Eucharist As Resistance
I’m not sure I ever remember hearing this word in our civic discourse as much as I have the last 10 years or so. My father was raised in the Vietnam War era where he served as a volunteer soldier, even though he was a self-described hippie. The word resistance was part of the lexicon of that era, from civil rights unrest to protest of the War in Vietnam.
From the Arab Spring to American political protests, and from the Occupy movement to Black Lives Matter, resistance has in many ways become the raison d'être of more than just the most progressive elements of our society. We have come to understand that the voice of the community, social witness, solidarity, and civil disobedience all have their place, and that sometimes we can actually move the most imposing of mountains when banded together. They are no longer the expressions of a single political party or movement, but are being reclaimed as prophetic, even in the most “secular” of ways.
The evangelical church, too, has been rediscovering that its place in the world might best be characterized by resistance, rather than complicity with the power structures of the world. In the United States, a church that was promised unlimited political power by a dominant political party has found itself alienated, as if it had been duped into thinking that any worldly system truly has its best interest at heart.
It is finding that the very Incarnation is one of resistance, and that the cruciform way of discipleship is one best marked by providing an alternative witness to the power-hungry and dominate systems of the kingdoms of earth. The Kingdom of God is always best seen through the paradigm of the slaughtered Lamb—the one who refused to take up a sword in order to establish dominion—rather than the image of a conquering Lion. In fact, whenever the latter image is seen, it must be interpreted by the former.
Incarnation also resists being over-spiritualized, as if Jesus should be relegated only to the things we deem sacred and spiritual for his presence. It demonstrates that creation is actually good, and that God is intensely concerned about fleshy things, enough to actually take on this flesh in an unprecedented cosmic move of solidarity.
What means then, does the church have for training disciples in the way of resistance?
Outside of those churches that have strong historical traditions of social justice (like American black churches and those influenced by liberation theologies), it seems at first glance that we have few tools with which to form ourselves into people of resistance--people who are equipped to stand opposed to the empires of power that seek to conquer with guns and bombs, with political rhetoric and divisive nationalism.
The church, in many ways, serves as a kind of counter-formation to a world that wants to shape and form us to its own ends. The world wants to make us consumers, dominators, and warriors, divided into enclaves that accentuate our superiority to that of our neighbors. When the church proclaims the crucified and resurrected Christ, it provides a counter-narrative that undermines the idols that the empires of this world peddle to us.
The Eucharist, in particular, is an especially powerful and pointed practice that serves in this counter-formational way.
Remembering the past is an important part of worship. We remember God’s saving work in history, and God then becomes the object (and subject!) of our worship. At the communion table, we remember what God has done. But the English word remember doesn’t quite catch the nuance of the Greek word anamnesis, which has a sense of bringing a past reality to bear on the present in such a way that the past is experienced in a very real way by the participant.
So when we come to the table of Christ, we do more than simply recall a historical event—we bring that past into the present by the work of the Holy Spirit at that table. As Wesleyans, we believe that communion is a sacrament, which means that it does more than serve as a kind of sign, simply pointing the way, but that it actually participates as a symbol and conveys grace.
One particularly striking aspect of this grace is that it is boldly egalitarian. It is given freely to all, even the seemingly undeserving, underprivileged, and religious outsiders. Everyone who comes to the table comes as a beggar with open hands, not snatching or hoarding but receiving in equal measure. There is no Republican or Democrat side of the table, no rich or poor order in line, and no one checking immigration status at the door.
The playing field is level. It is social resistance at its zenith, declaring there to be no boundaries to the Kingdom of God, proclaiming the reign of a King who stormed the gates of hell and demonstrated that there is no godforsaken place that God will not go for humankind. No one is left behind. No one remains outside begging. Racial, ethnic, linguistic, economic, and social barriers have all been torn down. When we partake together, we say to one another, “You belong here.”
Act of Civil Disobedience
So it is in this way that our journey to the table is one of civil disobedience. It is a highly political act that declares that the slaughtered Lamb is our King. This is more than non-violence, but a very active and embodied way of enacting this Kingdom. Instead of offering our bodies to the imperial regime, we overcome a kind of Platonic dualism that seeks to disconnect the body from the soul as we offer our bodies to this kind of worship. This is a profound level of subversion.
By participating in the Eucharist, we proclaim that God is King and that Caesar is not. When we pray, “Thy Kingdom come,” it is a confession that it has already been inaugurated, and we swear allegiance to that Kingdom alone. This compels us to rethink our strategies of hegemony, both nationally and socially. It forces us to prioritize all of our mission with this in mind. It is a critique of the way of moving about in the world that seeks to dominate the other, to hoard resources and to make pronouncements about who is “in” and who is “out.” And it is in the participation that we are ontologically made unified by the Holy Spirit. It is not something that we conjure on our own simply by sharing temporal space, but is a gift of grace received together at the table.
Memory of the Future
While we find our encounter at the table transformative, there is also a kind of longing that happens there, recognizing that the world is still not yet as it should be. John Zizioulas calls this eschatological dimension, “The memory of the future,” which hints at the already-but-not-yet nature of the Kingdom. In his Being as Communion, he says,
More than just remembering, communion is a “re-membering” of the body of Christ, making us fully human in all of our social and relational telos. These ordinary elements remind us that God is in the ordinary and that we all belong.
We were created to be unified and united.
Coming to the table both knits us together and proclaims how things will look at the last day when heaven and earth finally become fully renewed and re-created, making this holy resistance of ours wholly unnecessary (cf. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist).
 John Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (New York: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997), 180.