Jesus Christ—who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily into the heavens—can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin words spoken over your favorite burgundy, and you can drink his blood as well. Is there any doubt that a lone subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad? Rather, is there any doubt that he would be mad? The danger of religious faith is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy.
My beloved book club, not to be confused with a Christian gathering, was reading The End of Faith, by Sam Harris, during Holy Week as it turned out. I cited the above quote as proof when several in my group protested my description of Harris as somewhat harsh. It was then that one of my friends asked, “But you don’t believe that about Communion anyway, do you? That it is really a body and blood? You couldn’t. How could anyone? So that wouldn’t offend you personally, would it?”
I answered awkwardly, honestly, as true friends really grappling with these things from different worldviews and religious beliefs do. And I continue to consider these questions more since my experience at the Liberian Communion table at Monrovia United Methodist Church in April 2006.
I visited the church as a guest of Liberia’s new president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first female African head of state. I was in the country as part of a team led by former Ambassador Swanee Hunt, whom Johnson-Sirleaf had asked to provide training for the newly elected parliament, government ministers, and civil society members.
Liberia is just emerging from two civil wars over the course of 14 years. It is a small country of 3 million, rich in natural resources but devastated by war. About a quarter of the remaining population is under the age of 14, and the unemployment rate is 85 percent.
In Johnson-Sirleaf’s Liberia, former boy soldiers, who are now between ages 15 and 25, uneducated and vocationally untrained, make up half of the adult male population. These and other ex-combatants have killed and maimed, terrorized and raped many of their countrymen and countrywomen. Estimates say 40 percent of Liberian females over age 8 have been raped. These soldiers are also infamous for hacking off the hands of men and children in villages that did not side with whichever faction the soldiers were with, especially in neighboring Sierra Leone.
We had the privilege of sitting at tables with many groups in the post-conflict reconstruction community during our brief stay in Liberia. We sat with United Nations workers, the U.S. ambassador, and parliamentarians. We shared outdoor tables with villagers and refugees, at playgrounds and camps. We sat at negotiating tables with government ministers and NGO representatives. We were guests at presidential banquet tables.
But the Communion table was different. There we were with ex-combatants, women and girls who had been raped, men whose hands had been cut off, the president, her guests, and American Secret Service agents. Pastors presided and ordinary citizens, children, and the elderly joined us. No other table could gather such a diverse group of society members and outsiders. No other could call us to repentance and reflection, healing and transformation. Only this table offered the internal and collective place where the rebuilding of a nation can begin.
DO I BELIEVE Communion is “just a symbol” or that it is “real?” The very real occasion is one of people coming together and trying, however awkwardly, to truly embody something new. In receiving Communion we try on, act out together, actually become the living symbol of the most needed processes in human community: repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
The human community has no idea how to create sustainable peace in chronically violent areas of the world. Yet during Communion, we become the process of peace, individually and collectively. The problem is not that we believe it is real. The problem is that we do not believe deeply enough the possibility of that reality. That it can become our very own flesh, a transformation of the nature of our humanity.
Week by week, bite by bite, people have the opportunity to be changed. A nation therefore has a better chance of being changed as well. Liberia needs this chance. Can we make Communion real—body and blood real? Because that is what it is going to take. I submit that Communion, understood on new levels, received with clearer intention, believed more reverently and hopefully, has transformative power to bring humanity to higher ground. The Communion table can offer real assistance in a time of real need, a vital piece of post-conflict reconstruction work that nothing else can offer.
This “body” we eat, this crust that is or symbolizes the body of God, and this blood we drink are bread and wine, the flesh and fruit of our own earth. All that we are—the soil and seed, sun, rain, and seasons—become, through the mystery of our own sacred intention, holy. If more of us understood this well, would we ever damage the earth the way we are doing? If we are willing to be vulnerable and foolish enough to see the extraordinary in these most ordinary elements, then we acquiesce to something larger and more wonderful than ourselves, and we partake of the divine. God is in this somewhere—meshed into the very elements of our most elemental being, hidden in the fiber of our existence.
Of course, the big, big ache is that we cannot yet understand how sacredly-holy-real Communion is before we cut off each other’s hands. We still do not really get that this “body of Christ” that Christians are taught about means all-of-us. Each one is needed to create the whole body. None is to be despised because it is not the other part.
We are invited to eat, to become. And we mirror God’s banquet table to which all are invited together: the sick, the blind, the lame; the good, the bad, the ugly. We are they. And we are invited into love and acceptance, just the way we are. Invited to eat, to heal, and to become. Invited to repent, forgive, and reconcile.
An “arcanum” is a many-layered symbol of a strange reality, mysterious in that it is always true but not obviously evident. Communion is plausibly Christianity’s deepest arcanum, practiced from the beginning by all churches East and West, though in varying forms. Communion merges the “symbol” and the “real.” Distinction is artificial dualism. A living symbol is real.
The possibility of peace on earth, healing for Liberia, flashes in the arcanum of Communion, of Eucharist. I do not think this is madness. I do not know of another constant place, yet, in human community where we can see the spark, taste the possibility.
Michele M. Hovey, a Mennonite, was adjunct faculty at Iliff School of Theology in Denver and an associate with International Peace Initiatives when this article appeared.