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.