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Eucharist as call to struggle against war and domination

Features

Cecily McNeill
30 August 2012

altOscar Romero and other modern martyrs, Ss Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of old, embody the link between Eucharist and martyrdom but, says theologian William Cavanaugh, ‘Christ in the Eucharist calls us all into union, saints and sinners alike’.

Professor Cavanaugh of de Paul University, Chicago, was in Wellington last month and told a gathering in Sacred Heart Cathedral that instead of peacemaking being a matter of heroism, purity and perfection, it starts with a ‘frank recognition that we are simply not good enough to use violence wisely’.

The barriers we set up between ‘us and them’ fall when ‘seen in the light of our common life in God, of which the Eucharist is the most powerful earthly foretaste’.

In Chile where Professor Cavanaugh lived for a couple of years in the 1980s when it was under the Pinochet regime, the Church’s resistance to torture and other human rights abuses was often understood in Eucharistic terms.

‘The bishops issued an order of excommunication for anyone involved in or supporting torture, with the understanding that it was a scandal for tortured and torturers to approach the same communion table.’

If the regime used torture to scatter dissidents as fearful individuals, Eucharist brought them together into a kind of solidarity – the Body of Christ – that would ‘eventually help to bring an end to the years of brutal military rule’.

In clear references to the Eucharist, St Ignatius of Antioch on his way to the Roman Coliseum wrote that he wanted to be ground down by the lions’ teeth like wheat to make bread. St Polycarp was said to have glowed like a loaf in the oven.

Archbishop Oscar Romero who was gunned down while saying Mass in El Salvador in 1980 was killed for speaking out against the slaughter of thousands of poor Salvadorans by the military and right-wing death squads.

‘It is not a coincidence that he was killed while saying Mass. He had already written, “To participate in the Mass is to unite all our work, suffering, struggle, and death to the suffering and death of Jesus” and “The Eucharist makes us look back to Calvary 20 centuries ago … but it also looks ahead to the future, to the eternal, eschatological and definitive horizon that presents itself as a demanding ideal to all political systems, to all social struggles, to all those concerned for the earth.”

But, says Cavanaugh, we are in danger of missing the point if we regard the martyrs as heroes. In terms of daily discipleship we need to come together in Eucharist with the saints and martyrs, and the sinners to, with Christ, ‘overcome the distinction between friends and enemies’.

The sort of temporary unity that war offers, that people throughout the Western world felt after 9/11, is not the unity that the true God offers.
‘We see today in liberal secular social orders how, in the absence of anything else to unite us, the nation itself can become the object of devotion (with people dying) for the flag.’

‘Christ’s sacrifice reverses the idea that one must achieve domination over the enemy to achieve unity. Christ instead takes on the role of victim, absorbs the violence of the world … thereby offering a world in which reconciliation rather than violence can hold sway.’

But, if we condemn wars fought over access to cheap oil and that oil fuels the cars we drive, Cavanaugh says, ‘complicity in these wars is not limited to those who do the actual bombing and shooting’.

Pope John Paul II wrote in Ecclesia de Eucharistia that the Eucharist is ‘the sacrifice of the cross perpetuated down the ages … (offered) only after he had left us a means of sharing in it as if we had been present there’ (#11).

altCavanaugh suggests, ‘Most of those present at the cross were those who had been happy to shout “Crucify him!”

We are all enemies of Christ. ‘But this is the point: the sacrifice of Christ overcomes the distinction between friend and enemy.’

Christian nonviolence ‘participates in Jesus’ self-emptying into sinful humanity, his sharing in the brokenness of the world. It is this peacemaking that we enact in sharing the broken bread of the Eucharist.’