performed it is a “re-membering” of the body of Christ. The act of participating in the Eucharist is a way to overcome the power of torture. “Torture creates fearful and isolated bodies, bodies docile to the purposes of the regime; the Eucharist effects the body of Christ, a body marked by resistance to worldly power. Torture creates victims; Eucharist creates witnesses, martyrs. Isolation is overcome in the Eucharist by the building of a communal body which resists the state’s attempts to disappear it.” (pg 206)
He says that one of the ways the church was able to resist the power of the regime was to deny the Eucharist to people who were doing the torturing and everyone who had knowledge of it or commanded it. In this way the church made visible the broken body.
Certainly there are ways that this denial of Eucharist (or other sacraments) can be used to control people. There have been the stories of young people denied confirmation because of their support of gay marriage and people who have been denied the Eucharist because they are queer or support their queer children. Cavanaugh makes it very clear in his book that the act of denying people the Eucharist should never be over political causes, but should be only when one part of the body of Christ is being harmed.
He says the when one part of the body is harming another part they have already separated themselves from the body of Christ by their actions. Denying them a place at the Eucharistic table until they have made amends is a way of making visible the separation that is already present. “Excommunication, therefore, is not the expulsion of the sinner from the church, but a recognition that the sinner has already excluded himself from communion in the body of Christ by his own actions.” (pg 243) This isn’t about shaming or punitive action, it is about bringing sin and destruction to light so that reconciliation and restoration can happen.
I am a universalist. I believe, with all of my soul, that one day God will bring all people to Godself. I believe that we will all be one body and all will be restored. But I also believe that for that restoration to happen there needs to be reconciliation between people. Reconciliation requires action. I believe that teaching a “feel good” faith is cheap and does everyone a disservice. Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship” is often quoted on the idea of “cheap grace”. He says, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” It’s the idea that you can come to the table without making things right with your siblings in Christ. It’s the idea that a tossed off apology, without any real change in attitude or behavior makes everything okay again. Cavanaugh again, “This false unity becomes a way of glossing over the real conflict between oppressors and oppressed.” (pg 261)
When we claim that certain people, because of their own actions and the harm they have done to others in the community, don’t have a place at the table, we are trying to live into the ideals of the Kingdom of God; a kingdom where people cannot hurt other people and not have it matter. “The imitation of Christ is not reducible to some principle such as “love,” but is rather a highly skilled performance learned in a disciplined community of virtue by careful attention to the concrete contours of the Christian life and death as borne out by Jesus and the saints.” (page 62) We realize that to be community we must take care of one another and sacrifice for one another, but that doesn’t mean we allow violence (and spiritual violence is violence) to continue unchecked.
The church is a witness to the world. A witness to a new way of being and living. Part of that new way of being is the recognition that we are all accountable to (and responsible for) one another. We are one body and we have to take care of our body, making sure that all parts are cared for. It is an act of resistance to say that one part of the body cannot do harm to another part. It is an act of resistance to make visible abusive and hurtful behaviour. It is an act of resistance to refuse to be silenced or injured any longer. An open table that allows abuse to occur unchecked is making a mockery of the body of Christ.
If we believe that all will one day be reconciled and restored we must begin to live into that restoration now by holding one another accountable. We cannot allow cheap grace to replace the hard work of reconciliation. (And reconciliation must happen on the timeline and terms of the oppressed.)
I do believe that one day I will break bread with Fred Phelps, in fact, I cannot imagine the kingdom of God without Fred at the table.
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