Friday, April 4, 2008

The Politics of the Eucharist

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Two summers ago I spent five weeks in Lebanon. Three days after I had left the airport from which I flew out of was bombed. War had broken out between Lebanon and Israel. In the coming weeks over 1,000 Lebanese, mostly civilians, had been killed. My friends were in danger, places I had visited were bombed to smithereens. The summer after that I was in the West Bank, in Israel/Palestine. There I heard story after story of death, violence and injustice; I saw posters and spoke with the families of suicide bombers, of so called martyrs, who took their own lives and others with them. I heard stories such as that of an 18 year old girl whose life had been taken by an Israeli sniper.

These images and stories will haunt me for the rest of my life. They have left their mark on me. I have seen the true face of violence and war: it is a face marked by the very fire and suffering of hell. Here in the U.S. we are SO removed from these realities. When it does come to our shores, as it did in 9/11, we are shocked beyond belief. We are not shocked, however, by our response to it, and have no idea of what it means to live in a country where between 30,000 and 300,000 people have died (where we don’t even bother to count the “enemies” causalties) and where roughly 6 million people have had to flee their homes. These are the realities of a world marked by war and violence.

God, however, is not removed from these realities. He is not a stranger to violence, war and suffering.

When Christ came to earth, he entered a nation under siege, an Israel under a brutal Roman occupation. This Roman force would eventually give him the punishment of an insurrectionist: crucifixion. This Roman force would free Barabbas (a true, violent insurrectionist) and would, in his place, crucify our Lord.

Christ in his life and death, modeled for us the path of nonviolence, of non-retaliatory love of the enemy. When we celebrate the Eucharist, the breaking of his body and the spilling of his blood, we remember the one who took our violence upon himself and freed us from its dominion.

In the gospels we see Christ, proclaim his message in word and deed. The message he preaches in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not resist an evil person” he lives out in Gethsemane by not resisting arrest violently and by condemning Peter’s use of the sword. He heals the bloody ear of one who was to soon to turn him over to the bloodshed of the cross. Some theologians (such as John Howard Yoder) read Christ’s greatest temptation in Gethsemane, when he prayed for the cup to be taken from him, of that of bringing the kingdom through violence, rather than through death. As Christ says: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of Angels?” No, this is not how the kingdom comes. It comes not by force and the taking of other’s lives, but through giving of our own life, through death.

The disciple Matthew, as he enfolds the drama of the passion, continues to present Christ as a model of non-violence. We see this further, with the contrast between Barabbas and Christ. Barabbas, a known insurrectionist and murderer, was released instead of Christ. The people clamor for the release of a murderer and the murder of Christ. The one who deserved the cross, is replaced by the innocent, non-violent Christ.

This is what we celebrate in the Eucharist, this is part of what we proclaim: Christ’s death, and our freedom from the way of violence, the breaking of his body, so that we are freed to no longer break the body of others. We are freed to take the path where giving is receiving. Christ’s sacrifice is the once and for all sacrifice. No more blood is needed.

The relationship between violence and the Eucharist is illustrated well by Schlabach. It is worth quoting at length:

What most regularly and quite literally prompts Christians to pause and to keep rethinking the question of war, however, is the proclamation of the gospel and its celebration in the Eucharist. The Eucharist and the Jesus whose “real presence” it invites into the gathering of believers are not just one reason among many for staying unsettled about Christian participation in warfare. It is the core reason, and the one that simply refuses to go away. The Eucharist is an offer of life, a promise of hospitality to strangers, a sharing of peace, a taste of God’s generosity, a breaking that opens space for healing. It commemorates God’s victory over every cosmic and historical force of evil by a lion-no, of all things! – by a lamb who was slain and by the blood of the martyrs who follow this lamb (Revelation 5 and 12:11; cf. Weaver, 2001:20-33). As Christians now celebrate the Eucharist around the globe, it makes more real than even what was already clear when the God of Israel offered new life to Gentile nations through Jesus Christ: this is a gospel that bursts the confines of even the most sacred nationalism…[at the table] Christians learn and re-learn the practice of generosity toward others… [we should find ourselves] quietly disquieted when [we] fail to show others anything less than the generous non-violent love that God as shown [us]. In other words, if tension is evident at the very table that is the pre-eminent sign of human community and ultimate communion with God, the Eucharist is doing its work. Christians who participate regularly, mindfully, and bodily in the Eucharist testify that the ritual is powerful in part because it works on them ay many levels. At each, there is a proper tension. (367-368, Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, Hauerwas and Wells).

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