"Eucharistic Socialchange"/Prof. Thee Smith                                                              draft
Emory Univ./Nov. 1999                                                                            not for publication
Eucharistic Social Change:
A Concise Theology & Practice

Prof. Theophus (Thee) Smith                                               Emory University Religion Department

In the concrete circumstances of humanity, what the new unity of humanity looks like is the beginnings of the gathering of penitent persecutors around the body of the self-giving victim, whose forgiveness made their new perception possible, and the creating of acts of worship of the victim, both in celebration and in acts of fraternal service.
James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong(1)

1.0 A Theology

    Christianity is essentially eucharistic. Its deep structure consists of people forming a (symbolic) circle around prospective victims and committing never again to victimize another human being--in the name of that sacred victim whose death on the Cross so clearly exposed our chronic victimizations of each other. The definitive practice of Christians is the formation of such eucharistic circles everywhere, precisely counter-acting all the conventional ways in which we target each other for victimization. The counter-image to the eucharistic unity of humanity is the perverse unanimity of ritual circles in which we routinely blame, target, scapegoat, and attack, expel, or destroy each other. Due to the transformative power of eucharistic practices, we are delivered from being actors in the one kind of ritual circle, and reoriented toward becoming enactors of a new kind of ritual circle. Thus humanity is renewed wherever people are saved from, rather than handed over to, being victims and victimizers of each other.

    The magnitude of such transformative power is appreciable not only on the scale of
social action but also internally, where each individual involuntarily blames himself or herself, targets and scapegoats himself or herself, and expels or splits-off aspects of himself or herself in a misguided, primal strategy for constituting a unified self. Whether we 'scapegoat-in' or 'scapegoat-out," constituting unity through targeting and attacking some identified part of the whole is precisely the primal strategy that human beings have practiced since our psychosocial transition from prehominid existence. The transformation of that strategy, both internally and externally, is what the eucharist is about. All the treasures of psychosocial and psycho-spiritual transformation that Christianity has to offer are encapsulated in that eucharistic process.

    How can we transfer that eucharistic process from its massively unrealized,
unappreciated, and unfocused enactments in contemporary spirituality, and deliver its
transformative power in all the spheres of human existence where it is so greatly needed today?(2)  Answering that question calls for a new, exploratory agenda in our congregations, schools, and societies. Consider in this regard the possibility of 'universal eucharists' outside official liturgies of Holy Communion or the Mass.

Around the end of the first millennium of Christianity, in response to an increasingly diverse membership and in phase with the development of scientific explanations, there grew a set of eucharistic devotions and an attendant rationale . . . [for] the development of eucharistic theology and practice quite separable from the Mass itself. . . . For many centuries and for multitudes of people they were cultivated instead of the Mass, which for various reasons was commonly unavailable. Hunger will find ways of assuagement; sustenance by whatever name is nourishment.(3)
       Wherever people form around one another symbolic circles of remembrance and
contrition--remembering our endemic tendency to scapegoat and crucify each other, and committing never again to do so--there is eucharist. Certainly this is a universalizing or essentializing' view of eucharist, breaking the boundaries of its particular formation as a Christian rite in the Mass or in Holy Communion. For eucharist in the Christian ritual tradition is also gift and exchange, sacred meal and community celebration. By hypothesis, however, the deep structure of eucharist as anti-scapegoating ritual precedes or exceeds Christianity as a single tradition of faith or creed. The claim here is that the eucharist is structured essentially as a counter-circle to people's conventional formation of scapegoating circles.

    The following practicum converges with such a 'universal eucharist' at its deep- structural level. However, the concise scope of this essay does not permit us to elaborate that convergence here.

2.0 A Practice

It is reasonable to assume that [the church] would have through the years accumulated a body of experimental data concerning the implications of [the Judeo-Christian ethic] in society. Had this been the case, the church would have been in a position to offer its cumulative wisdom . . . The irony is that there is no such body of data available . . . However the church is, fortunately, still in a position to [make] . . . successful ventures in creating Christian communities.
Howard Thurman, Footprints of a Dream:
The Story of the Church for the Fellowship of A Peoples (1959)
     This practicum is designed to model the healing processes that a "beloved community" would enact and foster as a regular and 'prophylactic' set of practices. The practical goal is consistent with a theory that calls for displacing past experiences (of targeting or victimization) with present or 'timeless' actions that are victim-free. Central to this particular practice is the following feature: practitioners are encouraged and assisted first to acknowledge fully, and then disavow both mentally and emotionally, their self-representation as victims or targets of other persons or groups. The simultaneous or sequential recognition, and then relinquishing, of one's sense of being targeted is often experienced as cathartic, healing, or 'converting.' It effectively anticipates and defuses the impulse to 'do unto others what was done to me;' that is, the impulse that fuels our ordinary attitudes and behaviors of targeting-back at others, as well as our complicity in routine or systemic oppression of others.

    Encoded within that decision not 'to do unto others what was done unto me' is the end of victimization via a transformation of time consciousness. The decoded content of the decision can be read as follows: the possibilities of the present situation can be victim-free to the degree that we escape the past cycles of targeting and being targeted. However, the achievement of that existential state of mind, or that real-world reality, is not an intellectual exercise; it must be emotionally and even physiologically wrested from the toxins of our most formative experiences in the past.


Four-Step Practicum

Groundrules: Confidentiality; uncoerced self-disclosures; facilitators' accountability to all parties in the management of shame, anger, and moral indignation

Step 1.   Recall a time when you successfully intervened on behalf of someone or some group being targeted for mistreatment or violence. Take justifiable pride in any instance of this evidence of your humanity, however trivial it may seem.

Step 2.   Recall a time when you failed to do so, or when you mistreated or allowed mistreatment of a person or group. What happened that causes you any regret or remorse? Show some visible expression of this.

Step 3.   Recall an early time in your life when you yourself were the target of some mistreatment or violence. Express any indignation or anger, grief or hurt (as much feeling as circumstances allow).

Step 4.   Observe with your partner or community: How are the experiences in 2 and 3 related? Then replay how you would have acted in 2 without the influence of the feelings expressed in 3.

Sample Responses to the Four-Step Practicum

Step 1.   Recall a time when you successfully intervened on behalf of someone or some group being targeted for mistreatment or violence. Take justifiable pride in any instance of this evidence of your humanity, however trivial it may seem.

Sample response: I'm an African American diversity trainer and several years ago was riding in a taxicab to the airport with two colleagues following our ten-day training. I was exhausted and looked forward to a relaxing time without dealing with the issues of prejudice or oppression that had concerned us for more than a week. After polite conversation between the three of us and our Asian immigrant cab driver I casually asked how his new life was going in the United States. But our mood changed when he responded with this stereotypical remark: "Everything would be fine if it weren't for these Jewish cab company owners ripping us off all the time."

    Inwardly I groaned when I heard this piece of antisemitic resentment, spoken in the familiar tone that people use when they say, 'Those money-grubbing Jews!' To be frank some of my discomfort had less to do with my pain on behalf of my Jewish brothers and sisters and more to do with having to summon the energy and courage to intervene with the driver after an exhausting week of practising such interventions. Then I realized how embarrassed I would be in front of my colleagues, for whom I was their senior trainer, if I failed to take the challenge before me.

    Summoning up fortitude I said almost lightheartedly, "Oh, tell us more about what it's been like for you here in the United States." Then he proceeded to unburden himself about how hard he had been working to provide for his family, find the best paying job, and learn the system of being a cab driver. Finally after listening to him 'vent' for five or ten minutes, I sympathized and said, "I know you must have worked very hard to learn this job. Good for you! But can I ask you a question? Do you really think that it's only the Jewish cab company owners who try to make the most profit out of their business, or do you think that maybe all the other owners do the same?"

    I will never forget the little smile on his face that looked out at me from the rear view mirror as he said in his Asian accent, "No, its probably all the owners who do that." I could tell from his smile that he had 'gotten it,' but I have also learned that it's crucial to name the issue in these kind of interventions. So then I plunged in with, "Well, you know we have this antisemitic thing in the United States where we blame Jews for being more greedy about money than the rest of us, but it's really just prejudice and like you said not more true of them than of other people. As a black person I know a lot about this kind of prejudice and you should watch out for it." "Oh yes," he answered eagerly. "I've heard about that!" "Well," I concluded, "we people of color should really watch out for this because it's just like the prejudices against us, you know?" When he finally remarked, "Oh yeah, I don't want to be part of that kind of stuff," I knew that we had shifted to a different perspective, however embattled it might be in the future, and I remain pleased today with that well-crafted intervention.

Step 2.   Recall a time when you failed to do so, or when you mistreated or allowed mistreatment of a person or group. What happened that causes you any regret or remorse? Show some visible expression of this.

Sample response: As a high school age, African American Boy Scout it was my turn one season to organize our monthly "Troop" meeting in one of the member's homes. To this day I remember my deliberate decision, over a period of three or four months, to avoid scheduling our meeting at the home of one of the boys who lived in "the projects"--those low-income housing communities that contrasted so sharply in my mind with our other members' suburban homes. With a sense of embarrassment I remember that I would not even have given this a second thought if my attention had not been drawn to the issue by having another Troop member, when his turn came to schedule the meetings the following year, assume as a matter of course that we would meet in our friend's apartment in the projects. I was at first amazed, but eventually mortified to realize that I had acted-out class prejudice on one of my own people. To this day I regret the kind of black middle class assumptions that allowed me to take-it-for-granted that our friend's home was not the kind of place that we should meet in. Forgive me, my brother.

Step 3.   Recall an early time in your life when you yourself were the target of some mistreatment or violence. Express any indignation or anger, grief or hurt (as much feeling as circumstances allow).

Sample response: As an African American I grew up in the deep South and learned by direct experience that I had to 'watch my back' at all times. One day, at the age of ten, while riding my bike on a major thoroughfare two white men drove up behind me in a pickup truck. One of them leaned out of the window, yelled out the N-word, "You Nig!" and swung at my head with a golf club. He actually missed hitting me but I can still feel the anticipated impact on the back part of my head where the club would have hurt me. And even though I was not actually hit I can always tell that story as if I had been, because ever since then I am always on guard in public places and watching around me to see if I am safe. . . . If I could speak-out now from the perspective of that young boy I would rage against the vicious attack of those men who contaminated my world that day, and taught me as a young man to be terrified for myself in the wider world. "How dare you poison the world for a young person like that! Don't you know we're your hope for a better world?"

Step 4.   Observe with your partner or community: How are the experiences in 2 and 3 related? Then replay how you would have acted in 2 without the influence of the feelings expressed in 3.

Sample observation: The class prejudice described in Step 2, directed against a fellow African American, may be due to one or both of the following:

a) acting-out the devaluation of another black young person by finding something in him to attack, just as the white men had found something to attack in the boy's earlier experience;

b) seeking safety and comfort, versus risk and exposure as encountered in the racist attack, through the status seeking and peer conformity of identifying with the suburban and middle class background of the majority group, while discounting the value and feelings of a less advantaged group member.

Sample response: If I were to replay that experience today, assuming that my own experience of being attacked had never occurred, then I would role-play welcoming the opportunity to visit the home of people I know who live in the projects and finding ways to appreciate their family life there.

If I were to role-play having done sufficient emotional healing work on my experience of a racist attack, then I would apologize to our Troop member for my lapse in fairness to him and find ways to restore our relationship as one of mutual respect and regard.

1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (New York: Crossroad, 1998), n. p.

2. "It is possible today, as it has been possible for 1700 years, for a normal person to spend a lifetime listening to the Eucharist Prayers of all of the mainline Christian churches and never apprehend that what is being remembered is a Person--who at the moments being remembered in the Prayers--rejected violence, forgave everyone, prayed for persecutors, returned good for evil. In other words, in most Christian churches, the anamnesis has become an agency for amnesia about truths in the suffering and death of Christ that if consistently brought to consciousness at the sacred time of the community's Eucharist would stand in judgement on a multitude of community activities, past and present." Reverend Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, The Nonviolent Eucharist (Baxter, Minn.: Center for Christian Nonviolence, 293 Kenwood Ct., Tel. 218-828-1217; n.d.), p.5.

3. Anthony J. Gittins, Bread for the Journey: The Mission of Transformation and the Transformation of Mission (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1993), pp. 78-9. Cf. "The memorial (anamnesis) of Christ's sacrifice (a gift, a meal, and a lesson about love and loyalty, justice and joyousness), the eucharistic feast has become for many a famine and a scandal. The preeminent sign of nourishment and unity for Christians and to the world, the eucharist is currently the focus of embarrassment, division, and dissension as much as it is a beacon of light and a standard-bearer of justice.
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The eucharistic life of myriad communities is a scandal, and it is pastorally indefensible to deprive such communities of honest celebrations of the Paschal mystery.
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Somehow the kernel or the core--the deep structures--of the eucharist and the faith must be rediscovered and transformed into living and life-giving liturgies and lifestyles in a thousand cultures and ten thousand communities" (p. 26ff.).