By David Tassell
The Eucharist is one of the most consistently observed practices throughout the diverse landscape of Christianity in America and around the world. Despite debate surrounding who can take it, how often it should be observed, and the role of Jesus’ presence, it remains a regular part of corporate worship. Even the variety of names for the practice, such as the Lord’s Supper or Communion, are indicative of the range of perspectives throughout the tapestry of denominations in the U.S.
However, in the debates between sacrament and ordinance, infant and confessing adult, sipping and intinction, open and closed, and many others, the political nature of the Eucharist is often left unconsidered. After all, religious practice and political engagement are often separate categories in the minds of Americans, so what do the bread and wine have to do with nations and policy?
Well, when a body consisting of members across nations consistently partake in a unifying ritual where they proclaim Jesus the crucified and risen King of a kingdom which extends over all creation (i.e. all authorities and rulers), it is worth suspecting this has political implications.
If one is to begin this consideration of the Eucharist as a political act, it is helpful to begin with asking, “What is the nature of something political?” This is where author and professor Dr. William T. Cavanaugh begins as he makes a case for the Eucharist’s political implications in his book Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism. In the introduction Cavanaugh explains,
Politics is a practice of the imagination. Sometimes politics is the ‘art of the possible,’ but it is always an art, and engages the imagination just as art does. We are often fooled by the seeming solidity of the materials of politics, its armies and offices, into forgetting that these materials are marshalled by acts of the imagination.
Put more simply, politics refers to how groups of people consider themselves to be organized, especially in relation to other, different groups of people. Borders between nations, systems of government, positions of authority, and national identities are all examples. These are all categories by which many people organize themselves and view others. For example, the citizens of the United States and Canada agree there is a border between their nations, there is a separate sovereign government over each of these nations, a separate head of state for each nation, and separate national identities. However, the existence of borders, offices of government, and national identities are predicated on the acceptance by a citizenry that these things are actually real.
For instance, there is no consistent physical border between nations that is naturally occurring and outwardly visible. There is no external force that has said Minnesotans and Ontarians must be considered separate people, but there is a collective agreement that their national identity and sovereign governments are distinct. This collective agreement is what is meant by “politics is the practice of the imagination.” Political realities exist because a collective imagination projects them into existence. So then, the nature of something political is a collectively imagined category of the differentiation and organization of people groups.
Cavanaugh argues that the collective imagination of the Church should look different than society around us. In the partaking of the Eucharist, there is the collective imagination of the Church as one body across time and space. There is the collective imagination that all of creation around us is under the authority of Jesus Christ and his kingdom. In this case “imagination” does not mean “fake”; it means holding a common vision of a reality that is not yet naturally apparent to the world. However, this is not a vision which is purely a construction of our minds. Rather, this is a vision given to the Church by Jesus Christ and his apostles. The Apostle Paul says in I Corinthians 10:16-17 that the Church is “one body” because she shares the “one loaf” which “we break [as] a participation in the body of Christ”.
Central to the collective imagination of the Church is the biblical declaration that the Church is one body. American or Canadian, conservative or progressive, the Church is first and foremost a body of members which transcends all other barriers of time, place, and identity. This is a body which declares allegiance to God, praying “thy will be done on earth as in heaven” (Mt. 6:10) and follows a resurrected King who is preeminent over all other authorities of the world (Col. 1:15-20) and declared his kingdom to be near (Mt. 10:7). Participation in this body through the Eucharist is irreducibly political as participants engage in an act of reimagining their political identity, and the political identity of all others who participate across the nations.
The Political Nature of the Eucharist
So how does this then affect the Church’s actual approach to political decisions and public policy? How does this imagination of the Church as a political body affect Christians’ approach to public life? The implications are not merely abstract, as there are certainly implications for our present issues today.
One of the clearest implications of this imagination of the Church as a body is in regard to allegiance. The act of the Eucharist is directly at odds with self-centered allegiances, and represents people across boundaries. Political allegiances which elevate the interests of the self, party, or nation over the interests of Christ’s kingdom are confronted in the Eucharist by the body of Christ which transcends other political entities.
This means the act of the Eucharist proclaims an obligation to public justice for Christians in all places. Caring for refugees, cultivating family supportive workplaces, and environmental care, for example, are all facets of public justice toward which the body of Christ has an obligation. The political nature of the Eucharist teaches the Church to embody public justice as a political community, even when not required by law.
The sacrificial life and death of Christ remembered in the Eucharist teaches a posture of hopeful engagement with the world. Christ came to bring salvation to the world, not to remove his followers and leave it to die. As the body of Christ embodies public justice, so too does it engage the means afforded to local and national citizenship to see public justice in contexts throughout the world. Engaging governments and other spheres of society toward the end of public justice is a natural end of a belief that the Church is a body which represents the Kingdom of God and the good God desires for this world.
So, as a central act of worship, and as an intrinsically political act, the Eucharist ought to be shaping the Church toward greater concern for public justice. It ought to be shaping the Church to work toward visible realities of God’s kingdom in our world. The Church begins by embodying these realities in her own community, and then reaches out to manifest this reality in the world around her. So as you receive the Eucharist, consider this reality you are proclaiming. Consider that you are acting in remembrance of Christ, but also proclaiming the work of Christ’s Kingdom in the world in which you are called to participate.
David Tassell is the Assistant Pastor of Table Covenant Church in Fairfax, VA and teaches as adjunct faculty in religion.