Torture and Eucharist: Part 3, Eucharistic Discipline

In the last two posts we've sketched two of the important points made by William Cavanaugh in Torture and Eucharist about how the church (his case study is the Catholic church during the regime of Pinochet) mobilizes resistance to the torturing state. Specifically, the church/state conflict is over bodies with the church seeking to disrupt the state's unopposed power to do whatever it wants to the bodies of citizens (or anyone for that matter within the state's borders). The church contests this power by claiming these bodies. When the church does this the church becomes visible, a community who stands together against the actions of the state.

In this post I want to summarize three practices described by Cavanaugh that allowed the Chilean church to become visible, claim martyrs, create solidarity, and mobilize resistance to the state. The last of these practices--Eucharistic discipline--is the reason why I'm doing this series, to wrestle with Cavanaugh's argument about the need for denying communion to certain individuals.

So what are practices by which the church becomes visible?

1. Providing tangible support and relief for those victimized by the state
This seems obvious, but the key is to do this visibly and institutionally. In response to the torture and other state abuses the church in Chile established institutions that guided efforts to help and support the victims. These institutions became rallying points for those wanting to come together and resist the state. As Cavanaugh describes it:
Offering a wide range of programs covering legal and medical assistance, job training, soup kitchens, buying cooperatives, assistance to unions and more, these organizations became the focus of church resistance to the regime...the church provided a space in which organization could take place and social fragmentation could be resisted....

[These] organizations help to "knit the people together"...The church in Chile resisted [the] strategy [of the state to disappear the church by isolating individuals from one another] precisely by knitting people back together, connecting them as members of one another. 
Cavanaugh describes this action as Eucharistic in that it allows the persecuted body of Christ to come together and be visibly recognized by ts members and the onlooking state.

2. Subversive street liturgy
The state wanted to keep its activities out of the public view, to disappear the bodies. Resisting this, the church wanted to make the tortured bodies visible. This was accomplished in Chile by the Sebastian Acevedo Movement against Torture. Members of the movement would appear in a public place, perform a subversive act of liturgy, and then melt away. Sort of like a flash mob. Cavanaugh describes an example:
On September 14, 1983, a group of seventy nuns, priests, and laypeople appeared suddenly in front of the CNI clandestine prison at 1470 Borgono Street in Santiago [where most of the torture occurred] and unfurled a banner: A MAN IS BEING TORTURED HERE. They blocked traffic, read a litany of regime abuses, handed out leaflets signed "Movement against Torture," and sang.
Subversive street liturgy made the tortured body of Christ visible and made martyrs of previously anonymous victims:
Suddenly the invisibility under which the torture apparatus operates are shattered, interrupting its power. In an astonishing ritual transformation, clandestine torture centers are revealed to the passerby for what they are, as if a veil covering the building were abruptly taken away. The complicity of other sectors of the government and society is laid bare for all to see. The entire torture system suddenly appears on a city street. Techniques of torture are detailed, places of torture identified, names of victims and names of those responsible--including sometimes the names of the immediate torturers themselves--are made publicly known. Victims are thus transformed into martyrs, as their names are spoken as a public witness against the powers of death.
3. Eucharistic discipline
The final practice of making the body of Christ visible is the reason why we are doing this series. Specifically, one way the church resisted torture in Chile was denying communion to those involved with the torture program. The Eucharist was denied to torturers as they were excommunicated. This action drew a sharp line between the torturers and those being tortured. And in drawing this line the church clarified where the persecuted body of Christ was located. The body of Christ was visibly aligned with the victims over against the excommunicated torturers.

Cavanaugh making some of these points:
Unity in the church is much more than agreement on doctrine or the general ability of the members of the church to get along, nor is it just participation in a common project or community. It is participation in Christ, and so requires a narrative display of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Unity is based on assimilation to Christ, and so the unity and the identity of the church are the same issue. Jesus was tortured to death. Tortured and torturers in the same church therefore threaten the transparency of the church as the body of Christ.

The gravity of an offense is often invoked in separating ordinary sins from sins meriting excommunication. I would argue that this not be understood as simply a matter of degree but of kind. In other words, excommunication is not reserved for those individuals who simply outdo the rest of the church's ordinary sinners in the number or degree of their sins. Excommunication is better understood as applicable to those kinds of sins which impugn the identity of the body of Christ. Excommunication, by definition, is for ecclessiological offenses. If, as I have already argued, the excommunicated person puts herself outside the church in the very act of her sin, then the sin itself must be construed as a sin against the body of Christ. I am arguing, then, that the use of excommunication should not be extended, but rather limited to those sins which threaten the very visibility of the body of Christ.
If anyone is to "discern the body," then it must become visible in present time. [It was the effect] of some state disciplines [under Pinochet] to render the church invisible, to "disappear" the body of Christ. The Eucharist, as the gift which effects the visibility of the true body of Christ, is, therefore, the church's counter-imagination to that of the state. Formal excommunication makes the church visible, if only temporarily, by bringing to light a boundary between church and world which those who attack the church have themselves drawn.
If Eucharistic discipline is rightly understood, then excommunication does not rend the unity of the church, but makes visible the disunity and conflict, already so painfully present, between the body of Christ and those who would torture it. Only when this disunity becomes visible can real reconciliation and real unity be enacted.
In the Eucharist the poor are invited now to come and to feast in the Kingdom. The Eucharist must not be a scandal to the poor. It demands real reconciliation of oppressed and oppressor, tortured and torturer. Barring reconciliation, Eucharist demands judgment.
I think you can see Cavanaugh's argument. If the church is to stand in solidarity with the victims of torture, claiming these bodies over against the state, a line needs to be drawn between the tortured and the torturer. Eucharistic discipline draws that line and, thus, makes the persecuted body of Christ visible.

In the next post I'll share some of the caveats Cavanaugh shares about excommunication (and some of these can be discerned in his quotes above) and locations where his analysis bumps up against the arguments I make in Unclean.

Part 4

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21 thoughts on “Torture and Eucharist: Part 3, Eucharistic Discipline”

  1. I certainly don't think we should make torturers welcome in church, but I wonder how this would work in the UK. Let's say we identified the people involved in extraordinary redition. How many of them would be churchgoers, and how many of the minority who were would attend churches willing to be involved in 'political' action? By having closed communion, we'd effectively be making a statement that God was concerned with the people inside the church, when we need to make it clear that our mission, via, for instance, the food bank at my church, is to all, especially those affected by iniquitous government policies.

  2. The two most powerful ideas that I am drawn to in this post are, 1) knitting/connecting people together, and 2) awareness of complicity in the suffering/torture of invisible victims.

    I'll bet my opinion about Eucharist demanding judgment and excommunication isn't hard to anticipate...

    But I will try to explain why I feel as I do.

    Imagining myself in the place of the tortured, I honestly would derive no satisfaction from knowing that a person -- even my worst enemy -- were being barred from God.  Isn't that what prohibiting a person from coming to the Lord's table is really about?  It is saying, "You aren't welcome; you are not worthy."

    Imagining myself in the place of the torturer, *if* I desired to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist, then maybe there is still some hope of a miraculous, mystical "awakening" to the horror of my sins and a healing work to begin in me and between fellow brothers and sisters.  It may be a long shot, but I think if we as Christians *really* believe and hope in the mercy and compassion of God in, through, and with Christ, then how can any person be denied a place at the Lord's table?

    And that's my opinion, as far as any blanket "rules" for communion go.  I could not be a part of any church that did not practice open communion.  Closed communion so offends my deepest beliefs.

    To bring my perhaps idealistic thoughts down to earth a bit...

    Imagining in my personal life, if at the altar of communion a person with whom a serious unresolved offense existed between me and him (or her) knelt down beside me, I feel that I would have to make a decision to make peace for that one moment, or find another faith community.  Best case scenario, I would feel comfortable discussing this with my pastor, and seek his (or her) help in resolving this dilemma in my own mind and heart.  But ultimately, I would have to be the one responsible for choosing -- if I were the one having a problem with the other receiving communion next to me.

    There is material (bodily) poverty, and there is spiritual impoverishment.  If one is spiritually impoverished, as I would suggest that anyone who tortures another human being surely must be, how then is his (or her) spirit to receive nourishment that heals and transforms, if not through the church (a/k/a body of Christ)?  We wait for God to "happen" to these people, in their hearts, and to come begging to be let in?  Or, what?

    The Eucharist being used as judgment is purely punitive.  What about the power of Love?

    I struggle with this, don't get me wrong.  But I don't feel like meddling with a perfect idea just because in practice it is hard.  Right?  I think that just means I need to keep praying for strength to live up to my calling (versus watering down my calling so that I feel better about myself.)

    The fact that as a society we are all complicit to some degree or another in the failures and horrors being visited upon the vulnerable is a profound truth, imho.  No feigned innocence on our parts.  Let the grief of our complicity wash over us and cause us to cry out for God's mercy, for those suffering most as well as for ourselves.  We are all in need of God's mercy and compassion.  Living into that in such a way that it spills over and flows outward to those around us who need it most is the ultimate "skill."


  3. P.S. -- Have you read or studied much about the revolution in South Africa to end apartheid?

    Some time back, I read two books by Desmond Tutu:  Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference, and The Rainbow People of God: The Making of a Peaceful Revolution.

    I was blown away by the courage and dedication of DT, in concert with Nelson Mandela, to end apartheid.  I don't recall whether Eucharist was used in the process of reconciliation...  But the Anglican church was certainly actively involved in mobilizing resistance and effecting reconciliation -- "knitting together" those in opposition to one another.  ~Peace~

  4. Looking forward to how the two of you (and Robert, below) will interact with Paul's insistence that "eating with such a one" was even to be withheld from those committing sexual sin of certain kinds.  It will be hard to maintain Susan's position if Paul is allowed to speak authoritatively.  Interested to see how y'all will finesse that.

  5. I talk about that passage in Paul in Unclean. I don't get into sexual sin in these posts as I'm just reacting to Cavanaugh and his focus is on torture.

  6. I agree. In theory denying communion to people known to be torturing seems straightforward. More, the relationship between the Catholic church and the Chilean state makes this more a political clash between social institutions (with one insstiution kicking out members of the other institution) than an individual congregation monitoring and making descions about her members. In short, while Cavanaugh's analysis seems straighforward--excommunicate tortorers--the praxis of all this is very murky when we move outside his case study.

    Regardless, I summarize his agrument here (in these three posts, Parts 1-3) so people can catch the shape of his argument as it's often pointed to as one of the most, if not the most, potent arguments for closed communion and excommunication.

  7. One way to look at this, and Cavanaugh brings this up though he ultimately rejects this line of argument, it to take a look at 1 Cor. 11.29:

    "For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself."

    The one who takes communion in an unworthy manner (e.g., torturers) bring judgment upon themselves. That is, communion isn't closed but judgment is involved. But the judgment is self-imposed, brought on yourself, rather than imposed by the church.

    Basically, communion isn't closed but it is dangerous.

  8. Found it.  Chapter 8, beginning on page 134...  Yes, Dr. Beck.  Yes.  As far as torturers go, of course we wouldn't accept violent action *at* the Lord's table.  Maybe one moment of peace and "atONEment"?  I think of the men in prison with whom you fellowship.  Maybe some have committed violent acts against a fellow human being.  Are they offered communion and invited to learn of and be enfolded by God's mercy and forgiveness?  Is redemption held up as a possibility?  Is any hope expressed for repentance and reconciliation with and between those who have been harmed?  I think if I learned the full story of anyone in prison, I would find something in his or her background to justify my compassion toward him/her.  Love is a very powerful witness, especially to those who have never known it.  ~Peace~

  9. It is this very issue--and verse--which eventually drove me permanently from the (Protestant) church.  Years of indoctrination and lectures about the danger of Hell for those who "eat or drink unworthily".  Second- and third-guessing myself, to the point that I had to continually take the pastor's call to leave now or be damned.  And that final trip up the isle, in full public view, little girl and wife in hand, after years of trying to find a church "home".  One of the most humiliating experiences of my life. 

    And now, many years later, I cannot see the danger at all.  I have never tortured anyone other than myself.  But I suppose I do agree heartily with the idea of "open communion", if only to spare another soul from a lifetime of spiritual despair.

  10. I suspect another significant complication with Cavanaugh's position is also the history of complicity between the Church and the state.  The public receiving of the Eucharist carried with it a tacit (and some times explicit) approval and even legitimating blessings of God.  This very compromise (which carries over into many churches today, not just Catholic ones) indicts us all as being complicit in the torture of the state.  Before Cavanaugh's position could have credibility, this historical & contemporary compromise would need to be acknowledged and repented of.  Even then, for me it just points towards the necessity of open communion.

  11. I grew up with much the same thing.

    The thing that softens this now for me is how Paul in 1 Cor. is trying to address problems in the Corinthian church. Specifically, how the rich members of the church were shaming the poorer members. So for Paul the judgment for failing to "discern the body" wasn't about thinking about how you were such a God-awful sinner as much as it was about dealing with the social fractures within that church, where two groups of people weren't associating with each other and one of the groups was treating the other group as second-class citizens of the Kingdom of God.

    Paul was essentially saying this: "Because ya'll are taking communion without honestly dealing with how you are mistreating each other you stand under judgment. The fellowship meal you are sharing with each other in is a pretense, a collective pretending. Thus you stand condemned by that very meal. By participating in the meal--by applying it to yourselves--you've judged yourself."

  12. hi qb,

    I have been thinking more about the authoritative word of the Apostle Paul.

    It strikes me as ironic that the Apostle Paul, in his past life, was in fact a torturer.  A cold-blooded killer of Christians.  A self-righteous jerk.

    And after his Damascus Road conversion, it took a little bit of convincing for the apostles to accept Paul into the fold.  They were afraid of him, and they hated him for what he had done.

    I like to take the Apostle Paul in the totality of his biography.  And, it always impresses me that he would say of himself, "I, chief among sinners..."  He never forgot his past, and I think that infused him with a sense of humility toward others, and a passion to be a catalyst for others to experience what he did.

    Paul wrestled with theology, and with holding together the newly formed churches.  And beyond giving him some "grace" as to getting everything exactly right, I agree with Dr. Beck:  read the *whole* Bible developmentally, with Jesus as the centerpiece.

    Sorry to go on and on.  We are getting down to the brass tacks, now.  I'm deeply invested in this discussion.  But, alas, I will be offline for the rest of the day.  Carry on!  Pardon this added interruption.


  13. You used the word "cliquish" to describe all-too-common Protestant behavior, and it would seem that closed communion is a statement about inclusion, and being excluded is essentially meaningless. Whereas in the Catholic "Universal" setting, inclusion in the closed communion is the normal thing; being excluded is exceptional and noteworthy. In short, the argument only works where there is a national church.

    It is true that the State, by its nature, wishes to obtain a monopoly on the use of power, meaning force, meaning violence, with bad results for individual freedom. Is that why Jesus said, Have a sword? We're on a dangerous road to a discussion about gun control here. BUT if an arriving death squad was met by by gunfire, that would also tend to make a public spectacle although it would not save lives. It's important to remember that we don't have death squads here in the US (give or take a few SWAT teams, who are not killing people ON PURPOSE), but they did exist in Chile and other places. Not intending to advocate here, just trying to carry the argument forward.

  14. i too grew up with this view of paul. truly inducing of spiritual despair!

    i have found the new perspective immensely liberating on this point (see for example krister stendahl's paul and the introspective conscience of the west).

    apologies for the digression off cavanaugh's arguments!

  15. I appreciate that, Dr. Beck.  I really do.  My point is that the judgment and condemnation I internalized did not occur in a vacuum -- many ministers/leaders/teachers placed those ideas into my impressionable and gullible heart and mind.  My mistake was to assume there was a reason, a purpose beyond mere control.  It was only years later that I learned so many others did not take as a matter of life-and-death those sermons and admonitions, and they were much happier than I and more able to socialize comfortably within the group.  Even as I anticipated them dropping like flies, they flourished and thrived. Bible literalism ruled the day, and context was not often mentioned.

    Torment and torture can be both physical and spiritual -- and both come come from without and within.  I happen to come honestly to the spiritual type as a scion of Contemplative Puritans.  Even now I can scarcely discern the difference between being "disappeared" and being designated as eternally damned.  I am as wary of the Church as I am of the State.

  16. At the risk of recycling an issue from comments to the previous posts, my initial reaction to the first post in this series was to think of abortion as a context for claiming the bodies of victims. However, the abortion issue does not fit well because the mother is choosing abortion, and the government is not getting in the way. It is more like the failure of government to protect its citizens - looking the other way at private violence.

    Second, the Catholic Church can lay a plausible claim to the bodies of the victims in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. That is awkward in a pluralistic country where the mother and the abortionist may not be church members. The church would not even have standing to claim the remains.

    The Catholics tried denying communion to politicians who supported abortion - with little impact. Members of other Christian denominations would probably just find another church or leave altogether.

  17. It's not necessary to deal with sexual sin per se.  Simply in terms of the logic of it, Paul seems to think that the notion  that the church should NEVER withhold eucharist fellowship from ANYONE for ANY REASON is patently false.  But that is the upshot of Susan's position (and, presumably, yours).

    I get the piont about reading the Bible "developmentally."  But that is not an excuse for hand-waving exegesis.  If in fact Paul "matures" to a more accommodating attitude toward the tolerance of sin in the church, one expects to see evidence of that "growth" in his later letters, as well as some account of that evolution.

    It is in fashion these days among theological liberals to translate Jesus' "let him be to you as collector" as " I [Jesus] would treat a tax collector" rather than the equally plausible, " YOU would [ordinarily] treat a tax collector."  That somewhat libertine reading is in no way an open-and-shut case.  That is, it is by no means self-evident (though it is possible, I will admit) that Jesus thereby eliminated any justification for separation from sinners.  So the "developmental...with Jesus at the center" is also no slam dunk here.

    Cheerfully, but not persuaded,


  18.  I wonder if this goes some of the way to helping us understand Cavanaugh. He seems to be making a clear statement about the church (as the body of Christ) excluding people who symbolically and incarnationally represent the powers and principalities.

    "I am arguing, then, that the use of excommunication should not be
    extended, but rather limited to those sins which threaten the very
    visibility of the body of Christ."

    This is, as I understand it, not a personal excommunication per sae, but a sign/act of God's "No" against the violence perpetrated by a corrupt regime. Excommunication of individuals actually renames perpetrators as people rather than remaining part of the whole. Excommunication has the explicit expectation that people will be reconciled to the community. Thus, excommunication re-frames the whole conflict by emphasising both victim and perpetrator as individuals under God.

  19. That's the way I see it. Excommunication is more of a political act--the church saying no to the state--than something directed at individuals. And insofar as excommunication is directed at individuals it is trying to help them see, by drawing the line in the sand, that they are standing with the state than with the Kingdom of God. In this, the goal is an attempt to welcome that person back. Cavanaugh actually makes the counter-intuitive claim that excommunication is an act of hospitality. It shows you where the door is and invites you in.

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