In preparation for our church’s upcoming Election Day Communion service, I have been browsing liturgical resources online. Most of them acknowledge the rancor and division of the electoral process, and stress the importance of unity. We may all have different ideas about war, about economics, about how to treat foreigners, but we can all come together in a mystical ritual of oneness. This led me to the disturbing conclusion that perhaps too many liturgists are Seahawks fans.
You may remember that earlier this year, as NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s silent national anthem protest grabbed headlines, Doug Baldwin of the Seattle Seahawks helped to organize a team demonstration in response. At first there was some mystery of whether this would be in support of Kaepernick, or a sort of counter-protest. Baldwin cleared this up with a Facebook video featuring MLK quotes over soft piano, in which he said:
We are a team comprised of individuals with diverse backgrounds, and as a team, we have chosen to stand and interlock arms in unity. We honor those who have fought for the freedom we cherish. And we stand to ensure the riches of freedom and the security of justice for all people. Progress can and will be made only if we stand together.
This sounds eerily like the kind of unity being called for in post-Election Day services. The message is that no matter who you voted for, at communion you leave your political identity behind, and come together for the sake of coming together. The question for Doug Baldwin, and for us, is what actually brings us together? What do we have in common? If the answer is Christ, then we don’t come together above politics, above the messiness the characterizes our struggle to maintain our common life. The Eucharist is a place where we come together to submit to Jesus as Lord, and to discern how he is at work in the world. The actual person of Christ is the ground for our fellowship, and so when we eat his flesh and drink his blood, we cannot ignore the ways that he is at work in the world, as well as the ways that we choose to participate with or work against him. The Eucharist is not apolitical, or a denial of political realities, it is a place where our politics can be shaped. We come to the table and confess that we are not really one, but we come together to be made one. We have different definitions of justice, we have different definitions of freedom, that cannot be glossed over. These essential differences are why we come together – to orient our lives and reshape our subjectivities to receive the revelation of God in Christ. This revelation has an actual form. The Jesus who proclaimed good news to the poor and instructed love for enemies can not serve as the ground of unity for those who oppose his work in the world.
Earlier this year I heard a story of Christians who would enter a prison to fellowship with inmates, and then end their time together with a communion service in which the guards were invited to participate. After the meal, prisoners would go back to being prisoners, and guards to being guards. This was well-intentioned, and probably did some good to ease tensions inside the prison. There was, however, an undeniable incongruity between the oneness that they shared in the act of eating, and the relationship of domination and abuse that characterized their real relationships in the world. It reminded me of a saying by John Howard Yoder – that “wherever Christians are not united, the gospel is not true in that place.” Can guards and prisoners really be united? Might the Eucharist end not in business as usual, but in the guards leaving behind their uniforms to follow Christ, and the prisoners going free? Can the gospel really be true?