The partisan bloodbath currently passing as our national political discourse has led to renewed discussion over the act of discussion – how we should go about dealing with our ever-widening differences. Some of us advocate for a new civility, one that seeks to dig out one another’s humanity from underneath the mountains of memes we now use to punctuate our preferred political positions. Which, in this post-apocalyptic-Ridley-Scott-directed-Presidency, comes across a bit like Lord Grantham clucking his tongue at a hastily re-arranged coterie of deck chairs on the Titanic. It seems glib, condescending and aloofly privileged in a world where there are children sleeping in cages near the border.
Others of us clamor for all-out-war on the “enemy,” with whom we live daily or see at holidays or worship alongside weekly. According to this thinking, blood has already been spilled by someone else, and when the Visigoths are at the city walls all appeals for decorum and proper protocols are sacrificed on the altar of our hemorrhaging and smoking democracy. In my experience I’ve found it difficult to ferret out the “truth” or the “facts” once the dopamine kicks in following my release of a string of self-righteous, ad-hominem sentence fragments.
I’m saying this too seems glib, condescending and aloofly privileged in a world where there are children sleeping in cages near the border.
Now that we’ve exhausted ourselves by either endlessly tone-policing or cathartically releasing our animosity into the ether of our broken national conversation, perhaps we might finally be ready for the world’s worst question most often posed by the world’s worst “therapist,” Dr. Phil: “Well, how’s that workin’ for ya?”
From where I sit, our raging incivility – or cool civility – isn’t very effective in keeping children out of cages, families out of poverty or your aunt from refusing to come home for Christmas because of your grandfather’s preferred news outlet. Which begs the question, is there a third option between civility and incivility that we’re too emotionally dis-regulated or cynically withdrawn to recognize?
In his initial correspondence to the early Christian community in Corinth, the Apostle Paul famously invoked “Communion” as a way of bringing this disjointed first-century community together. Here he is, blogging from the nearby city of Ephesus: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” . . .
Paul ends the paragraph rather ominously: “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”
The Gospel of Luke’s account of that same meal echoes Paul’s (chronologically) earlier treatment: “. . . And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’”
Again, the closing line, this time from Jesus, is telling: “‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table.’”
For most of my life, whenever folks attempted to prove Jesus' divinity, they typically led with the miraculously sacrificial nature of his death on the cross and his tomb-clearing follow-up album, “The Resurrection (Part 1).” But then I read about how Jesus ate a whole meal with people who had known him for years and still misunderstood what he was trying to do, why he was trying to do it and what it meant for them and everyone else. One of them was so desperately misguided and politically motivated that he even sold Jesus out for money.
Yet, there our Lord was, supping with them all the same.
As I've gotten older and survived more than a few contentious Thanksgivings, I've come to realize that the Last Supper isn't some boring intro we survive once a quarter in order to remember some other miraculous part of Jesus' life. Communion is the miraculous part.
The fact that a God (which is what we believe Jesus to be in the flesh) could stand to be misunderstood to the point of death by 12 people who would then be responsible to carry on his work after he was gone is beyond comprehension. A few towns over, in Babylon, they believed their God literally created the earth by ripping another monster in two (it's an awesome story).
In America we believe our God has all the words – especially the best ones.
And in that rented room 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem, before the dry ice and laser lights of Easter, we find out that the Christian God is totally okay with people missing the point about who he is and what he's here to do. It seems like he even sort-of expects it.
Perhaps, then, Jesus’ invitation to "do this" over bread and wine wasn’t to hermetically seal his words and actions behind a veil of professionalism, theology and traditionalism. What if, instead, the “do this” is for the whole of humanity to look one another in the eyes over good bread and better wine as a way of bringing all of us concretely back to the realization that there is something elemental – sacramental, even – about the fact that we all live on bread and wine, even if we give up or give in or misunderstand the way of Jesus. Or if we have different political ideas that cause us to sell him out again and again.
We all hunger and thirst, and Jesus just keeps breaking himself open and pouring himself out again and again.
As a way of bringing proper acknowledgment to the extremely radical (and unpopular) nature of just this kind of dinner, we might be better served by changing its rather tepid title from the Lord’s Supper to something almost blasphemous: “communionism.”
“Communionism” is a practice demanding that followers of a misunderstood God engage in concrete solidarity across tradition, political identity, geography, theology, socio-economic status, ethnicity and what Paul later called “the dividing wall of hostility” in order to bring a whole new world into being – together. A world that begins with bread, wine and a shared commitment to surviving difference together, not by ignoring it or sacrificing it, but by looking it in the eye and washing its feet and passing the plate.
Honestly, what sounds more like Jesus to you: only participating in religious rituals with people who have the appropriate credentials? Or breaking bread and pouring wine with people who sold you out and abandoned you and constantly misunderstand you and your motives?
These days it seems as if our polarized and violent civilization could use more followers of Jesus radically committed to bravely eating with difference, even if the difference is almost impossible to bear. To commune together, even when there’s good reason for withdrawn civility and hostile incivility, seems a miraculously unlikely experience – one that requires profound faith.
Which is probably why the Church has spent the majority of its life protecting the metaphor instead of practicing its meaning.