Adam Schneider is a former seminarian at Seattle Pacific Seminary and is currently a graduate student at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology in Seattle, WA. He graduated with a degree in Political Science from Capital University in Columbus, OH. A hopeful Nazarene, he is passionate about naming and relating our personal stories while deconstructing social categories that prevent us from truly knowing one another.
ISIS recently beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya. On Monday, 150 other Assyrian Christians were kidnapped in Syria. American politicians, including the President, are still in conflict over how best to respond to the ongoing violence. There is a depressing and frustrating lack of consistency when American politicians and political commentators use Christian faith and/or scripture to justify public policy, particularly regarding military attacks in response to violence. When examined closely, I find that inconsistent application of one’s faith in the US (whether Christian, Muslim, or any other) is unfortunately similar to that of our “enemy,” the “terrorists” that we are so desperate to destroy. Violence is committed when we characterize and dehumanize. These steps are unfortunately more cyclical than linear, lending to a cycle that the more it spins, the less likely we are to stop. For Christians, our best hope for a more coherent and consistent living out of our faith is proper understanding and partaking of the Eucharist. Why the Eucharist? Pope Paul VI answers that question, writing, “If the brotherhood of man, their working together in unity, and finally peace, constitutes the supreme good in the temporal and social order, should not the world discover in the Eucharist the simplest and clearest formula to interpret, define and direct that supreme good?”
The impenetrable mystery present in the Eucharist prevents any legitimate violence against another. Jill Peterson Adams, quoted in Braided Selves writes, “Ideally, both ethically and politically, the realization that the other is always that which we have yet to know, is forever unknowable, stays our hand at the moment of potential violence.” At the Lord’s Table, characterization and dehumanization must end. My theology of the Eucharist, informed by Thomas Merton, John Wesley, and others across the ecclesial spectrum, teaches us that violence cannot exist at the table nor can violence be a product or consequence of the time spent there. I recognize that there are Christians who adhere to Augustine’s understanding of “just war.” There is room for this disagreement within the Church. However, my argument is that any violence, whether rhetorical or physical, whether offensive or defensive, is in contradiction to the Eucharist, the “sacrament of peace.”
The first step in committing violence is characterization of the person, group, religion, country, etc. against whom one wishes to commit violence. I define characterization as unknowing. Instead of exploring interest in a person in his/her particularity, we categorize. We use our social constructs (gender, sexuality, religion, behavior, etc.) to circumvent the process of coming to know the Other. In doing so we are capable of justifying the violence. At the Lord’s Table, no one is unknown. Jesus entered into the particularity of being human and was crucified because he was not known by the world, not even by his disciples. If we truly were interested in knowing the Other, we would not commit violence. The proof for this statement is the plethora of characterizations we use. One example comes to mind.
With immigration, President Obama is as inconsistent with living out or applying his Christian faith as his Republican critics. Immigrants, and those who are “foreign” generally, want to have hope in this President. He recently gave what is to be considered a monumental speech on immigration reform. The tagline soon became a hashtag on Twitter to summarize the reforms: “felons not families.” Illegal immigrants (another characterization) would be allowed to stay in the US to keep families together. Felons, on the other hand, are to be deported. The speech was panned for its use of scripture, or rather, its misuse. Making up a passage altogether and summarizing many others, he said, “…now is the time to reflect on those who are strangers in our midst and remember what it was like to be a stranger.” Two questions: are felons not members of families and are felons not strangers? As Moltmann asks, do we not remember posing the question “What is the truth?” and crucifying it?
Dehumanization is what naturally follows from the use of characterizations. We, the good team, are humans and they, the terrorists, the felons, our enemies, are inhuman. They are barbaric, they are godless, they are not worthy of love, forgiveness, or compassion. What does it mean to be human? This column is not the place to answer this enormously important question entirely, but we can start the conversation. What does it mean to be human? It means to bear the image of God. Let me be clear: Muslims, even those considered to be radical Islamists, bear the same image of God as Christians. To suggest otherwise is to question the creation myth in Genesis. The relevant question, then, is to ask a response looks like that recognizes the particular humanity of “the violent.” Bishop Angaelos, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, recently gave a statement that illustrates such a response. He said,
“…as a Christian and a Christian minister I have a responsibility to myself and to others to guide them down this path of forgiveness. We don’t forgive the act because the act is heinous. But we do forgive the killers from the depths of our hearts. Otherwise, we would become consumed by anger and hatred. It becomes a spiral of violence that has no place in this world.”
What is so confusing about some of the Christian American responses to “terrorism” is their contradiction to God’s responses to our terrorism against Him and His creation. We preach about the covenants of scripture between God and his people and ignore our own responsibility with one another. We’ll love our enemy once we’ve won.
Having been responsible for our creation, Jesus’ own experience of violence and death can help us figure out a Eucharistic perspective of violence. Lest we forget, he instructed us to remember this as we partake of the Eucharist. Necessary to this theology is the recognition of the real, actual presence of Christ in the bread and wine that is blessed. If the elements of communion are simply there as a memorial, if Christ is not really present, then we do not remember, we are not transformed through its consumption, and nothing in our world changes. To partake of the Eucharist is to recognize the blood on our hands. The bloodshed of Jesus is enough to bring about the reconciliation of creation in its entirety. It was the bloodshed to end all bloodshed. And because new creation has its own time, we experience the bloodshed of 2,000 years ago in our sanctuaries every time we partake. To justify the bloodshed we commit by our faith is to deny the power of Christ’s bloodshed on the cross.
The Christ that Christians claim to follow is not the “macho man” that America has unfortunately developed. Christ is the man who was crucified. Bonhoeffer in Christ the Center reminds us that we consume Christ in “the form of his humiliation or as a stumbling block.” Theologian Kosuke Koyama describes the “mind of Christ” in Ephesians as the “crucified mind.” This conception of Christ and of the Eucharist contradicts present Christian approach to violence. When our courts sentence a person to the death penalty, we are claiming that this person’s identity is the sum total of the crime she committed and that is all that we need to know about her to kill her. See for example, the story of Kelly Gissendaner, who is scheduled to be executed in Georgia on Monday evening. The crucified mind has overcome death, not instituted anew.
Do we not recognize ourselves as the perpetrators of violence? The President goes so far as to deny the amount of innocent lives killed by his drone strikes. As we approach the altar, the Lord’s Table, to receive the Eucharist, our similarities become clearer. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Sometimes I wondered if it even mattered whether our communion cups were filled with consecrated wine or draft beer, as long as we bent over them long enough to recognize each other as kin.” We have not spent enough time bent over our cups. The one whom I want, or perhaps feel the need, to commit violence against is my brother or my sister. Even in our defense of a people or a country, we contribute to the fallacy that one is deserving of our hand and the other our sword. Rowan Williams restates this beautifully, saying, “Sometimes, after receiving Holy Communion, as I look around a congregation, large or small, I have a sensation I can only sum up as this is it – this is the moment when people see one another and the world properly…” When we spend too much time away from the Lord’s Table (that is, away from others with Christ at the center), we develop an amnesia that leads to deception of who we are in relation to others. We become “puffed up” (1 Cor 4:18) instead of poured out (Jn 3:30).
Speaking of pride, Merton writes in his autobiography, “In the modern world, people are always holding up their heads and marching into the future, although they haven’t the slightest idea what they think the future is or could possibly mean. The only future we seem to walk into, in actual fact, is full of bigger and more terrible wars, wars well calculated to knock our upraised heads off those squared shoulders.” We are walking around headless; no small wonder we fail to see one another properly. Instead of ingesting the peace of Christ in the Eucharist, our lungs are filled with the fumes of violent defense of self. This peace surpasses all understanding (Phil 4:7), that is, the understanding of this world that says we have a right to defend freedom, whatever that is, and to attack those who wish to do us or others harm. We decorate with medals our veterans of war as heroes for the violence they committed like a king is crowned at coronation. But as Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, however, “Christians are not called to be heroes or shoppers. We are called to be holy.”
We are called to foster peace and that is not done through violence. Violence does not lead to peace. Shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Bobby Kennedy gave a speech about violence in which he said, “…violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.” That cleansing took place on the cross. In order to realize that cleansing, in order to be ready to receive the Eucharist, however, we have to acknowledge our own complicity in death. Each act of violence we commit, individually, collectively, nationally, and/or religiously, is another refusal to acknowledge our complicity
Photo description (Photo credit: flickr, European Commission DG ECHO; Massive influx of Syrian Kurdish refugees into Turkey, a line of Syrian Kurdish refugees walking in a desert. Families carrying bags over their heads, etc.)