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Essays, States of Exception

Demystifying Eucharistic Politics

. . . The concept undeniably has a certain appeal, and few slogans are better calculated to capture the imaginations of the young and disaffected than “Towards eucharistic anarchism” (Bill Cavanaugh’s phrase in Radical Orthodoxy) and other such brazen assertions of liturgical politics. But in all the talk of eucharistic politics, a surfeit of aesthetic appeal seems to have usually compensated for a shortfall of logical clarity.

Peter J. Leithart’s recent Between Babel and Beast concludes by calling for the Church “to work out the practicalities of a eucharistic politics.”  A couple decades ago, the call for a “eucharistic politics” might’ve sounded rather bewildering, but few concepts have proved more fashionable in the Hauerwasian/Radically Orthodox world of contemporary political theology.  The concept undeniably has a certain appeal, and few slogans are better calculated to capture the imaginations of the young and disaffected than “Towards  eucharistic anarchism” (Bill Cavanaugh’s phrase in Radical Orthodoxy) and other such brazen assertions of liturgical politics.  But in all the talk of eucharistic politics, a surfeit of aesthetic appeal seems to have usually compensated for a shortfall of logical clarity.  Just what are folks like Cavanaugh, Hauerwas, and now Leithart calling for?  In particular, is the Eucharist itself a political action, or does it serve as an apolitical paradigm or pedagogue for authentically political acts?  If the former, then how would this actually work, and are we really comfortable with what it might entail?  If the latter, then are we really saying something revolutionary, or are we simply dressing up familiar concepts of Christian discipleship in a sexy new garb?

This tension plagues Bill Cavanaugh’s most thorough examination of the theme, in Torture and Eucharist.  In the final sections of the book, he first explains how excommunication—exclusion from the Eucharist—could be a means by which the Church makes the Eucharist political, as political leaders are excluded from the fellowship of the Church, so that the Church defines itself as a polis over against the state, and seeks to reform the state by issuing this challenge.  And yet he admits that excommunication was of limited effectiveness in thwarting the Pinochet regime, since its generals could usually find cowardly priests who would not enforce the ban.  More effective, it turns out, were the Vicaria de Solidaridad, essentially a parachurch network sponsored by the Catholic Church that engaged in various forms of social action to help the victims of the regime, and the essentially secular Sebastian Acevedo Movement against Torture.  These had no direct relationship to the Eucharist, which served rather only as a paradigm or metaphor of the kind of enactment of solidarity and of truth-telling community which these movements sought to display in the public sphere.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with arguing for a social or political practice informed by the logic of the Eucharist, but this isn’t quite the same thing as saying that the Eucharist itself is political.  The latter language can really only make sense within the conceptuality of the “church as polis,” and may entail things that most advocates of that concept do not really intend.  Better, I suggest, to talk about the politics of the Eucharist from within a model of “church as paradigm/paedagogue,” even if the result feels more mundane.


In the Church-as-polis model, the church is conceived of as an alternative political body alongside or over against nation-states and other political entities.  For much modern church-as-polis thinking, the Eucharist functions as a boundary-marker, or a ritual that somehow defines the identity of this political body, and challenges other political bodies.  As Leithart puts it in BB&B, “Eucharist was seen as the sacramental embodiment of a fulfilled project of divine imperium that began with Abraham.  The community gathered at the eucharistic meal ‘crossed all ethic borders’ [he quotes here C.C. Pecknold] and achieved a ‘unity that was not abstract, nor was it made by coercion or force,’ yet constituted a depth of ‘political allegiance’ that had never before been achieved.  In the Eucharist, the church ritually enacted a ‘transcendent vision that not even the most expansive understanding of ’empire’ could have competed with.”  Constantine, says Leithart, acknowledged the church as “a true and independent imperium in the midst of the Roman empire.”

Does this polis exist in an ongoing relationship of dialogue with secular political bodies, seeking to call them to account and correct them?  If so, then the Eucharist will be seen, among other things, as a way of attempting to directly influence the behavior of secular political communities and agents, a political act in a literal, rather than metaphorical sense, to be evaluated according to criteria used for other recognizably political actions.   It may do this by means either of exclusion or inclusion, that is to say, by the negative and positive forms of the fundamental political act, judgment.

The first means excommunication, the way in which the Eucharist has historically been used as a form of political action.  Cavanaugh thinks this is part of what it means for the church to be political, and so does Leithart in BB&B.  During the medieval period, there was nothing metaphorical about this—to be excommunicated very often entailed loss of civil privileges as well, and if a churchman desired to humble a ruler, he could excommunicate him.  Although in the most famous case (that of Ambrose and Theodosius), this means was arguably used as an effective pastoral tool for bringing an errant ruler to repentance, the potential for abuse is obvious, and many were the popes and bishops who employed excommunication merely to advance their own position against political rivals.  The church as counter-polis could by this means be transformed more and more into the likeness of the worldly poleis that it was confronting.

Nowadays, though, the formerly prominent exclusive dimensions of the Eucharist are often de-emphasized, and replaced with a concept of the Eucharist primarily as an inclusive gesture, by which anyone and everyone is invited to participate in the Lord’s hospitality.  An inclusive eucharistic politics, then, is one in which, the Church, by opening its doors and treating as equal those who are rejected by secular polities, lays down a challenge to these polities, setting the stage for a confrontation and hoping to force these polities to change their policies.  Now, it should be noted that if we are talking about a direct political confrontation, we are not merely talking about the Church showing hospitality to the “downtrodden and the marginalized” in a generic sense, those who have received insufficient attention from political leaders or society at large.  We are talking about those who are in fact excluded in a literal political sense by the surrounding political community, that is to say, outlaws.  When the Church gives sanctuary to illegal aliens or to criminals, inviting them into its own fellowship, it practices a counter-politics, but one that clearly cannot be confined to mere eucharistic practice.  Again, this was something the medieval church did in an unambiguously political way, using its power to give sanctuary to those condemned by political authorities, including most notably its own clergy, whom it claimed the right to judge on its own terms.  Again, sometimes, these were ways of resisting tyranny, other times ways of perpetuating tyranny.

It’s worth noting that in both of the above cases, the “Eucharist” does not function automatically.  The mere practice of the Eucharist cannot exclude or include, but rather, the decisions of church authorities about how to use it, within a larger fabric of claims the church makes about itself.  This should not surprise us, for any authentically political act requires authority.  Ignorance of this fact perpetuates the dangerous illusion that the Eucharist somehow gives us a way of doing politics without power (since no one these days likes power).


But perhaps such a confrontational account is unnecessary.  Perhaps we may, as some do, envision the Church as a “polis” not so much concerned with challenging earthly polities head-on, but merely with perpetuating itself as their alternative.  In this model, the Church’s liturgies and structures mark out a unique sort of community and society, which is the true community before which all earthly polities will pass away.  The exclusive or inclusive practices of the Eucharist, then, in this model, serve to define both the boundaries and the character of the church as “political” community.  By this, they may be thought to be indirectly political actions, by testifying to the nature of Christ’s kingship and thus to the inadequacy of worldly polities.

This sounds perhaps more attractive, but falls prey to a couple of difficulties.  First, the right balance of exclusion and inclusion is crucially important.  A completely inclusive account of the Eucharist will leave this “polis” amorphous and undefined, rather than generating a recognizable body.  An overly exclusive account, however, will readily degenerate into a sect, in which the church’s claim to be the true political community is rendered laughable.  Second, the church’s practices of exclusion or inclusion will need to be consistent to be meaningful.  If I can participate in the Eucharist at Church A but not at Church B (whether because of credal or moral concerns), then the Eucharist is clearly not fulfilling its “political” role of marking out a unified body.  To achieve consistency in this regard, acts of formal denominational union or intercommunion are needed, and indeed, commitments by individual churches to honor excommunication bans or standards of inclusion determined by other individual churches.  It should quickly become clear that a standardization of eucharistic practice here would require an elaborate and substantially unified institutional apparatus. Catholics nod their heads vigorously; Protestants turn and run.  In any case, such an apparatus would necessarily end up resembling more the kind of worldly political structure to which it was supposed to provide an alternative, and might be tempted toward the kind of direct confrontation just described.


But the advocates of eucharistic politics will surely complain that we are missing the point.  The Eucharist rather is supposed to serve as a picture, or a foretaste, if you like, of the kind of people, the kind of community, that we are to be.  We ought to be sacrificial, as Christ was; we ought to be hospitable, eating with the poor and strangers; we ought to be sharers in one another, and sharers of resources; we ought not to be divided on racial or class lines; we ought to be dependent on God.  Sure, of course!  All of this is great.  But we are now talking about the church, not as a polis in fact, but as a paradigm or paedagogue for citizens of the earthly polis.  By this means, the Eucharist can, if well-taught and well-practiced, give us ideas for how we ought to live with one another, for the kinds of political practices we ought to engage in and those we ought to challenge.  But it’s important to note that reading the Bible ought to do the same thing; it is “political” and not political in the same sense.  The retort might come, “But the Eucharist isn’t mere teaching, it is putting that teaching in practice by action, which helps form our habits.”  That is to say, it’s one thing to say, “Share with the poor,” but it might be another, and rather more effective thing, to actually get the feel of it by passing the bread and wine to a poor person in the next pew.  But to this extent, a plain old church picnic may achieve the same thing; it can be “political” and not political in the same sense the Eucharist is.  The Eucharist may equip us with unique spiritual strength for the task, to be sure, but this does not make it any more political.  It’s important to note that, understood this way, the “politics” is not so much a function of the gathering as of the sending out; it takes place not as we unite around the bread and the wine, but as we each find ways of applying a Eucharistic logic in the world.

Such a paradigmatic or paedagogical account of the eucharist need not be seen as reductionist—there’s much that deserves to be explored there.  What is important, though, is that advocates of “eucharistic politics” make up their minds.  Are they really talking about the Eucharist as paedagogue?  And if so, why muddy up the conversation with the political talk?  Or do they genuinely want a politicized Eucharist?  If so, they will need to stop beating around the bush and get clear on what this entails.

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