The Eucharist and Mimetic Theory
These posts were written for my Facebook Page on the day indicated. The first three posts from May 2013 were published in What the Facebook? Posts from the Edge of Christendom (Lancaster: JDL Press, 2014). There are five posts here in chronological order. Download a PDF of these posts here →
#1 May 20 2013
Let us imagine ourselves back in the past, say 4,000 years ago. No matter where we lived we would have believed in the gods. Now, what was the good news according to religion pre-Abraham? The good news was that if you sacrificed rightly then you would be blessed and the greater the sacrifice, the greater the blessing and there was nothing like a firstborn to offer a god. Or a virgin girl. Both were highly prized.
To believe in a god meant to sacrifice to a god. This is why people would not ask “What do you believe?” but “To what god do you sacrifice?” The entire principle of religion was summarized and executed in the practice of sacrifice. Modern theorists of religion recognize the role sacrifice plays in archaic religion but it is Rene Girard who sees in sacrifice the mechanism by which culture is formed and religion experienced. The first chapter of his groundbreaking book Violence and the Sacred is on sacrifice. Sacrifice is the institution whereby we offer to the gods something in order to get something in return.
The penal theory of the atonement is nothing more than archaic religious thought translated into Christian-ese. This is why so many people so readily accept this way of thinking as a default position; it meshes rather nicely with their cultural and religious DNA. It argues that Jesus sacrificed himself to God (presumably the Father) in order to effect salvation for us. Oddly enough this is the very language the New Testament writers seek to disavow. Some people go immediately to the Epistle to the Hebrews and say, “Lookee here, this whole letter is about Jesus’ sacrifice.” What they fail to notice is that there is an attempt by the writer (which is not altogether successful) to move away from sacrifice by shifting the vocabulary away from "thusia/thuo” to “fero, anaphero, diaphero” and its cognates. “Fero” means to offer and in Hebrews it is used with the reflexive pronoun “himself” as in “Jesus offered himself.” If, as some say, “well you see, he offered himself to God as a sacrifice” they miss the great anti-sacrificial text of Hebrews 10:5-8 where Jesus, according to the author, just prior to the incarnation utters an anti-sacrificial text (Psalm 40) as the rationale for his mission. That is, Jesus comes not be a sacrifice but to undo sacrifice by offering himself. But to whom? Not to God! God neither requires nor demands sacrifice. Rather, it is to us, he offers himself. We are the one’s whose anger needs propitiating; we are those who need sacrifice. We can hardly imagine any way of thinking or living apart from sacrifice.
Jesus as our sacrifice (after all we are the ones who "break the bread"), allows us to transfer our hostility to him as an innocent victim, as a firstborn male or virgin girl. We kill him. And yes, there is a benefit. His shed blood becomes our drink, blood shed for our forgiveness. In his death there is only forgiveness. There is no wrath from God here, there is only our human wrath, our need for sacrifice. This is why it is so important to recognize that when we share the Eucharist we are participating in the oldest human ritual in the world: primitive sacrifice, but a ritual that has now been transcended and morphed into a communion meal where we no longer need sacrifice, a meal wherein we no longer need scapegoats, a meal whereby we acknowledge our corporate propensity to hurt others and expel others in order to create our "in group." And in this meal, as we acknowledge this by "breaking bread," we are also forgiven as we drink the cup. Now this is good news, news far better than the archaic religious practices of violent human culture. The Eucharist therefore, is the most anti-cultural institution in the world and breaks down our sacrificial religion and turns us to a non-sacrificial spirituality where God is love and where we learn to love one another.
#2 May 21 2013
Eucharist, Holy Communion, and Lord’s Supper: the most important ritual of the church goes by many names. In some cases celebration of this ritual is rather elaborate as in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions, in other cases, like the Mennonite or Baptist churches, the liturgy is minimalistic. What is happening here in this meal?
For the past 500 years Protestants of various stripes and Catholics have argued about the presence of Christ in the bread. Is Jesus really present? Is there a change in the substance of the bread but not the accidence (shades of Aristotle)? Is the bread “merely“ a symbol? Is Jesus “in, with, and under the elements (Luther)?” Does it make a difference what we believe about this meal? What does it mean to celebrate the meal unworthily? How can we “eat and drink damnation unto ourselves” (Paul in I Cor. 11)? Should this meal be celebrated daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly or even less often? Does it matter? Should it matter? These have all been hotly debated questions and in some circles still are.
No matter whether your liturgy is maximalist or minimalist, whether you hold to a “real presence“ or a symbolic presence, the real question about what is occurring in the celebration of this meal of bread and wine needn’t elude us. It has to do with our fundamental human condition. The Eucharist addresses our need to kill.
When the Roman Catholic church speaks of the “sacrifice“ of the Eucharist, this does not mean that they believe the priest is re-sacrificing Jesus on the altar. It is the recognition that the act of breaking the bread is analogous to the breaking of the body of Jesus on the cross. That is, just as Jesus’ persecutors broke his body, so when we celebrate the Eucharist we acknowledge that we are human “body breakers.“ When we further eat this bread, we confess we are cannibalistic, that is, we seek to consume the “being“ of the victim and thus enhance our own “being.“ The writer of the Fourth Gospel explicitly uses the word “to munch“ (trogein) in John 6 to bring to mind that this is more than a simple ingestion of food. The use of “trogein“ ought to bring to mind sucking the marrow out of bones, of the way we suck life out of one another. In this sense we are all vampiric and the Eucharist is the ritual whereby we acknowledge our social vampirism.
In breaking the bread we confess we are all persecutors, that had we been there, we would have crucified Jesus. We do not come to this meal with clean hands and pure hearts. We come to it frothing at the mouth, demanding a sacrifice that will take away our personal and social angst, violence and fear. We break bread, we confess we are murderers. This is the point. We are the mob, or in religious language, we are all sinners. The proof in the pudding is that we treat the outcast, the marginalized or the "other" this very way. We don’t see Jesus in them. If we did we would be kind to them, generous, helpful and compassionate. But we do not see Jesus in them; we are just like the goats in the parable (Matt. 25). When we break the bread we participate in a ritual as old as human religion and culture, the sacrifice of an innocent other. Jesus is our Victim. We killed him, each of us participating, all of us together. Scapegoating others has always been our means of redemption, of being human community. This is not the end of the story though, for this ritual has another part, a redemptive part. It is not found in the killing but in the voice of the victim. It is the cup we drink. This is what we shall see tomorrow.
#3 May 22 2013
From our earliest days as a species we have used violence against innocent (or random) victims to establish difference. Social crises produce undifferentiation, we are all alike and need to be differentiated. The victim is the first “difference.“ It is from the victim that we establish difference, the difference between up and down, in and out, us and them. The victim is the place we learn how to “other“ the other.
In the Eucharist we come as a killing mob, breaking our victims in order to consume them, to suck the life-force out of them to become them. This is why victims were eventually divinized or made into gods: we sought divine life, eternal life in our victims, life beyond death. In our victims we thought we found the answer to our questions, the solution to our problems. In their death we sought life, in the darkness we brought upon them we sought light. Little did we know that the light within us was a great darkness and that the violence we used against our victims could and would one day turn against us.
So, in breaking the bread, we confess we are murderers. We ignore Jesus as the goats ignore the marginalized. Better that they should die than be a drain on our culture. Like the religious and political authorities did to Jesus, we demonize our victims so that in disposing of them we need not feel guilty. Yet, we are most guilty.
Had Jesus been like many victims (or victims families) he would have sought revenge. How many times have you read in a news report about someone being killed and the family calling for justice? How many times have you read or heard others say that someone who committed a criminal act "got what they deserved?" Retaliation, eye for eye, lex talionis, is the way we humans do justice. This is the voice of Abel crying out from the ground for vengeance. “Cain bombed my city and killed innocent me, O God, now kill him to balance the books of the universe.” We hear this voice in many of the Psalms where the singer, who is persecuted, cries out for revenge.
Yet, when we take the cup to drink the blood of our Victim, Jesus, Son of God, True Human, Lord of the Universe, is it revenge we hear? No, it is the cup of forgiveness. In his blood we find only forgiveness. There is no hint of revenge either now or in the future. All revenge or retaliation by God is forever forsworn. As the writer to Hebrews says, “Jesus’ blood speaks a better word than that of Abel’s.” Jesus blood does not cry out for justice, his blood cries out for mercy. The one who taught that we ought to “bless those who persecute us” does indeed bless us with forgiveness when we acknowledge our scapegoating ways and when we, in drinking the cup, refuse to be retaliators when we have been wronged. This cup of forgiveness is not just a cup whereby we walk away feeling better and then complain about others or remember our grudges against others. When we put this cup to our lips, we are not only forgiven for what we have done to others but we also acknowledge that others who have hurt us are forgiven as well. God treats us all alike, as forgiven murderers. When we drink this cup we drink forgiveness to the dregs and that forgiveness pours out of life to others. The one shares in this meal has no enemies. If one walks away from this meal and still holds a grudge or is unwilling to forgive, then, and only then, do they "drink and eat damnation to themselves" for they are not willing to do as Jesus did and leave transgressions behind.
We have all been victims. In the late twentieth century being a victim has become a status symbol. It is much harder to recognize that we are all killers, murderers with our words, thoughts and actions against those we have deemed “other“ or sinful or less worthy than ourselves. This is why we first break the bread and then secondly, drink the cup. It is not the other way around. The Eucharist meets our deepest needs. It meets us in the darkest places in our souls, the place where we would consign “the other“ to an eternal hellfire or a life of hell. It liberates all of our victims from the hell we put them in. It calls us to recognize that “with the measure we judge others, we judge ourselves.”
#4 April 17, 2014
Think of all the various elements that make up a Passover meal and then ask yourself how important is it that Jesus did not compare himself to the Passover lamb? In Matthew, Mark and Luke, it would appear that Jesus is celebrating a Passover meal. At least the text implies that. John’s gospel has no such indicators. That is because in John’s Gospel the Passover has not yet been celebrated (18:28). In John’s Gospel, Jesus is crucified and expires at the same time the Passover lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple.
Gert Theissen (The Gospels in Context) has argued that underlying Mark’s chronology are certain clues that the meal is not a Passover meal. In other words the tradition Mark inherited has been modified by the Gospel writer (or his tradition) to look like a Passover meal and thus indicates that the early tradition and John’s Gospel are both suggestive of the fact that Jesus dies before the Passover.
In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist introduces Jesus as “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Is it not the case that in the sacrificial ritual only a goat bears away the sins of Israel and that on one day, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement)? How then can a “lamb“ take away or remove sin?
Those who require the Bible to be perfect spend needless hours trying to harmonize the accounts. Yet the Gospel accounts, in this, as in many other places, all reflect the ongoing processing of the implications of Jesus’ death. In all four cases, they are seeking to make a theological point. Each Gospel in its own way seeks to understand Jesus’ death in the light of the greatest event of Israel’s history, the Exodus, the time when God delivered the people of Israel from certain death at the hands of their enemy.
It is not for nothing that in Luke’s Gospel when, in the Transfiguration account, Jesus is on the mountain it says that Jesus, Moses and Elijah speak of his impending “death.“ Interestingly the word used here is not the normal word for death, "thanatos," but the word "exodus." The three were speaking of the mighty act of deliverance Jesus would accomplish. While the figures of Moses and Elijah are well remembered for their bloody acts of violence inflicted upon the enemy other, Jesus’ death was about the bloody violence inflicted upon him.
This is the necessary reframe I think the Gospel writers are all seeking to capture in one way or another in the Passion narrative. Jesus’ "exodus" or act of deliverance would be accomplished not by bringing violence into the world but by taking upon himself the violence (sin) of the world. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it “God lets God’s self be pushed out of the world and onto the cross.” It is not sin in general that is removed, not the everyday missteps that you and I make. Rather it is that which is at the heart of all human sin that is removed, our tendency to make others our victims, our habit of blaming others for our social crises. What is removed at the cross, what is "taken away" in the death of Jesus is the end result of violence, namely, death.
Jesus’ death is God’s way of delivering us from death and from the fear of death. The violence done to Jesus is the same violence we see every day in our newspapers. The difference is that in our newspapers, and in our lives, violence evokes more violence, a counter-violence we call justice. We seek an eye for an eye and a life for a life in our way of trying to stop the virus of human vengeance and violence. God chose the opposite; God allows God’s self to be the singular place where all human violence is brought to a pinnacle. God bears in God’s self our violence. We are God’s persecutors. None of us can escape this. We must acknowledge that had we been there we would have joined the angry mob, or we would have sought to force Jesus to act with violence (Judas) or we would have denied having ever known Jesus for fear of reprisal (Peter). We would have been the ones to stand in judgment, righteous judgment against Jesus, the law breaker. As far back as we go as a species, the law breakers have always been our sin bearers. They are the ones we judge unworthy, they are the ones we blame for our woes. They deserve what they get.
God steps into our world, the nonviolent Logos, the principle of Love, steps into our world which needs the blood of scapegoats and innocent lambs to survive, and brings an end to all this wickedness by taking upon God’s self all the anger, hatred, anxiety and fear we could muster. God takes upon God’s self death itself. God brings into God’s very heart that which we most fear: death and its consequences. God takes into God’s innermost being our vilest hatred, our ugliest lies, our distorted imaginations, our insatiable thirst for justice and vengeance and absorbs it. God hangs dead for us.
This rescue, this “exodus“ doesn’t look like much. In fact it looks rather ordinary, just another dead body, a crucified criminal. Yet this exodus, this deliverance was extraordinary for two reasons. First is that it completely demolishes the notion of the wrathful God, the punishing God. This God bears punishment, this God does not mete it out. This God, the God of Life, bears death, and bears it with us and thus for us so that we might see that our violence will only produce one thing: forgiveness. God in Christ forgives us from the cross. God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self, not counting against us the false accusations, or the torture or the mocking or the hatred or the pain or the anguish or any other vile thing we did that day. God does not even count our rejection against us. This God absorbs all of our violence and thus, and this is my second point, does away with violence as the mechanism by which we solve our problems. God does away with our scapegoating, our finger pointing, our endless accusations against one another. All that we do here in our lifetimes, the blaming, accusing, and justifying of our anger and systems of punishment are forever rendered powerless and pointless in Jesus’ death. They just don’t count in God’s book.
Instead we are given a meal, a meal where we come together to acknowledge our tendency to persecute and hate and destroy. We are given bread which we break, a body which we crucify. In the breaking of bread we are owning up to our scapegoating tendencies. We are also given a cup, a cup which says that in the old world, under the power of the old where eye-for-eye was the measure, now a new measure for injustice will be given, a measure that makes no sense to a world grounded in violence and scapegoats. That is the measure of forgiveness. God has forgiven the whole world in Jesus. As Paul says in Romans 11, “God has placed all under sin,” that is, God doesn’t sort out the good people from the bad people. God has reckoned with the reality that we all engage in scapegoating others. Thus God is just to forgive us all, for while many are victims, all are persecutors. Even those of us who have been victimized have one way or another participated (because we are socialized into it) in using the blame game. None of us is exempt. None of us is truly innocent.
Holy Thursday may be the day on which Jesus died. We will celebrate Jesus’ death tomorrow. Today we celebrate the singular ritual that binds us all together, first as the satanic accusers, then as God’s forgiven children. We celebrate our Exodus, our journey from death to life, all in one meal. This, for me, is what makes today so very special.
#5 April 18, 2014
In the sixteenth century first Zwingli, followed by the Anabaptists, referred to the Eucharistic elements as symbols. In the Institutes 4.16.14, Calvin calls the Eucharistic elements "signs." Both Zwingli and Calvin fought the notion that the Mass was a repetition of Christ’s "once for all" sacrifice. Of course the Lutherans, the Anglicans and Catholics all hold to some form of "real presence." And the language of sacrifice permeates the liturgy.
Rather than engaging in the metaphysical debates that beset the Reformers, I wish to put in a kind word for retaining the "real presence" in the ritual known as the Eucharist.
As a Protestant I have often come to the communion table. As a fundamentalist my gravest concern was taking this meal with sin on my soul. Communion was a time shared in the church by those who were pure. There was not much difference in my orientation here from when I was a Catholic, where at least I had confession, penance and absolution and the surety of the priest that all would go well when I came forward to receive the host.
In my Jesus movement days, the Eucharist was interpreted in the light of the developing concept of Christian community in which we lived, and so we treated it as an Agape meal, full of singing and worship and joy. Later I would enter an Evangelical church where the Eucharist had distinctly Zwinglian overtones and for the last eight years I have been with the Mennonites who have absolutely no idea what they are doing when they celebrate communion. Several years ago I quit attending my home church when communion was celebrated; it just didn’t feel right at all.
I have come to the conclusion that Protestantism is stuck when it comes to the Eucharist because it has turned the Lord’s Supper into a purely symbolic act emptied of its meaning and power. For most folks a symbol "represents" but “is” not the thing itself. In so doing we have dislocated the “real“ from the “phenomenal.“
Now I can understand why the Reformers contended against medieval concepts of sacrifice and the Eucharist. Some of Calvin’s arguments are quite valid. But something is also missing that I think would help Protestants regain a vitality to this precious ritual. That missing piece is the “real presence.“ By this I don’t mean “real presence“ in the old categories of metaphysics, where we try to figure out the relation of the visible to the invisible, the spiritual to the material, etc. By “real presence“ I am referring to us, the worshippers. We are no longer bringing our real selves to the table and thus we are not able to discern the Lord Jesus’ “real presence.“
When we come to the table we are not bringing our true selves. We have been taught that we must bring our “holy“ selves. In fear of some kind of punishment if we are found “eating of the Lord’s table in an unworthy manner” we have turned this meal into that which it was never meant to be. We have turned it on its head. The problem in Corinth was the failure to “discern the body” and for Paul the body that he speaks about is the body of Christ, the people. Paul is referring to the sociological problem of the agape meal/Eucharist where the rich had plenty of food while the poor went away hungry. Paul is speaking to the problem of a community which is hierarchical, which had valued persons based upon socio-economic status.
The Eucharist is the one meal where we are all leveled. In this meal we all come as sinners. I don’t simply mean that we have committed “sins” and thus have this “I am a sinner, woe is me” mentality. As I said in yesterday’s post, when we come to this meal we are coming to the Passion narrative. We are enacting once again the crucifixion of Jesus. We are “re-presenting“ the arrest, trial, torture and execution of Jesus. We are invited to recognize our solidarity with the mob. In this meal all we need to do to achieve this is to look at the ways in which we have scapegoated others through gossip, spreading falsehoods about another, or genuinely participated in conversations where we have been discriminatory. In short we are invited to examine the ways we still continue to structure ourselves hierarchically.
This meal breaks down all illusions of good and bad, sin and holiness. In this meal we are all going to get our hands bloody. We are those who would scapegoat the “other“ who is different, we seek our differentiation in the “other.“ The process of “removing“ sin is antithetical to this meal for this meal is all about sin, in fact one might be so bold to say that it is the ultimate act of sin in which we shall ever participate for in this meal we are standing there as the mob that rejects Jesus, that falsely accuses him, that blasphemes against him and we are the ones who drive the nails into his hands and feet. The old spiritual “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” must be answered in the positive when we come forward to share in this meal for that is exactly what we are doing by participating in it. The Eucharist is Good Friday over and over again, a ritual repetition intended to drive something home, to drive something so deep into our the fabric of our being that we cannot remain unchanged. That something is all the blood on our hands from those relationships we have destroyed with our thoughts, our actions and our words. The Eucharist is not just about breaking bread, it is the complete and total recognition that in harming the “other,“ we are breaking bad.
We are the persecutory species complete with systems of laws and punishments that don’t fit the crime. In the Eucharist we recognize and experience the pathos of one who was a victim of a legal system that acted perfectly within its rights, yet even though legal brought injustice. Ours will always be a perversion of justice. Why? Because we know of no other way as a species to exist except by marginalizing the other.
When we break bread, we are to come as our real selves, as persecutors and prosecutors, as finger pointers, those who are quite happy to blame the other. When the priest “breaks the bread“ if we do not see ourselves in solidarity with that priest, as our representative, if we fail to see that we are culpable, we will not have any right to share in the cup that follows. For how can we be forgiven if we do not sin? It is not just wheat, ground up, mixed and kneaded and baked, that we are breaking; we are breaking bad with Jesus’ flesh. We are killing him.
Yes, this meal is tied to the Passover by the Gospel tradition. Yes this meal is a meal of deliverance, an exodus from our bondage to victimizing others. But it is only that because it is the oldest social ritual we possess: the act of a community which hunts down and blames a random victim, kills them and eats them. We are cannibals. Human culture is at its core cannibalistic culture. We have simply prettied it up with laws and prohibitions, with state sponsored executions, by turning the church into exclusive little country clubs where we dress so fine and mutter under our breath about those who don’t look like us, dress like us, act like us. Our services have become spectacles filled with the latest in multi-media to entertain us, lights and sound that distract us from the real activity that is happening. For what is really happening is gross beyond belief. It is abhorrent to all of our senses. While we think we are worshipping the Lord with our voices raised loud and our hands held high, we have hidden ourselves from the victim who writhes upon the altar, in whose body we will all share, ripping the flesh with our teeth and sucking the marrow from the bones. We do this with eyes wide shut. For we think that we derive life from our victims. We all walk away from this meal with blood on our hands.
This is why the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel uses such intense language about the Eucharist in John 6 and so intimately ties our feeding on him to the language of cannibalism (note the use of the verb “trogein“). Yes, we derive life from our victims, but it is the pseudo life of the Lie, the Lie that we are just in what we do when scapegoating others and creating distinctions between us and them. In Jesus’ meal, with its identical structure we are invited to recall and experience all this, to be “really present“ to all this, to thus discern his “real presence“ in all this. In so doing we may also share in him who is a different kind of bread. He is not the bread that brings and justifies death; Jesus is the Bread of Life.
When we eat his flesh, when we gnaw on his bones, we are bringing his life into ourselves (as it were). In so doing we are bringing nonviolence, life-giving, life-affirming nonviolence right into the core of our very being. When we eat his body, we are not magically ingesting some metaphysical or spiritual reality that is meant to make us feel better about ourselves; we are taking into our deepest being the one who would restore all of our relationships. The Lord’s Supper is not an I-me-my event, it is a communal event given to us to re-create the very way we do community. It teaches us to be “holy“ for it shows us how to be “whole.“ No more scapegoats. No more differentiating ourselves from others. We are those who, in sharing the body of Christ, are the only community on the planet that practices a victimizing ritual with eyes wide open. “Open our eyes Lord, we want to see Jesus…”