Wednesday, August 08, 2007


Just as early Christians were honorifically accused of atheism (because they refused to bow to the gods and graven images of the Roman Imperial pantheon), so they were also accused of cannibalism (because their rituals seemed to involve a claim to eat flesh and blood). The former accusation was, in a sense, true. As Nicholas Lash points out: Christians, Muslims and atheists have this in common, at least - they all disbelieve in 'gods'. The fact that much modern religious understanding and its corresponding refutation does not see it this way is a function, as Lash says, of the almost comprehensive ignorance of what could reasonably be called 'traditional Christian belief' in today's world. The Christendom settlement, in corrupting the Gospel message, has both rendered it harmless and neutered it intellectually.

Much of this is the fault of Christians, of course. And the history of our disputes about the sharing of bread and wine is a good example of this. While the early accusations of cannibalism were misinformed and childish (more poignantly, politically directed against subversives), the church that did a deal with empire soon came to live out the message about it proclaimed by its accusers. It began, indeed, to eat itself and other people, consuming flesh in the fires of mutual admonition and denying bread to the hungry - actually, not figuratively.

In this context, the simple Christian meal of bread and wine, by which the death of Jesus at the hands of overbearing religion and politics is remembered, and through which a vision of a life-giving alternative world is created, takes on a fresh and demanding significance. This is especially the case in an age where religious thought and ritual is so readily co-opted to a death-dealing agenda. But, as is often the case, the solution is not to be found in abandoning the tradition, but in rediscovering it in a fresh, life-affirming way, true to its radical roots.

In large measure this is what my article How the church should learn to eat itself is about - looking at the dynamics of 'communion' as lived experience and ritualised good behaviour, rather than arcane metaphysics. It is adapted from a sermon I was honoured to be asked to preach during my recent US vacation, at Hyattsville Mennonite Church in Maryland. This is a church which models inclusive community It is part of a living Christian tradition where 'Eucharistic practice' is often built into the weave of life, even if the Catholic theology that underpins it is not always emphasised, not least because of its past misuse. The original text can be found here (note: *.PDF - Adobe file).

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