Last week, I wrote a post at the Political Theology blog entitled “Demystifying Eucharistic Politics,” in which I sought to offer a typology of how the Eucharist might and might not function “politically.” The post cited both Peter Leithart’s recent Between Babel and Beast and with perhaps the most well-known book on this theme, William Cavanaugh’s 1998 Torture and Eucharist, but I only had space for the most cursory interaction with these texts. I would like to use this post to build on the arguments I developed there in more direct engagement with Leithart’s book, of which I am working on a review.
In a nutshell, the post last week argued that much of the talk of “eucharistic politics” rests on a serial equivocation between the Church as polis and the Church as paradigm or pedagogue, between the Eucharist as a form of genuinely political action and the Eucharist as an inspiration, resource, or model for Christians as they pursue other actions that we would normally recognize as “political.” Proponents of eucharistic politics (of whom, I should confess, I have often been one) seem to want the rhetorical oomph of the former without actually committing themselves to its somewhat unsettling consequences. For the most part, what they want could be better described under the latter heading, in which the Eucharist helps to form Christians for a Christ-like mode of political engagement.
However, resolving this ambiguity is not as simple as pointing out that these proponents are not using the word “politics” literally. Because at times, they do seem to be; or at least, to be asking for rather more than a pedagogical Eucharist could provide. But what exactly?
One of the great strengths of Leithart’s Between Babel and Beast is its ability to telescope very large arguments and claims into a very small space. But this can also be a weakness, or at least a frustration, and this is particularly so on the theme of eucharistic politics. The theme is clearly a crucial one for Leithart, for when he comes to offer his so-what-do-we-do-now prescriptions in the very terse Conclusion, it is the first of his three proposals (the other two are “renounce the heresy of Americanism” and “risk martyrdom”). Here’s what he says about it:
“American churches need to commemorate the final sacrifice of Jesus in regular eucharistic celebrations, and they need to work out the practicalities of a eucharistic politics—the end of sacred warfare, the formation of an international ecclesial imperium that includes all Christians, the cultivation of the virtues of martyrs, the forging of bonds of brotherhood that would inhibit Christians from shedding Christian blood.” (152).
Now this is a fairly restrained call, one that operates, it would seem, almost entirely within the paradigmatic-pedagogical conception that I outlined in the PT post. In this context, the phrase “eucharistic politics” seems clearly to mean something like “a politics which draws its inspiration from the practice of the Eucharist, and what the Eucharist has to teach us” rather than treating the eucharistic rite as itself a political one. Before delving into these practices, though, I should note that the first clause suggests something different, what we might call the proclamatory function of the Eucharist. This was a category that I did not adequately distinguish in my PT post, but which is perhaps one of the most important things that people have in mind when they speak of eucharistic politics. The Eucharist “proclaims the Lord’s death till he comes,” we are told, and in this statement are two points of political significance. First, by proclaiming Christ’s crucifixion, we remember the injustice of worldly powers, and remember how Christ overcame that injustice with love and self-sacrifice. Second, by proclaiming that he will come again, we remember that he will come in judgment, that unjust worldly powers will be dashed to pieces before him. In this way, the enactment of the Eucharist represents a kind of prophetic protest against unjust powers, a reminder that Christ has unmasked them and disclosed a different kind of kingdom. This function of the Eucharist is more directly political inasmuch as it can be aimed in fact at rulers and authorities, intending to get their attention and convict them (this might be hard to imagine in our American context, but in struggles against some Latin American dictatorships, for instance, the church sometimes used public celebrations of the Eucharist in this way). But what is important to note about this function, and what ties it quite closely to the more straightforwardly pedagogical function, is that it is not ex opere operato; it is not self-interpreting. Missionaries could not enter a pagan land, march up to the local warlord who was oppressing the people, break bread and drink wine together, and expect any reaction other than bewilderment. In this as in all else, the Eucharist (as the Reformers were keen to emphasize) depends on the Word for its power. Only by celebrating the Eucharist and proclaiming the Word along with it can we expect our “commemoration of the final sacrifice of Jesus” to have any prophetic value.
But let’s get back to those practical prescriptions now. They are frustratingly vague as stated here, and although the rest of the book provides some elucidation, it isn’t all that much, as we shall see. The Eucharist teaches us to end sacred warfare by pointing us to the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ the victim, reminding us that we fight now only as a necessary means of protecting the innocent and restraining injustice, not as agents of divine vengeance, purging the world of wickedness. Clearly, this is a means by which the Eucharist may impact Christian approaches to politics; but equally clearly, this will not happen automatically, but will require careful teaching and discipleship to help us understand and practice these implications. On the other hand, it is hard to know what to make of the second clause, “The formation of an international ecclesial imperium that includes all Christians,” although this is a recurrent motif of the book. Something rather like this did once exist—it was called the Catholic Church, and in the medieval period, it took the language of “imperium” quite seriously, claiming to exercise authority over all the kings of the earth. But Leithart is a Protestant, so presumably he means nothing like this. Perhaps the most plausible reading of this clause is as another way of stating the fourth clause: “the forging of bonds of brotherhood that would inhibit Christians from shedding Christian blood.” In other words, although we in fact only celebrate the Eucharist with a fairly small group of local believers, it is a sign and seal of our union, through our mutual union with Christ, with all Christians all around the world. The consciousness of this brotherhood will make us think twice about casually going to war with other Christians and sending our sons (and as of this week, I might add, our daughters) to kill them. (I should not in passing that I have problems with the implication which one might draw from this and other passages in the book that a Christian could never justly kill another Christian in war, but as he never says that straightforwardly, I’ll leave that be.) Again, this is clearly a means by which the Eucharist may inform our political practice, but again, it does so only as a pedagogue illuminated by the Word. This is true also for the last item, “the cultivation of the virtues of martyrs.” By proclaiming Christ’s fearless death before tyrants, the Eucharist can help strengthen in us the faith and courage to be prepared to follow Christ unto death, a death that faithful opposition to unjust rulers may entail (although we in America are probably not going to find ourselves at that point for quite some time yet, Leithart’s somewhat melodramatic rallying-cries notwithstanding). Again, though, the celebration of the Eucharist may prepare us to be martyrs, but it is not itself an act of martyrdom.
Having thoroughly analyzed this concluding prescription, what can we say about the other passages in which the Eucharist crops up? There are six, by my count.
First, page 40.
“The fulfilled Israel of the church, by contrast, was founded on the victim not the victimizer. It was a city founded by crucified and risen Abel rather than Cain. Its ritual center was not a repetitive round of bloody sacrifices, but the memorialization of the sacrifice-ending sacrifice of Jesus, celebrated with wine rather than blood. With this founding and this ritual, ecclesial imperialism was sure to be a peculiar conquest. The establishment of the ecclesial imperium did not immediately end war. It did not even end war for Christians. But it brought a decisive end to holy war, the sacrificial prosecution of war, the legitimation of imperial regeneration through violence. The church’s sacrificial practice imitated that of Jesus, as willing martyr-vitims mixed their blood with His. Renewal came through violence suffered, not violence enacted. Force continued to be used, and could be used justly; but force was de-sacralized because de-sacrificed.”
Here we find a fuller exposition of the logic behind Leithart’s calls for both “the end of sacred warfare” and the “cultivation of the virtues of martyrs.” The Eucharist teaches us to die for Christ, not to kill for Christ, and if faithfully followed, this will transform the practice of Christian politics. Leithart is claiming in this section that in fact this is exactly what happened, and early Christendom did do away with sacred warfare. This seems a rather romanticized portrait of the early Middle Ages, which seem in fact to have witnessed plenty of officially-sanctioned killing in the name of Christ. But it is probably truth that the Church’s witness was effectual to some extent in changing attitudes toward violence during this time—as indeed it has been since then, I would argue. My only complaint here, besides the romanticized history, is that this passage obscures the extent to which the Church did this by its teaching, not merely by celebrating the eucharistic ritual, as if it was some ex opere operato instrument of peacemaking.
By far Leithart’s fullest discussion of eucharistic politics comes on pages 60-61, which we will quote in full here
“At the center of this political community was a new ritual, the quasi-sacrifice of the Eucharist. Through participation in the Eucharist, the members of the church were formed into a more-than-human community. It was a human society constituted by its more common participation in the living God-man, Jesus Christ. Christian belief in ‘a mystical body cohering around a godhead’ was unprecedented in Western political thought, and by this concept ‘Christianity helped father the idea of a community as a non-rational, non-utilitarian body bound by a meta-rational faith, infused by a mysterious spirit taken into the members; a spirit that not only linked each participant with the center of Christ, but radiated holy ties knitting each member to his fellows.’ By this concept, ‘The Christian community was not so much an association as a fusion of spirits, a pneumatic being.’ [Wolin, Politics and Vision, 119] Eucharist was seen as the sacramental embodiment of the fulfilled project of divine imperium that began with Abraham. The community gathered at the eucharistic meal ‘crossed all ethnic borders’ and achieved a ‘unity that was not abstract, nor was it made by coercion or force,’ yet constituted a depth of ‘political  allegiance’ that had never before been achieved. In the Eucharist the church ritually enacted ‘a transcendent vision that not even the most expansive understanding of “empire” could have competed with.’ [Pecknold, Christianity and Politics, 23-24.]
“When Constantine gave permanent legal recognition to the church, he was implicitly, more or less consciously, acknowledging the the church was a true and independent imperium in the midst of the Roman empire. Not the empire, but the church was the true city, an outpost of a heavenly imperium. Constantine simultaneously suppressed traditional Roman sacrifice, and (again, more or less consciously) placed the Christian eucharistic sacrifice at the center of Roman order. Sacrifice is an inescapable feature of political order, and the relocation of sacrifice, the public recognition of the Eucharist as the one true sacrifice, is one of the foundations of Western Christendom and Byzantine order. Public acknowledgement of the eucharistic sacrifice went hand in hand with the early medieval notion that loyalty to the church, as well as to local communities and families, transcended loyalty to the state. Where your sacrifices are, there will your heart be also. By the regular remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice, the church celebrated the end of sacrifice, the end of sacralized politics and sacralized war.”
In the latter paragraph, we find the now-familiar theme of Eucharist-as-end-of-sacred-violence, but this passage also gives us a new theme, one that ties in with the references in the conclusion to “the formation of an international ecclesial imperium that includes all Christians” and “the forging of bonds of brotherhood.” We might try to read all this as just a fancy way of saying, “All Christians should really love one another and treat one another like brothers and sisters”—perhaps this is what Leithart means by “the early medieval notion that loyalty to the church, as well as to local communities and families, transcended loyalty to the state.” “Loyalty” can after all mean something like that, rather than political allegiance. But we do encounter here the explicit language of “political allegiance” and it is most bamboozling what we are to make of it. We are told that “the church was a true and independent imperium in the midst of the Roman empire. Not the empire, but the church was the true city, an outpost of a heavenly imperium.” The only way to make sense of any of these terms in their standard English (and Latin) usage is something like the medieval papacy, which did function as an independent juridical body, claiming immunity from worldly political authority and supreme power of command (imperium) over worldly authorities. Again, it is hard to think this is what Leithart wants, but what then does he mean. The quotes from Wolin and Pecknold in the first paragraph just confuse the issue further. To be sure, the Christian community is something “unprecedented,” “mystical,” “transcendent,” in which we are each “linked with the center of Christ” and through him to one another; it is “a fusion of spirits, a pneumatic being.” But that is precisely the point. These aspects of the Church do not take place at the level of body, but of spirit. Forgive my stubborn Enlightenment dualism, but it really seems hard to deny that when we are talking about our mystical union with Christ through faith, and to all who are elect in him, past, present, and future, we are talking about something fundamentally and categorically different from a political community as we could ever meaningfully use that word. The quote from Wolin implies somehow that this concept of a spiritual community provided a new paradigm for understanding the political community in the Christian West. But how? Did Christian polities start trying to fashion themselves into “non-rational,” “non-utilitarian” bodies “infused by a mysterious spirit.”
What Leithart is gesturing at here is the idea that Christians are a people bound together by a common allegiance to Christ that will, when the chips are down, trump any earthly allegiance, and that the Eucharist is a visible sign of this allegiance. But this “binding together” is necessarily an essentially invisible binding. Leaving aside the stubborn theological fact that a great many in the outward Church have no real allegiance to Christ, the simple problem of geography, and of diverse denominations, ensures that this is the case. Any attempt to make this community of shared allegiance visible and clearly-delineated would seem to require an international juridically-unified church, which requires an allegiance to earthly church authorities besides Christ—as I tried to spell out in my PT post. Viewed in this light, the language of “loyalty to the church” takes on more troubling overtones.
All of these problematic ambiguities reappear in perhaps even starker form a couple pages later, in the following passage:
“In Christendom and Byzantium, then, ‘political order’ in the narrow sense was founded on central metapolitical convictions. At the heart of the project was the ‘state’s’ recognition of the church as an independent polity or order of its own, the civil order’s (often grudging) acceptance of the quasi-civic order of the church in its midst, the acknowledgment of the Eucharist as the sacrificial center of a polity—a sacrificial center not controlled by the state—and civil government’s embrace of the church’s end, the kingdom of God, as its own end. Christendom in the West and Byzantium in the East took shape within the metapolitics of christological and ecclesial typology, a political ecclesiology, eucharistic practice that nourished the spirit of martyrdom, and eschatology.”
What does this language of “independent polity” mean? In using the phrase “quasi-civic order,” Leithart highlights the ambiguity. Is it civic? Or ain’t it? And if so, how so? The eucharist is the “sacrificial center” around which all Christians, worshipping all over the world, spiritually unite, but can this communion of saints be described as “a polity”?
Leithart goes on to argue that our modern woes can be blamed largely on our loss of this eucharistic center:
“The Reformation produced martyrs aplenty, but they were mostly Christians put to death for heresy by other Christians. The church utterly lost its eucharistic center. No longer did the Eucharist function as a locus of union of all nations and peoples. It was no longer even the locus of union for all Christians. The sacredness of the Eucharist was increasingly co-opted by the state, which demanded absolute, sacrificial loyalty. Kings were quick to seize on the relatively new ideology of holy war: If the state is a sacred community, and war endowed with a mystic aura, then kings might well think they have the right to demand that their soldiers sacrifice themselves and their enemies for the fatherland.” (66)
“It has been a long time since a sizable proportion of American Protestants have viewed the Eucharist as a gift of the corpus mysticum that forms individual participants into a pneumatic body in Christ, and it is thus a long time since American Protestants have thought that the Eucharist would do much to form God’s Abrahamic imperium in America. American Eucharists have done little to nurture an alternative empire of martyrs ready to resist the unjust demands of the nation. . . . Given the pressure of American typology and eschatology, it was inevitable that a new form of nationalist sacrifice would take the place of the eucharistic sacrifice of martyrdom, a sacrifice not for Christ but for kin and country.” (77)
The second of these quotes may have something to it (although it should be noted that modern nationalism was much stronger in “high-church” countries like Britain and Germany and even Catholic countries like France), and undoubtedly Americans need to reclaim the powerful message of the Eucharist as a warning against sacralizing their nation. But the first quote offers a remarkably uncritical restatement of the standard Radical Orthodox narrative of the migration of holiness from church to state during the Reformation. The holes in that narrative are many, but I will just point out two here: (1) “the relatively new ideology of holy war”? On Leithart’s own narrative in this book, that ideology had already surfaced in medieval Christendom at least as early as the 9th century, 700 years before the Reformation. As new as the Canterbury Tales is today, that is. In any case, one of the crucial planks of Luther’s reform was his wholesale rejection of the sacralization of violence. (2) “The church utterly lost its eucharistic center.” If the point of the Eucharist is to knit together the body of Christ into a community, then the Reformation was precisely about recovering this. The Reformers protested the medieval church’s elitization and privatization of the Eucharist; the majority of masses were celebrated by individual priests in private chapels, funded by wealthy lords. Even in those masses that were public, very few of the laity took part, and those who did only communed in one kind. The Eucharist was unaccompanied by teaching in languages that the common people could understand, so it could hardly serve its purpose of training Christians for potential martyrdom. The Reformation sought to re-establish the Church’s eucharistic center, with frequent celebration of communion in both kinds by the whole congregation, accompanied by thorough teaching. The only sense in which the Church became disconnected from the Eucharist was that the Eucharist no longer functioned ex opere operato; it could not create a church without the Word, and it could not be used as a coercive threat by which clergy could intimidate lay rulers.
We are thus left to wonder whether it is in fact the overtly political function of the Eucharist—a way for the church to wield coercive imperium against other empires—that Leithart is lamenting we have lost. A brief hint on page 110 shows this is not mere paranoia:
“Even Christian leaders in the United States are not in any real way accountable to the officers of God’s imperium. Whatever their private convictions, public officials are not held publicly accountable to King Jesus. When was the last time an American politician was excommunicated? When was the last time an excommunication had any effect on American politics?”
Of course, an unfaithful Christian who holds political office may warrant church discipline as much as an unfaithful Christian in any other station of life. But this discipline should be conceived of as a pastoral tool for this sinner’s spiritual healing, not as an instrument for directing public policy—however good our motives. That way lies a whole nest of temptations, that plenty of ugly episodes in church history should warn us to steer clear of.
We have seen then that the main substance of what Leithart wants to do with “eucharistic politics” could probably be well-expressed using a paradigmatic/pedagogical conception of the Eucharist, a way of training God’s people to be more Christlike, that they might resist injustice where they encounter it. But there is an undercurrent in his exposition that cannot be easily reduced to that way of speaking, an undercurrent that either has to remain an incoherent metaphor or else find expression in a strikingly un-Protestant ecclesiology. I am sure Leithart does not intend this consequence, but it is hard to see exactly what else to do with his language, and it needs to be queried accordingly. Of course, after such a negative ending, I want to hasten to say that Between Babel and Beast is an extremely valuable book, both in its remarkable exposition of Scriptural teaching, and in its compelling and much-needed indictment of contemporary American practice. So it is lamentable that this whole business of eucharistic politics introduces a significant ambiguity into the argument at certain crucial points, undermining some of its more valuable insights. If you haven’t read the book, however, I certainly commend it to your careful attention.