On Cyberspace Practice of the Eucharist in a Time of Pandemic

A response to Dirk Lange and “my insistence on the necessity of a physical gathering of people for a Eucharistic celebration” (in “Digital Worship and Sacramental Life in a Time of Pandemic”).

I propose that we need 21st Century sourcing to fruitfully dialogue about a 21st Century situation. We Lutherans value our Lutheran Confessions, but they still reflect a 16th Century worldview and especially its imperialistic foundations. We can’t rely on Confessional documents alone. For me the most relevant 16th Century text is Luther’s “On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church” — and not even as much for its content as simply for its title. Luther was able to glimpse what an imperialistic worldview does to practice of the Sacraments in the Church, naming that worldview in his title, but he was still trapped in that worldview to the extent that he only gives us a start on liberating the sacraments.

The key reason to using 21st Century sourcing is that the church is finally beginning to emerge from its cocooning in imperialistic Christendom. We are more clearly able to see how the Gospel itself is an anti-imperialist message to its core. Not in conventional “anti” stances which use the violence that the Gospel exposes. But by virtue of offering a new nonviolent way of being human which stands as an alternative to all the previous ways of being human, culminating in Empire. Since humankind is created to live in community, highly dependent on our communal existence, we might say this new way of being human is a “Holy Communion.” God in Jesus the Messiah is offering us a way of being human that differs by virtue of not relying on sacred violence to structure our communions. In fact, it breaks the power of sacred violence precisely by the giving of the divine self to it on the cross, and then raising the Messiah on the third day.

What do I mean by “sacred violence”? This points to another problem of sourcing. It is only in the latter half of the 20th Century that a full-blown anthropology (I’m speaking of the work of René Girard to which this website is dedicated) explicitly thematized the “sacred violence” which the Judeo-Christian Scriptures witness to and progressively expose. It was fully unveiled through the historical events of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah — with that unveiling kept alive by the unleashing of the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, to enact healing from all human violence. But the anthropological proclivity of human beings to live in communions which are grounded on sacred violence continues to re-veil that truth, especially through something like the long alliance of church-with-empire known as Christendom. This moment in history provides new opportunities for unveiling, and for the healing, restorative work of the Spirit.

Sacred violence, then, is the glue that has held together human communities throughout the ages, as a formation of community identity on the basis of being-over-against other communities. It is the violence legitimated in any community to be used against any Other who is not Us. In short, sacred violence is a deep structuring of human community in Us vs. Them. Or to use a term finding coinage in our moment: tribalism. But the word “tribalism” names the more ancient forms of this structuring since we seem to be in the midst of a revival of its more crass and obvious forms. The Us vs. Them structuring of human communions rises to its greatest complexity in imperialism, which is why Jesus the Messiah came at just the right moment to offer us God’s alternative, the “kingdom of God.” He came in the midst of one of the most powerful empires — the Roman Empire — to offer us God’s Holy Communion, a way of being human that is based on a self-giving love which seeks to cross all boundaries of human communities to embrace the entire human family. In this Holy Communion, there is no longer Us and Them; there is only Us.

Thus, matters of how to practice the Sacraments, the Use of the Means of Grace, need to be reframed in the more clear 21st Century context of the Gospel. In the 16th Century, the focus on the grace of the Gospel was forgiveness that prepares one for the afterlife, “eternal life,” such that the this-worldly challenges to imperialism never fully materialized. Protestantism rubbed up against and challenged elements of imperialism, but proved to settle into its own form of it — such as European and American colonization. This current moment of becoming post-Christendom is finally opening-up radically different and — I would argue — more faithful articulations of the Gospel itself. Instead of a grace that aims us primarily at the afterlife, we are reviving the Good News of God restoring our humanity in this life, in this history. Most especially, God is offering us Holy Communion — a way of being held together in human community that is not grounded in being-over-against some Other.

I am finding this reframing of the Gospel in many elements of 21st Century New Testament hermeneutics. But that’s a long story that isn’t practical to rehearse here. Instead, let me offer what I take to be the most clear statement of the Gospel in the New Testament: Ephesians Chapter 2. It begins with a very dense statement of our “trespasses and sins” — both categories of “sin” elaborated by the anthropology of René Girard’s Mimetic Theory: (1) our enculturation into following “the course of this world,” the Satanic human powers of division (which surround us like the “power of the air”; v. 2:2); and (2) following the “desires of the flesh” which lead us into being “children of wrath” (v. 2:3) — Girard’s account of how the mimetic nature of our desire leads human beings to constantly fall into rivalries, conflicts, and, finally, mimetic violence, “wrath.” That second category of sin (Eph. 2:3), named here as “mimetic violence,” necessitated the evolution of the first category of sin (Eph. 2:2), what we have called a “sacred violence” — namely, that all cultures put their faith in sacred violence in order to contain the mimetic violence. In other words, from our origins all human cultures have an ultimate faith in a “good” violence used to contain the “bad” violence which threatens to otherwise overwhelm us. We have an intuition, a faith, that our survival depends on the good violence stopping the bad violence. And this “faith” has sure enough been presided over by gods who command such ordering of our communions. I propose that this anthropology is much more clearly understood within a 21st Century framework than a 16th Century one.

The next part of Ephesians 2 (vv. 4-10) is what the 16th Century Reformation got most right: God’s gracious actions in Jesus the Messiah to begin to set things right. It’s pure Grace! “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Yet the inadequate anthropology of the 16th Century, coupled with its lingering imperialistic worldview, aimed that grace mainly as a forensic forgiveness, one that provides comfort in this life on the way to a blissful new life primarily in the afterlife. It misses the full restorative offer of that Grace’s power which comes after the ‘therefore’ in v. 2:11. What does the power of forgiveness accomplish? Not just a forensic acquittal but, with amazing grace, the offer of healing in this life. It begins to heal the sins of mimetic desire, the “flesh,” via life in the Spirit of Jesus’ self-giving love, a love that leads people out of envy and conflict. (The glimpse of this is clumsy in Eph. 2:11-12 compared to Rom. 8:1-17.)

The primary power of forgiveness pointed to in Eph. 2:11-22, though, is the this-worldly power to begin healing our sinful communions of Us vs. Them:

For [the Messiah Jesus] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Eph. 2:14-16)

“One new humanity in place of the two.” There is no longer Us and Them; there is only Us. This is the gracious power of the Gospel, that human beings might find themselves being healed by the power of forgiveness to live in new Holy Communions.

So here is finally the upshot for this moment in our human history — a moment when a global pandemic is threatening the entirety of humankind together as the one family we are (“Us!”) — for the church’s practice of Holy Communion. Why insist on “the necessity of a physical gathering of people for a Eucharistic celebration”? The physical, incarnational aspect of our faith in this-worldly healing is certainly important. But is it really necessary in all situations? Especially this situation where social distancing — not gathering together physically — is crucial to save real, embodied lives. I believe that the call to sacramentally live into the power of Holy Communion is more important than ever in these circumstances. Throughout the ages the fear caused by plagues has the upped the ante on sacred violence — such as the burning of witches and Jews in Medieval Europe. We are already seeing the violent effects of Trump calling it the “Chinese virus.” In the face of such potential escalation of scapegoating, there is the opportunity for followers of Christ to sacramentally live a Holy Communion, even if that is temporarily in cyberspace. Our regular cyber-gathering together can continue to signal to the world God’s gracious healing of our Us-Them communions. I believe that even a cyber breaking of bread and passing of the chalice can invoke the Messiah Jesus’ healing presence in our broken world.

Brief postlude: differing from an insistence on the “physical” in all situations, I might point to Paul’s use of the metaphor “air” in referring to the “principalities and powers” in Eph. 2:2: “following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.” Principalities and powers are the unseen human structures embedded in our cultures and institutions which surround us and give us life like the air. Or to use a similar metaphor: we are like fish in water. In Jesus the Messiah, the “air” is revealed as toxic, as keeping humankind trapped in the disobedience of Us vs. Them. The metaphor of “air” points to the metaphysical dimension of the sin of sacred violence as invisibly embedded in our cultures and institutions. I would suggest that “air” might also be a metaphor for the church’s continued practice of the Institution of Holy Communion in the virtual venue of cyberspace as a way of sacramentally living into God’s healing of those metaphysical dimensions of our sinfulness, the divisive powers and principalities of tribalism. Isn’t that dimension of metaphysical healing always present in the Eucharist, even when we are able to physically gather together?

Paul Nuechterlein
March 26, 2020

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