Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Two Tables Again: Communion and communion

Dear Readers,

Some intent readers of my blog have questioned my emphasis on the connection between Communion and communion—between the bread we break with one another around our family tables, and the Bread we share at the Lord’s table.

It has come to my attention that some readers find it perplexing that I criticize the churches and their members and call churches to think about that connection—indeed, to take it seriously. For the sake of readers who seem puzzled by my insistence on connecting daily bread and the Bread of Life from the Lord’s table, I’d like to offer some explanatory remarks from my journey as a believer and theologian.

As my profile page states, I’m a theologian who have long been interested in connections between spirituality and social justice and in collaborating with others to build a more humane world. As my response to a comment on my posting for 29 May states, I’m interested in resources of all world religions that draw together spirituality and social justice, worship and practical, everyday, lived expressions of faith.

My book Singing in a Strange Land was an effort to explore those connections. In that book, I note key motifs running through all world religions that link justice and love: I agree with theologian Karen Armstrong (whom I’ve cited on this blog—see http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/02/equality-is-moral-imperative.html) that practical compassion is the soul, the very heart and center, of the ethical codes of the world religions. As the blog posting I am citing notes, Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase states,

The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God's name, it was bad theology.

Just as the religions of the world all stress practical compassion as the litmus test of authentic spirituality, almost all of the world religions envisage the act of sitting at table together as a concrete, lived experience of unity, of communion. All the religions of the world have rituals in which our breaking bread together commits us to live together—in love, unity, affirmation of one another, acceptance of one another, and practical concern for one another expressed in deeds of assistance to each other at times of need.

I have long been influenced by an observation of Lutheran theologian Dietrich Dietrich Bonhöffer in which he states,

The table fellowship of Christians implies obligation. It is OUR daily bread that we eat, not my own. We share our bread. Thus we are firmly bound to one another and not only in the Spirit but in our whole physical being. The one bread that is given to our fellowship links us together in a firm covenant. Now none dares go hungry as long as another has bread, and anyone who breaks the fellowship of the physical life also breaks the fellowship of the Spirit.

My undergraduate education at a Jesuit university gave me a great admiration for the prophetic leader of the Jesuit community Pedro Arrupe. Arrupe, too, links social justice and the Lord’s table. As does Bonhoeffer, he notes that when we receive communion, we obligate ourselves to commune not only with God, but with one another.

This rediscovery of what might be called the "social dimension" of the Eucharist is of tremendous significance today. In the Eucharist . . . we receive not only Christ, the Head of the Body, but its members as well .... Wherever there is suffering in the body, wherever members of it are in want or oppressed, we, because we have received the same body and are part of it, must be directly involved. We cannot properly receive the Bread of Life without sharing bread for life with those in want.

In the various rituals of the world religions, including Christianity, the act of gathering around the table of the Lord together commits us not merely to receive bread from God’s hand, whether divine bread or daily bread. If we understand this act—if it means anything beyond empty ritual—this act is also a commitment to share our bread with one another, with those around the table, as well as with all those in need of daily bread.

This is why I stated on yesterday’s blog,

My very belief in the sacred meaning of Communion (and communion: it is impossible to celebrate Communion as sacrament—and mean it—without intending to live in communion with those with whom one breaks bread) makes me abhor the thought of returning to churches where I encounter those who celebrate Communion on Sunday and break communion on Monday through Saturday. What can the Lord’s bread mean when we intend to shove anyone from the table of daily bread even as we partake of the Lord’s bread?

In speaking of Sunday and Monday, I am not, of course, speaking of two specific days in my life or in yours. I am contrasting what those of us who are Christian do ritually in churches on Sunday, and what we do the rest of the week, Monday through Saturday, in the “non-sacred” spaces of the home, workplace, and world. I am stressing that there has to be a confluence of the sacred action and the daily lived experience, if the sacred action is to have any meaning at all. Communion as a sacred church action must translate into communion as a secular action—an intent to share our lives together in love, peace, justice, and right relationships with one another. We have to live communion in our everyday lives, if the sacred act of Communion is to have any real meaning.

This is not a new theme in my thought or writing. I have written about it for some time now on various Internet sites. In these blog discussions, I have spoken of an experience of workplace injustice that first crystallized these theological themes for me. This was my experience of having been given a one-year terminal contract as the chair of a theology department at a Catholic university with no stated reason for the terminal contract. This contract came days after I had been given a glowing evaluation by the academic vice-president of the school. I was never given a written copy of this evaluation.

I will not recount the sordid details of that story, which I have told elsewhere. It was an experience of profound injustice. It was also a learning experience in which I began to understand the depths of malice the Christian churches (and many Christians) bear today towards gay believers, the willingness of those within the churches to treat gay human beings as non-persons, and the apparent belief of those within the churches dealing dishonestly and cruelly with us that they have God on their side as they behave this way.

As I note in postings at both blog sites, my experience at this Catholic college has alienated me profoundly from my own religious community. I have written about how, not long after I was shoved from the table of daily bread—placed in a precarious position of disemployment and lack of health insurance at a time when Steve and I were providing care for my mother in the final years of her life—I went to church at Easter time.

As I have noted in these accounts, on that Easter Sunday, I desperately wanted to go to Communion. But my legs just would not carry me to the communion table. I was physically repulsed by the sight of the priests who had been ultimately responsible for my terminal contract standing around the table of the Lord. I was repulsed by the thought that they themselves have comfortable lives, job security, social respect, health insurance, a safety net if something happens to interrupt their employment, and yet they could, seemingly so callously, exclude me from all of those things at a time when I needed economic stability and peace in order to provide care for an aging mother.

To be specific and precise: I was repulsed by the disparity between what the church and its representatives declare about the Bread of Life, and how the church and its representatives behave. In church that Sunday (and ever after), I ask myself if church members who invite each other to the table of the Lord, yet are willing to exclude anyone from the table of daily bread through unjust actions, can truly believe what is taking place at the table of the Lord on Sunday.

My very belief in all that Communion or Eucharist means makes it impossible for me to approach the Lord’s table when church leaders and church members practice conspicuous injustice towards others after they leave the table of the Lord and enter the world of work and family.

In my view, the churches today practice a unique kind of cruelty towards gay believers. I have written about that frequently on this blog and elsewhere. At the heart of this cruelty is a belief that gay persons are simply less human than “normal” Christians—that we do not suffer as the normal person would, when rights are violated and one is excluded from social and economic life.

The impulse of churches today is to exclude us. This impulse has everything to do with the need of church members to make themselves feel clean by identifying a scapegoat group as the unclean, and then sending that group into the wilderness to die carrying all the sins of the good, righteous, holy—the clean. Our very absence from the table—out of sight, out of mind—legitimates our exclusion, in the eyes of those doing the excluding. They would not have been shoved from the table, after all, would they, unless they somehow deserve to be shoved away?

This radically cruel and radically unjust exclusionist tendency militates against all that church means at its most fundamental level. If I believe church means anything at all, I have no choice except to keep addressing this exclusionism. The originating impulse of church is to gather and include, not to expel and exclude. The table of the Lord’s Bread preserves the memory of Jesus’s table fellowship with sinners. The two are connected. We cannot adequately celebrate the Lord's Supper without remembering Jesus's table fellowship with outcasts. Jesus sought out the social outcasts of his day, to eat with them. He ate by preference with unclean sinners, thus becoming unclean as they were unclean, in the ritual-purity belief system of his co-religionists.

In the final analysis, I have come to the conclusion that the behavior of the churches towards gay believers is often so savage because we human beings are simply savage—and particularly so when we wrap up our savagery in pious proclamations. We allow ourselves to be particularly savage when we do not connect what we profess with what we do. When we permit ourselves to engage in religious ritual that does not translate into practical compassion, we are capable of almost anything. When we convince ourselves that we are the righteous and some group stigmatized as dirty are the unrighteous, we can legitimate acts of cruel exclusion even within the sanctuary itself.

And if we exclude in the sanctuary, in the name of God, will exclusion in the workplace or the family be far behind? If exclusion seems legitimate at the Lord’s table, will we have any moral sensitivity about shoving others from the table of daily bread?

This is why I keep on keeping on, calling the churches to think about what it means to be church—to be church in the very core meaning of church, to be church in the world today. As Martin Luther King noted so beautifully in his Letter to Birmingham Jail, his expressions of bitter disappointment in the church—particularly the church of liberal sweetness and light whose words about compassion did not translate into action for justice—derived from the fact that he was a pastor, someone who loved the church.

My critique of the church arises out of my vocation as a theologian. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s thought and his prophetic witness remain critically important for the churches today, as we rehash again the question of whether churches ought to emphasize law or justice in the context of the battle for gay civil rights. Dr. King’s Letter to Birmingham Jail distinguishes eloquently between just and unjust laws, between a majority rule that permits itself power and privilege it denies to the minority, simply because it can do so, because it is in the majority and the laws on which it relies reflect the power and privilege of the majority.

These are questions the churches must revisit today as gay and lesbian people struggle for justice. As someone who grew up in the white churches of the American South in the 1950s and 1960s, I know in my bones that black citizens of this land would never have achieved civil rights had the majority been allowed to determine what was right and legal, or had those of us who call ourselves Christian been permitted to continue identifying what is legal with what is right.

Had civil rights for black Americans been dependent on the churches leading the way, we’d still be waiting for a long-deferred justice. Had civil rights for black Americans been dependent on enforcing unjust laws or on a legal system easily manipulated by those of us who considered ourselves right because we could do as we pleased (since we were in the majority and had wealth in our hands), justice would still be deferred.

There comes a time when those who know right from wrong simply have to stand up and be counted. There comes a time when Christians who know that Communion requires communion—yes, even with dirty, excluded gay people—have to insist that their churches stop offering Communion as long as they refuse to preach and practice communion.

There comes a time when justice can no longer be deferred, if institutions that talk about justice want to be taken seriously as they do their talking.


Michael said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
William D. Lindsey said...

Michael, I appreciate your comment and welcome comments on my blog. Please note, though, that the blog exists to pursue discussion of theological and social issues and not to market products other than those comprised in the Google ads.

colkoch said...

Bill I'm beginning to think that the real twist Christianity took away from a positive theological understanding of the Eucharistic meal came when a poor understanding of atonement theology--specifically that theology known as 'penal substitution' became the pervasive understanding of the Eucharistic celebration.

Christ did not under go His passion and ressurection to save us dirty unworthy sinners from the punishment of his Vengeful Father. He died to appease our need for vengeance, our need for scapegoats, our need to have priestly sacrifice in place of hard spiritual work. In my mind His sacrifice had nothing to do with His Father and everything to do with our lousy attitudes about each other stemming from our inherent fear of death.
To participate in His Eucharistic meal is to understand accepting His bread is an invitation to the hard work involved in changing our understanding of His Father, of ourselves, and of our fellow man.
Only if you think Jesus died for your sins in some literal sense do you engage in scapegoating others. You don't have to change your lousy attitudes, Jesus already took care of that. Just come back next Sunday for some more taking care of.
Penal substitution theology is the greatest cop out Christianity could ever have invented to prevent a real understanding of what Jesus actually did and who He was. Not to mention it allows people to still scapegoat others for their own flaws instead of dealing with just how tough it is to practice the love He taught.
No wonder most of our clergy can't heal their own bunions.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, this is really valuable analysis, it seems to me. The question you're raising is how we got from the symbol of a shared meal to a sacrificial ritual based on atonement theology.

I think you're right, a lot has to do with whether we see Jesus as a sacramental sign of God's loving presence everywhere in the world, or as a scapegoat on whom all the sins of the world are placed.

In turn, depending on which of those images dominates our theology, we'll see the world either as full of divine presence, or as a dark, lost place where we have to find a sacrifice to take away our sins.

And dependent on that ecclesiology is the question of how we approach others everywhere in the world: as fellow pilgrims on the way to God with us, in whose lives God is present; or as those who are lost sinners because they don't know about or accept Christ.

It's probably no secret where my own theology tends!