Torture and Eucharist: Part 4, What Sin Deserves Excommunication?

In the last three posts I've tried to summarize the argument made by William Cavanaugh in his book Torture and Eucharist for the place of Eucharistic discipline (denying communion, excommunication) in the church. As noted in the last post,  Cavanaugh argues that in the face of the Pinochet torture program the use of excommunication by the church--denying the Eucharist to the torturers--was effective in making the persecuted body of Christ visible and, thus, a location of protest and resistance.

As I said in the very first post in this series on Monday, I wanted to write about Torture and Eucharist as Cavanaugh's argument has come up as a counterpoint to the vision of open communion I describe in Unclean where I use Jesus's radical ministry of table fellowship--his eating with tax collectors and sinners--as a model for the Lord's Supper.

How are we to make these two visions fit together, if at all?

A place to start is to think about the limits Cavanaugh puts on his own project. Specifically, Cavanaugh shares the worries we all have about excommunication. Cavanaugh recognizes the abuses that are concomitant with the practices of closed communion and excommunication. He does worry about top-down powerplays involved in purity policing. These are my worries and focus in Unclean.

Consequently, Cavanaugh is keen to point out that what he's talking about is a really severe situation, one of the most catastrophic moral breakdowns imaginable within the body of Christ--Christians torturing Christians. And in such extreme situations extreme counter-measures are required. Thus, Cavanaugh argues that excommunication shouldn't be reserved for failures of piety and hedonic excess. Excommunication should only be reserved for sins against the body of Christ, sins that threaten the ability of the church to be the body of Christ--the Persecuted One in the midst of the world. Torture is such a sin. By creating victims in the face of the Divine Victim, by nailing people to crosses under the sign of the Cross, by torturing at the feet of the Tortured One, and by persecuting under the eyes of the Persecuted One the church is no longer the church. Only by drawing a line between the perpetrators and the victims can God be visibly seen hanging on the cross in the midst of history and human affairs. (Incidentally, this is the same argument made by James Cone in his recent book The Cross and the Lynching Tree.)

If this is so, then how are we to sort out which sins deserve excommunication? To get at this Cavanaugh make a distinction between degrees and kinds of sin. We shouldn't think of Eucharistic discipline as being reserved for the really, really bad sins. It is, rather, reserved for a certain class or kind of sin, sins--like torture--that threaten the identity of the body of Christ as described above. A quote from Cavanaugh shared yesterday describing this:
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 mater of degree but of kind. In other words, excommunication is not reserved for those individuals who simply out do 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 sin which impugn the identity of the body of Christ. Excommunication, by definition, is for ecclesiological 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. 
This, I think, sits comfortably with my focus in Unclean. We are not talking here about excessive sinfulness, about the prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners Jesus associated with. We are, rather, talking about Christians who are acting violently against other Christians. These actions indicate that the Christian communion has been shattered and lost. Basically, the church no longer exists. Excommunication in this instance is simply the attempt to recover and resurrect the church in the face of its destruction. More from Cavanaugh on this point:
It should be apparent that this social practice [i.e., excommunication] is not based on any perfectionistic ethic for the church. My argument that torture, as an anti-liturgy of absolute power which attacks the body of Christ itself, should be met with excommunication is by no means an argument for the use of excommunication in general for other types of sin. This is torture, not theft or masturbation. If accepted, my argument would limit excommunication, to keep it from being used in the service of right-wing ecclesiastical politics. Furthermore, formal excommunication is not the only key to the church's visibility. It is not so much a solution as a recognition that something has gone terribly wrong.
I think these passages show that there isn't really a disjoint between Torture and Eucharist and Unclean. My concern in Unclean is with things like "right-wing ecclesiastical" powerplays, where a "perfectionist moral ethic" is used to judge people engaging in sins like "theft or masturbation." That is, I'm pushing back on using closed communion to morally police the congregation. As I read him, Cavanaugh would agree with me. His argument for excommunication is limited to situations where the social body of the church has been torn apart. And excommunication in this case isn't about fixing anything as much as it is a public declaration that the church--as a whole--has lost its way and has disintegrated into moral chaos. We might say that excommunication signals the failure of the church as a whole.

And it is important to note in all this that excommunication isn't being used to monitor the moral lives of Christians as much as it is being used to highlight the conflict between the church and the state, the conflict between the church and the principalities and powers. The Eucharist keeps alive the memory of Jesus as one tortured and killed by the state and functions as an ongoing sign and symbol that Jesus is Lord in the face of the principalities and powers.

According to Cavanaugh, then, excommunication is simply bringing to the surface a conflict that already exists. Excommunication doesn't create the separation and rift. Excommunication simply names the rift and brings it out into the open. And the goal of this isn't judgment but restoration and reconciliation. Cavanaugh:
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.
Again, a key insight here is that "reconciliation" isn't about an individual member repenting of, say, some sexual sin and being welcomed back by the church. That is, the reconciliation isn't between the sinner and the judging church. It is, rather, the reconciling of two tragically divided groups of Christians, of the church reconciling with itself so that its resistance to the principalities and powers has moral integrity, force, and public visibility.

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24 thoughts on “Torture and Eucharist: Part 4, What Sin Deserves Excommunication?”

  1. You could take this line, and still retain open communion. All you'd need to do would be ban a relatively few individuals who were clearly acting against God's people. By maintaining a communion which was otherwise open, you'd be making a statement that everyone, church member or no, was a member of the people of God.

  2. Cavanaugh's argument also leads to pacifism as any violence against another member of the body of Christ is a kind of suicide. It shatters the Christian communion, as you note, and elevates subordinate loyalties to the ultimate loyalty (the state). I wonder if he discusses this implication in his book.

  3. Not explicitly, though as you point out it seems to be implicit in his argument. So, yes, I think work could be done to extend his thesis in this direction. For example, can Christians go to war knowing there are fellow Christians on the other side? Can Christians kill Christians?

    And going back to my first post, can Christians deport fellow Christians? Execute fellow Christians? Etc.

  4. I agree. The terms "open" versus "closed" communion hide a lot of variety. For example, Cavanaugh is really talking about excommunication rather than closed communion. And if we treat excommunication as something different from open vs. closed communion we don't have to think of these practices as antithetical or even necessary facets of each other (for example, one could imagine a community that practiced closed communion without excommunication and a community that practiced open communion with excommunication, or some other combination). Basically, while the two are closely linked for Catholics, there's a difference between communion practices and excommunication. 

  5. Dr. Beck, I am still struggling to see the virtue or benefit of tempering your message in Unclean with that of "Eucharistic discipline."

    I am sure this is a failure on my part to see through the eyes of one who has experienced severe torture.  Maybe if I had, I would be more sympathetic to Cavanaugh's argument for excommunication?

    What if it is the church, in its zeal to maintain its "pure" identity, which has tortured an individual?  I consider Sam's example to be a very real form of torture.  Heartbreaking and outrageous but oh so prevalent.

    Is it in judging the torturers that the church as the body of Christ becomes visible to the world, or is it in loving the tortured and striving to draw in the torturers to Christ that our visibility is most powerfully maintained?

    I do not think that we need to be avoidant of or indifferent to sin of a severe nature.  A willingness to stand with the tortured, whether within or outside of the church, and an openness (at least) to loving the torturer is indicative of Christ's heart for the world -- the *whole* world -- isn't it?

    I would imagine that, even among those in good standing within the church, there is a diverse response to the sacrament of the Eucharist.  From speaking words mindlessly, going through ritualistic motions...  To a deeply felt calling out of one's identity in Christ and for all humanity.  Do we attempt to judge who is really receiving the sacrament with the correct spirit?  I think that judgment is for God alone to pronounce upon an individual.  If a torturer makes his or her way to church and desires to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist, doesn't the church bring judgment upon itself by refusing anyone on God's behalf?  If the Lord's Supper is used as a means of sorting those who are "in" from those who are "out" then I think we have missed the greater message of Jesus, and that would be forgiveness, compassion, sacrificial love, faithfulness.

    So if the message of Unclean is toned down and a compromise is negotiated which appeals to a broader group (i.e., branches and denominations of Christianity), do you imagine that more unity and efficacy in and by the church / body of Christ will result?  I doubt that will happen.  I am sorry to be so pessimistic, and I do admire your diligence in seeking to explore all avenues and be a peacemaker.  But I think our problem here and now is that the church itself is so fragmented and turned in on itself.  Very confused as to its identity and appropriate witness.

    My half-baked opinion, for what it's worth, is to stick to the strength of your message in Unclean.  Many will not like it and be threatened by it.  Many will walk away from it, sad, like the rich young ruler, because it is asking too much to follow Jesus *that* far.  But I think it is good, true, and beautiful.  We need an undiluted message of love and peace, albeit with an acknowledgement of its costs.  And we need people who are willing to show us how it's done.  God asks, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?

    The message of the book mattered to me, enough to try to live it.  That's all I can say.


  6. Hi Susan,
    Thanks so much for this. To clarify a bit for you, I don't see any of this as trying to water down the message of Unclean. I'm just trying to interact with a viewpoint that others have brought up to me after its publication. After speaking here and there about Unclean people have asked me: "Well, what do you think about Cavanaugh's argument in Torture and Eucharist?" So all I'm doing here is presenting his ideas and trying to show how the two might fit together. But certainly one doesn't have to fit them together at all.

    So I'm just doing my "experimental" thing here. Thinking through some ways I might answer future questions about Torture and Eucharist, how, if someone was convinced by Cavanaugh's argument, they might bring those views into conversation with my views in Unclean. But if a person doesn't feel convinced by views like Cavanaugh's (or others like them) then the vision of Unclean doesn't need to be reworked.

    I like to create tools. These posts are a tool if anyone needs them. But many won't. Like you. So the tools stay on the shelf. Regardless, I've built them and can hand them to people in Q&A sessions if anyone would like to use them.

  7. Another thought along these lines. I've been working to accommodate Cavanaugh in these posts. But if we were to ask Cavanaugh to accomodate Unclean I think the way to do this is pretty easy. Go back to Part 3 and look at the three practices Cavanaugh describes in this book:

    Cavanaugh describes all three practices as "Eucharistic," as practices that make the body of Christ visible. Unclean works very well with the first two practices--solidarity with the victims and subversive street liturgy--but less well with the third (excommunication). And even Cavanaugh works hard, as seen in this post, to limit the scope of excommunication to things like torture. He seems to know he's handling something pretty toxic.

    So in light of all that, the simplest way for Torture and Eucharist to accommodate Unclean is to see excommunication as perhaps a good idea in theory, if it could be limited to torture, but too much of a Pandora's Box to unleash (because of the arguments I make in Unclean). Thus, we should restrict our Eucharistic practices to the first two things on his list, things very much in line with the message of Unclean.

  8. I think the example of Pinochet illuminates the insight Cavanaugh brings to bear but I wonder how it holds up in examples that are a bit closer to home.

    Yesterday, I learned that my cousin's sister in law is losing her job at a 'connecting' airport in Wisconsin; she's in her late fifties and has worked there for the past 20 years. Her company lost in contract bidding to Delta Airlines.

    Her company, which would do all the servicing inside and out side of the terminal except for fuel and flying figured they could do the job at a cost of $400.00 a plane in conducting both its arrival and departure services. Delta, for the same services, bid $100.00.

    If Cheryl wants to keep doing the same job she's been doing these past years, next month, she will have to be hired by Delta at 40 percent of her previous earnings as well as lose her health insurance.

    Even at these cost reductions, Delta will be operating this at a loss. Delta has the pockets to carry out this scheme in the short term in order to meet their long term strategy. So what is Delta's long term strategy? How does it differ from Pinochet's?: both strategies seek to minimize one group of people to maximize another don't they?

    How does Delta's strategy differ from the overall strategy contained in the dogma of Free Market Fundamentalism, a dogma that blatantly makes all but the executive suite and its 'courtesans' into expenses to be reduced at all costs? 

    Who will stand up to this dogmatic minimizing of people? I haven't heard one peep out of the Evangelical Right.....

  9. This is good stuff. I have really resonated with the message of Unclean and have always had a tendency to be against ANY sort of judgement or moral policing by "the church". But there is always, in the back of my mind, this nagging feeling that if the body doesn't protect itself at all, in any way, that could be problematic as well. Troubling stuff, but I really like how you're putting this together. Very helpful.


    Seen this Richard?

  11. No I hadn't. Thanks! It's about time that second book of mine got some attention. It's really good. :-)

    More seriously, I do think Kyle's application to the Olympics is spot on. I think it can also be applied to how we bask in the immorality myth of the nation (in addition to reveling in the heroic performances of individual athletes). Doesn't every true American want to beat China in the overall medal count? (And doesn't every other country in the world want to beat the Americans?) And you have to ask: Why? What's under that buzz of self-esteem I get when my nation "wins"? Existential narcotic indeed.

  12. Thanks, Mike, for extending the application. I've also been thinking about how all this applies as income-inequality continues to grow in America.

  13. Yes, Dr. Beck.  I think you have got it right.  Spend our energy on the first two of Cavanaugh's Eucharistic practices.  Blessings~

  14. I perhaps misunderstand, but Roberts is wrong that we are not "aware" that we are being transported out of our own perspective when we view the Olympics.  I would much prefer he made this statement about the Stepford (folk) who daily watch "reality TV".  Just interview anyone who watches from a wheelchair. 

    In addition, science is a more appropriate way, imho, to approach our feelings about our own limitations and death than is religion.  I appreciate Misty May and Kerri Walsh (I know, I know) as much as I do Mozart or Mark Knopfler, and for virtually the same reason -- they bring me closer to the Divine through their unmistakable brilliance and creativity.  They are each -- in their own way -- somehow more than the sum total of their individual parts.  That spark in them is........that "presence"?  I do not gather self-esteem; on the contrary, I feel envy.

    Religion seems an attempt by us to ritualize and codify that which is ineffable.  Our bad.  Science continues to undercut this process (we are no longer at the center of the Universe), in a more productive way as I see it.

  15. I have enjoyed this series of posts. Currently I am working my way through the book Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography by Bethge. It seems that what Bonhoeffer was trying to accomplish in his lonely battle within Germany and with the broader ecumenical church movement is very similar to what Cavanaugh has written. As Bonhoeffer watched the German churches embracing the national church being reformed and fashioned by Hitler's men, he reached a point where he fought hard to derive a confession which would clarify that this national German church was no longer the church of Christ, but that the Confessing church that he was a part of  should represent Germany in the ecumenical movement. Up until the point at which he finally decided it was too late, he thought it would be very helpful to stop or slow down Hitler's momentum within the German church if the world churches through the ecumenical movement would refuse to recognize the national German church as a part of Christ's body.

  16. Heh.  How many popes -- how many saints  -- would have to be retroactively excommunicated if "torture" is defined as cause for separation from the body of Christ?

  17. Cavanaugh is keen to point out that what he's talking about is a really severe situation, one of the most catastrophic moral breakdowns imaginable within the body of Christ--Christians torturing Christians

    This seems to imply that there are categories of people who may be tortured and who may not be. Or at least that it's more acceptable to torture some people than others. And that the distinction between the two is religiously based. Was that your intention?

  18. That's all helpful qualification. I particularly like your summation: "According to Cavanaugh, then, excommunication is simply bringing to the
    surface a conflict that already exists. Excommunication doesn't create the separation and rift. Excommunication simply names the rift and brings it out into the open. And the goal of this isn't judgment but restoration and reconciliation."

    You could argue that the Eucharist has the power to reconcile and restore, but in my experience of reconciliation, without naming the brokenness, it is almost impossible to move to restoration. It reminds me of this passage: "This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But
    whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen
    plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God." (John 3:19-21)

    Cavanaugh explains how the liturgy of the Eucharist is used to bring into the light the anti-liturgy of torture. It is one thing for the church to speak out against injustice, it is another thing for the church to embody that prophetic voice in liturgy.

  19. Nope, that wasn't my intention. The narrow focus isn't about who can or can't be tortured but with the logic of Christian moral formation.

  20. Just found your blog -- not sure how I managed never to come across it before. It's amazing & the perspective highly congenial to me!

    Your reflections on Torture & Eucharist are most welcome. I've seen the book around for years but never had a chance to read it (it's very expensive). You open up so many questions:

    --What could this possibly look like in the USA? In Chile one assumes the Church is mainly the Catholic Church & therefore can make "claims on the bodies" of Chilean people mostly as a whole. Does the applicability of Cavanaugh's argument presuppose this kind of ecclesiastical monoculture in a given society? But even in Chile, if the state tortures an atheist, would the Church's response be different? As for the USA, though our cultural bad theology isn't exactly the same as the Chilean "body/soul::state/church" theology, it's similar and far more advanced, or so I suspect. We have no "Church", we have "churches". Or rather "religious institutions". Is it even conceivable for the Church in this country to respond -- even to torture, let alone any other grave evil -- in the way Cavanaugh describes? The only people who might do this are a few handfuls of folks who would be immediately labeled and dismissed as lefty types, "social justice" Christians who of course don't represent the sane, sensible, moderate Christians who have no great objection to torture. Christianity here does seem to be firmly allied to the principalities and powers, with rare exceptions.

    --The recent outrage in the right-wing and in parts of the Catholic Church over supposed attacks on its religious freedom seem like a bizarre parody of the arguments Cavanaugh makes, at least as you describe them.

    --The argument about the proper grounds for excommunication sounds like a slight twist in the typical Catholic argument for practicing closed communion: non-Catholics have violently attacked the unity of Christ's body, etc. Of course this stems ultimately from some possibly problematic issues in Catholic ecclesiology, but something else is going on here too. It has something to do with Cavanaugh's turning the argument into a political/moral argument with ecclesiological implications, rather than a more narrow issue of Church discipline. And ... um ... -- don't know quite how to say it -- something about Cavanaugh advocating excommunication as a pastoral practice in response to circumstances rather than a universal application of law. If that makes any sense.

    --Is Cavanaugh's argument a sort of proto-anarchism? That is, it seems to suggest that the Church has, at least in principle, veto power over state control of the bodies of "citizens" and thereby denies the legitimacy of state power as such. Or is Cavanaugh simply advocating a moderate "live and let live" approach to church-state relations? I'm not articulating this well ... but surely Dorothy Day, William Stringfellow, and the Berrigans would be happy with what Cavanaugh says.

  21. "How are we to sort out which sins deserve excommunication? To get at this Cavanaugh make a distinction between degrees and kinds of sin. We shouldn't think of Eucharistic discipline as being reserved for the really, really bad sins. It is, rather, reserved for a certain class or kind of sin, sins--like torture--that threaten the identity of the body of Christ as described above."

    This is a fascinating series of posts and helpful, but I am struggling to see how this fits into Paul's use of excommunication. In Paul's example in 1 Cor 5, it seems like he is using excommunication as an extreme form of discipline to wrestle a fellow believer into repentance. The sin over which Paul is concerned doesn't seem to fit into Cavanaugh's matrix as a KIND of sin that is threatening the identity of the body of Christ- it seems more like Paul's concern over this sin is based on its DEGREE: sleeping with your stepmother is an extreme form of sexual perversion. Granted, this is for the sake of the man's redemption and for the sake of the community (keeping the yeast of evil out of the dough)- two admirable reasons for discipline. BUT, I'm still not sure how to reconcile Paul's example with Cavanaugh's. Any thoughts?

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