[This article is part of the series The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. We also welcome sermons. Submissions may be sent to <email@example.com>.]
‘…as the food is set…a solid thumb and forefinger tears thunderous grey bread.’
For those of us who are inheritors of the Judeo-Christian tradition the word ‘bread’ crackles with connotation. Out of the simple truth that bread is one of the traditional staples of human living, endless symbolism flows: Bread can signify our basic human need for nourishment, it can act as a sign of the work of human hands and so on. Bread can be torn, scattered and gathered and, even in Rowan Williams’ poem Emmaus (quoted above), made to thunder. If some might treat ‘bread’ as a tired, overworked metaphor it also takes us to the heart of the Christian faith. The bread of the Eucharistic feast is no mere sign, it is sacrament.
If there is one story which symbolizes the way in which bread – as metaphor and sign – both fills us and makes us yawn, it is the narrative popularly known as the Feeding of the Five Thousand. One of the rare incidents contained in all four canonical gospels, we often feel over-exposed to it. Many of us have been rehearsing its moves – large crowd, the disciples lacking provisions to feed them, a child with five loaves and two fishes, Jesus breaking bread and all are fed with an abundance left over – since Sunday School. It has become a cliché of the miraculous and a marker of the kind of childish story we set aside in adulthood. It is one of those stories of Jesus one does not need to be a Christian in order to know.
And Jesus says to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’. Philip responds, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each to get a little.’ If we needed the jolt, this simple exchange disrupts any remaining pretense that John 6.1-21 is merely a children’s story. ‘Bread’ – as symbol of basic need and a sign of the work of human hands in community – always leads us to the realm of economics, politics and community: of what can be afforded, of what is prudent and how needs can be met. The exchange between Jesus and Philip signals the seriousness of the matter: how are the people to be fed? (And, even if it does not occur to Jesus, lurking behind this most practical question is the fearful one, ‘What happens if they are not?’) Politicians and policy makers are understandably obsessed with utility and provision, often through the prism of not only what can be afforded but what can wins votes. From their perspective, the desires of faith communities to serve the needs of the vulnerable – especially the socially disenfranchised – can seem naive and unworldly. Politicians will calculate that such folk do not represent an especially influential, organized political and economic caucus. However, today’s gospel reading reminds us that Jesus is thoroughly this-worldly: he too is concerned about bread – about basic need. In the UK at present, faith communities have expressed pointed concern about government plans to limit access to basic benefits for some of society’s most vulnerable folk – the disabled, the chronically ill and emotionally troubled. This critique, grounded though it is in non-utilitarian conceptions of human beings, is thoroughly this-worldly: it is precisely about how the hungry will be fed; it seeks to address real human situations without prioritizing politically expedient questions of who is influential or powerful.
And yet many will object that John’s narrative takes place in the realm of the miraculous. In what sense is the feeding of the many a miracle? It is unsurprising that in our chastened era of faith we are appropriately cautious about how we talk about miracles. Yet, however we play out this story, it is clear that we are not in the realm of the spectacular and the pyrotechnic. This is part of the ironic power of John’s account. For there is a very clear sense in which the good news of the feeding undercuts the pyrotechnic political strategies – based on what bread can be made to mean – that many in power are inclined to adopt. Juvenal’s famous term panem et circenses (bread and circuses) has, since the time of the Roman Republic, become synonymous with government by flashiness and lowest common denominator rather than service and civic responsibility. The political instinct which seeks to treat people as ‘the mob’, to be satisfied by bread and spectacle, is a constant temptation for the powerful.
Government and the state always faces the temptation to treat politics as a 24/7 Cabaret rather than as an unglamorous and un-showy work of service and transformation. It is intriguing to note that the UK is in the midst of both a summer of spectacle – marked by both the Queen’s Jubilee and the London Olympics – and the worst economic situation since the 1970s. Even if it is over-the-top to suggest that the UK government is using spectacle as a plank of its economic policy, only a fool would ignore the Coalition’s desire to build economic capital out of it. Indeed, a law has just come into effect allowing retailers to ignore ordinary trading hour restrictions for the length of the Olympics. Equally, it is clear that the powerful will take advantage of the political goods that may be won from ‘food’ in order to make themselves look good or feather their nest. Britain’s Guardian newspaper (19/07/2012), among others, notes, how the US billion-dollar food aid programme is dominated by three US-based multinationals. Eric Munoz, agriculture specialist for Oxfam America, notes, “[it is clear]…that it is massive multinational firms – not rural America and not farmers – that are the direct beneficiaries of the rigged rules governing the US food aid programme.”
If what Christ offers in John’s account is a miracle it is of the most deflated kind. He takes bread and fish, gives thanks, breaks them and shares. Out of simple actions all are fed as much as they need. There is no magic and no mumbo-jumbo. It prefigures and mirrors the four-fold shape of the Eucharist and inevitably draws our attention to it. Staggering though the notion of feeding five thousand with so little is – especially when we are told that twelve unneeded, uneaten baskets of fragments were gathered up after the meal – Jesus’ action are grounded in the politics of service.
Between 1999 and 2001 I found myself, as a city centre chaplain in Manchester, helping to run a food bank for the homeless and hungry. Though not uncommon in large cities at that time, in a country which offers a network of benefits, they were rare. This pattern is shifting. The Trussell Trust, a Christian charity, claims that three new food banks are opening every week. At a time when the UK benefit system is being treated as a politically-safe and expedient option for cutting back government spending, and the government thrills at the spectacle of corporately-controlled Olympic games, organizations like Trussell Trust are seeing exponential increases in those coming to ask for bread. Even at a parochial level, based as I am in a very mixed urban setting, I have noted a significant increase in those coming to me in search of basic sustenance. It is easy to mock unglamorous service, but in a political climate where the poor have their means of support cut while the wealthy are barely called to account, the practical act of sharing and providing bread for the hungry has never felt more important.
Jesus invites us to gather up the fragments. For it is part of the nature of broken bread that fragments will fall. Yet, at heart of Jesus’ economy is the desire that nothing that matters – that might actually feed us – should be lost. It is stating the blindingly obvious to note that one of the markers of our late capitalist, consumerist culture is its genius for treating its abundance as disposable. There is a sense in which the Countries of the North are caught in a famine of excess: no matter what we eat or use, nothing seems to satisfy us for long and so we continue to try to fill ourselves. If x will not fill us, throw it away and move onto y; even if we enjoy the taste of x, it cannot fill us for long. It is only possible to gather up the fragments – that is the leftovers – if we are ever satisfied. I’m not even sure we know anymore what truly feeds us. Our culture is thrilled with its capacity to consume and generate vast wealth for the few while pushing increasing numbers towards the food bank. Fragments of humanity and love are seemingly being lost.
Bread is always about sustenance. It is always made to be torn apart, to be shared and broken. Bread is not picked off trees or plants. It is part of our cultural nexus and, therefore, an artifact. It is then, a marker of civilization and of what makes us human. And ironically, the sacred bread of Christ is both an artifact (and therefore part of our political economy) and yet it resists our instincts for pragmatism and utility. The Eucharistic bread – as the body of Christ – does not makes itself available to be bought or sold. Christ is the host of the feast and simply gives of himself to those who come to his table. Those who consider themselves political pragmatists may be inclined to mock the very notion that participating in the Eucharist is an experience of feast, that is, of celebration and abundance. They, quite plausibly, may argue that food – that bread – will always be a limited commodity that leaves some fed and others with nothing. The Christian faith is doomed – from that perspective – to be ridiculous and absurd. That it may appear so is a condemnation of political expediency and an invitation to rediscover the shape of real hope.
Rachel Mann is an Anglican priest based in South Manchester, UK. She is also Resident Poet at Manchester Cathedral and a freelance music journalist. Her book on gender, sexuality and spirituality, ‘Dazzling Darkness’ is due to be published by Wild Goose this fall.