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📖 (21 min. read) The Eucharist and Politics

The Eucharist isn't a Sabbath day escape from the world, it's a communal commitment to concern for humankind and the human condition. Published as a CIIR talk. 5565 words

Ours is a moment in history of great bewilderment. People are baffled by the never-ending social issues that are thrust at them and in general we have not the mental categories or emotional maturity with which to interpret them. Bafflement always leads either to apathy and despair or an emptying of self and renewal in God. And renewal in the Church has always taken the path either of exciting new enthusiasms along the periphery (which end up as being quite irrelevant) or of a return to the central mystery of Christianity to ask new questions there.

So it will be useful to consider the Eucharist because we have there the fullest, the consummate expression of the Church’s faith. If we ask what is the specific character of the Christian concern for humankind, we must be able to find the answer in the Eucharist.

It is familiar to all who have “done theology” that the Eucharist is a threefold sign of the past, of the present and of the future; a sign of Christ’s Passover for us in AD 30, a sign of our present reconciliation to and communion with him and one another, and a pledge of our final union in the Kingdom. Christ has died, is risen, will come. But what has not been stressed, because of its Protestant overtones, for the last 400 years is that the Eucharist is also a sign of our faith, a signum fidei; not only a sign of God’s initiative on our behalf, but also a sign of our “yes” in response. The Eucharist makes clear and explicit our inner response of faith, not merely a private and cosy “yes”, but a public and communal commitment to fundamental attitudes of mind about humankind and the human condition.

Most Christians know the tension between a personalist God-and-me-concerned-about-my-salvation type of faith, and a God-can-only-be-found-in-my-neighbour type of faith. They know the tension within themselves, or at least as descriptive of different types of people. In recent years there has been a move away from a vertical faith centred on ‘me and God’ towards a horizontal faith centred on social awareness. This movement makes the tension acute, especially for many priests, many of whom are bewildered by the contrast between the personal devotion approach of their background and the demands to get socially involved which they meet on all sides today.

To be content with either a vertical personalist faith or a horizontal socialist faith is to deny the Incarnation. It would be easy to try to integrate the two, as is often done in Christian social writing, by presenting as Christian thought what is really only dolled-up humanism interspersed with apt Gospel quotations. But God is not to be a helpmate for our frenetic social activism, and the following considerations are an attempt to integrate the two aspects, personal and social, without falling into that trap.

People are political, in the sense that their daily position is never in isolation but always set within an intricate web of social structures. To answer the question, “Who am I?” is to study the whole setting in which my life is set up and has its purpose. In this sense my life is political, I am involved in politics.

Politics can be taken to mean formal politics, (parties or organisations), or real politics (principles and groundwork of human interrelations). Here we are concerned with real politics, and in that sense we can only say that the Eucharist is a radical political statement about humanity. Far from being a sabbath day escape from the world, it is a fundamental undertaking of political attitudes towards it. It is celebrated on the first day of the week, not the last. In the Eucharist believers find themselves caught up into Christ in his return to the Father. Their aspirations and concerns are brought into the aspirations of God himself. They learn to see as God sees, not form a borrowed principle outside themselves, but from their own heightened awareness.

So week by week we make, in the Eucharist, our political statement. The problem is to become aware of the implications of that statement. To do so it may help to consider five truths to which we say “yes”:

The dignity of humanity.

The freedom of humanity.

The givenness of things.

The power of life and love over death and hatred.

The love of men and women springs from experience of God.

The Dignity of men and women

The chaotic jumble of people coming to communion in our large churches is a good statement of what it is all about. A total disregard for status, colour, income, no sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Indeed, Christ does not present to us his body, nor even his body given for us, but his body given for us to be eaten together; the together is an essential part of the sign. Our dignity as humans lies in nothing else but our elevation to be a son or daughter of God because of our communion with Christ.

The Eucharist thus reveals the real dignity of being human, which would otherwise be unknown to us; and it establishes the source of this dignity which is not only we are born in the image of God, but that we have been reconciled as children of God, from a radical alienation about which we could do nothing alone. The immediate consequence, in fact, the actual realisation of this is concern for reconciliation among men and women.

Most Christians think too much of love in terms of doing good, of helping the poor, of giving money. Just below the surface is a sense of salving one’s conscience, or even a sense of ‘achievement’. But love begins in the heart of God, and our concern for people can never be other than our gratitude for love received “If we would know whether God’s love has really taken hold in us, then we must ask: do we find ourselves loving our brothers and sisters?”

Now, love to be true must be efficacious, and to be efficacious it must go beyond mere charity to a mature sense of justice. The distinction is vital. It used, for instance, to be thought that most problems between rich countries and poor countries could be solved by “aid” and by sufficient money being given to “charities”. In other words that where there is sufficient good will there is a way, and what is needed is dozens of Mother Teresas. But this is not true; we know that the root causes of destitution, homelessness, unemployment and hunger in the word are not the lack of charity and good will, but the lack of justice. And justice is not to do with objective relationships and structures This is why it is naïve to talk of cunning capitalist and colonialist plots against the innocent poor. It is perfectly possible for good people to be in unjust situations, and for evil people to be in just ones. The problem is not one of malice; it is one of blindness.

This seems to be the central thrust of Christ’s warnings to those in power or with riches. Not a condemnation, but a very dire warning that power and riches create blindness; an urgent call, for their own sake, to be aware.

When a supermarket arrives in a High Street and sees the local grocer do worse and worse month by month, it is relatively easy for it to be concerned to offer to help, to be kind; what is almost impossible is for it to admit that its own presence and growth and establishment is the root cause of the grocer’s decline and hopeless future. This is almost exactly the psychology of our relationship with the third world. As long as concern for Christ’s brothers and sisters is one of charity and kindness we are all for it, but when that concern develops into an awareness of justice, the whole issue becomes awkward.

It is now becoming more and more clear that affluence and poverty do not just ‘happen’, and also that the ‘trickle down’ theory – that wealth earned by some is bound to spread to all – is erroneous. What is being realised is that the same processes that create wealth or power for some also create poverty or powerlessness for others. A small microcosm example illustrates this: our local bus service has recently closed; we were distressed for the old people in the village who cannot get about, were anxious to help with our vehicles, and to encourage alternative transport arrangements; but what is extremely difficult to acknowledge is that it was precisely our use of private cars which killed the bus service; that we are part of the actual process.

In this country, in general, there is a polarising process going on between the wealthy and the destitute. The growth of the urban poor, the rising numbers of families on social welfare, spell out the same message: that a society bent on acquiring affluence must work to benefit those who are well off and it will do this both through educating peoples’ attitudes and through its own economic structures. And this same process operates between nations, so that to think of rich-poor in terms of charity, or of “them sooner or later catching up with us”, has become a form of social blindness. It is essential that the Church lays bare these issues with the same urgency with which Christ warned those in positions of power in Palestine.

One of the root causes of injustice in society is the psychological or physical distance between those who make decisions and those affected by them. It is no accident that unemployment increases as one goes north form offices in London to workers in Liverpool or Glasgow, or that a profound sense of “them”, the southerners, exploiting “us” in Durham, say, still lingers from the thirties. The same factors operate wherever there is lack of genuine sympathy-born-of-experience between those who decide and those who are affected, whether in a family, in the Church, or between nations. To counter this it is necessary for people to free themselves from their familiar categories of thinking in terms of “them” and “us”, and this freeing is as much a question of having a feel for the dignity of every person as it is of acknowledging it nationally. It is a question of appreciating at a radical level what it means that God shared his life with men and women rather than just helping them from a distance.

This sense of integration would have colossal political implications, not only within our own country but internationally. I am, after all, as closely bound to the Bolivian tin miner who initiates the tin coating on my Nescafe tin this morning as I am to the grocer who sold me the tin. Yet the Bolivian is “them” and the grocer is “us”. And the Bolivian lives on hunger and injustice (at £7 a month) and the grocer lives affluently. The truth of our world is that it is a global, closely interdependent village, but our mental attitudes are still along the lines of we-matter-and-they-should-struggle-for-themselves.

We need to receive in the Body of Christ a thirst for justice, for reconciliation, for a sense of the dignity of every man and woman, in order that they can use us in our own spheres of life as a voice for the voiceless and a ‘contestator’ of the established structures of injustice. This above all is asked of priests.

The Freedom of Men and Women.

There is a certain embarrassment among Catholics because we have suddenly realised, at a time when all the world is interested in freedom. that that is precisely what we were meant to be interested in all along, in spite of our emphases on obedience and acceptance. A little like having to search through a wastepaper basket for a letter one has realised is very important.

In the Eucharist we celebrate the Passover of Christ from the total unfreedom of death to his transcendent freedom as Son of God. In that celebration we not only state but discover the possibility of the freedom which God offers to every person.

The whole history of God’s people can be taken as a continuous call by God to a freedom which his people over and over could not take, a call to liberation from what was familiar and unworthy of men and women, to a new freedom with God, which was worthy of them. And throughout the ministry of Jesus we hear the same call. Leave what is familiar and limiting and stand up on your own feet and discover the freedom that I offer to you.

Unfortunately, we inherit two attitudes that prevent us from having a mature understanding of freedom. The first is: freedom is mainly a question of having shackles removed, of other people getting off one’s back. This is to equate freedom with independence, whereas in fact freedom is rather an inner ability to determine one’s own future to be the author of one’s own destiny.

Freedom, both for the individual or for a society or nation at large, is not something that happens – for instance when ‘independence’ is gained; rather it is built up and nurtured over many years. The maturing of freedom, either within a personality or a society, is something which makes great demands on people and calls for great sacrifices. Perhaps it is this long haul, this need for ‘patient endurance’ which the contemporary person finds so distasteful but which the New Testament equates with hope and faith.

The second attitude which inhibits our understanding of freedom is: that freedom is about the rights of an individual over against society, or a nation over against the rest of the world. This outlook arises from the western protestant emphasis on the person as an individual. It lies behind our naïve ideas about human rights (as residing in the self rather than in relationships with others), it lies behind our worship of doing our own thing, of getting on in the world, of doing well for oneself. It lies behind the whole competitive assumption that the human quality of life is best secured by a free interplay of human competition. Those two beautiful words, “free” and “enterprise”, which should refer to the very highest in humanity, to be free and creative, have turned into symbols of oppression for most people alive in our present world. Free enterprise based in individual competition at the expense of concern for others must inevitably oppress.

We tend to interpret the under-development of the poor countries in terms of economics or of politics. More basic than either of these is the state of moral depressions which removes any desire in people to transcend their condition. This is un-freedom in its ultimate form, the psychological state of total dependence on a system which oppresses. This is total alienations, in that all a person’s energies goes into work that does not make him or her (or their society or their nation, whichever it may be) in any sense authors of their own destiny. Each person is working for a “them” not for an “us”. This is the root cause of much poverty in the world. particularly in Latin America. It is not possible for an elite within a country, or a foreign power outside it, to pursue the basic tenets of our western economics, without building up profound moral lassitude, un-freedom and alienation in millions of people.

The cure being adopted more and more widely by those aware of what has happened, is to start right at the base: to educate people in awareness, to be aware of their situation, aware of what their life is about, its organisation, its possibilities, aware above all that what their fathers assumed to be permanent their children should know can be otherwise. As Paulo Freire has said, “We do not want to be the object of civilisation but the subject of civilisation.”

In his letter to the UNCTAD III meeting in April 1972, Pope Paul emphasised that not all the reordering if trade terms and monetary systems and overseas aid would do justice to the third world unless those countries themselves became part of the decision-making structure.

In our own country we find a similar moral underdevelopment created by our welfare thinking and by our assumption that higher wages and pensions and handouts are the main issues for governments and trade unions. The tragedy of unemployment is not financial it is that society is telling a person that it can get on without him or her and, to make matters worse, that there is no way in which people can be the author of their own destiny, or that of their family and their society. A great deal of our schooling produces the same moral un-freedom.

It is too easy to think in terms of the affluent being free and the poor being in need of liberation. If anything in the gospels Jesus is more concerned to liberate the affluent than the oppressed. And our contemporary issues of international injustice are far more a call from God to liberate the affluent than they are to liberate the poor; it seems that there is no solution to the deepest problems of the poorer nations apart from a genuine liberation of the wealthy from their own economic assumptions.

It is likewise becoming clear to the Church in the West that the inner renewal we look for cannot be found at the rather superficial levels we have been hoping for, but only at the more devastating level of bringing Jesus’ call to liberation and to poverty to bear in our sophisticated world. We need to apply theological wisdom to social structures and attitudes.

The Giveness of things.

Eucharist means thanksgiving, gratitude, appreciation. A total response to God for receiving all things at his hands. We cannot celebrate the Eucharist out of context with our total attitude to possessions and ownership.

The Eucharist is also an explicit denial of any form of dualism: that material things don’t matter, that it is the spirit alone that is relevant. God presents himself to us as things, things to be eaten and to be drunk. This is incarnation in its full expression and should be a dire warning against making Christian faith ‘spiritual’, of thinking for instance of Jesus as really talking about being poor in spirit in a way that makes no demands on our lifestyle.

When poverty is mentioned, people’s minds turn to St. Francis; we have developed a theology and tradition of giving everything up for the freedom of the kingdom. Whereas we have this theology of poverty, what we lack is a theology of ownership. We need to answer the question, “What does it mean for me to own this car, to have this talent, this skill to live in this sort of affluence?” The answer cannot be for everyone, “give it all up”. It should be for far more people; more Christians should hear Christ’s clear invitation, “Give it all away and come, follow”; the Church would be more holy and more wise if there were more who would do so. But even so and perhaps complementary to that, we need a theology of possessions.

The highest response of which people are capable is that of pure wonder and awe and appreciation and gratitude for what they enjoy. This is not a theoretical, idealised appreciation, it refers to concrete day to day things and money and talents. It is not a back to nature appreciation which finds it easy to appreciate mountains and trees, but almost impossible to appreciate and give thanks for computers and cars. It is easy to build up a dark sense of guilt and not gratitude. But gratitude is the authentic Christian response. It is gratitude that gives a lightness of touch towards things, which insists that “possession” is relative not absolute, and which insists that all private ownership presupposes a communal one. Because things and abilities and intelligence and money and property are fundamentally “received” rather than “earned” and because they are received at the hands of God by an individual primarily for the sake of all his sons and daughters and not exclusively to be “possessed”, the immediate expression of gratitude is a desire to share. The authentic Christian response is gratitude not guilt, and a desire to share rather than to give. Sharing carries the hint of giving what already belongs to another or at least what is equally owned by anyone. It carries no hint of superiority nor any pat on the back for doing good.

The writings of the Fathers, of Thomas Aquinas, and more recently in Gaudium et Spes and Populorum Progressio, there is a strong tradition of Christian thought along these lines. This tradition, this intuitive sense about what it means to own things or to hold power in one’s hands, needs to be seen clearly today, worked out in the practical judgements and the lifestyles of Christians and the Church.

One immediate application of such an understanding of ownership which is increasingly important in international justice is the question of natural resources – their use and who benefits from their exploitation. And another is how the massive inherited benefits and power of our own rich world can be used for the genuine good of all the sons and daughters of God.

It would be naive to base a theology of ownership simply on the positive need for a sincere attitude of gratitude. We also need a contemporary assessment of what it meant for Christ to take on not the role of the powerful, of the political leader, of the owner, of the person whose wealth or position enables him to do much charitable good for those in need, but rather the role of the dispossessed, the powerless, the poor. That he chose this quite deliberately is clear from the gospels in his refusal to accept political leadership and his determination to see this association with the weak and the vulnerable through to the end (and it led to his death). This is what Paul refers to in saying that Christ did not cling to what was his by right but dispossessed himself. He took the role of one neglected and despised and rejected. There are many aspects of Christ’s non-violent and vulnerable association with the poor. There is, for instance, the position he took in contrast to Barabbas. Barabbas was more or less a guerrilla fighter seeking solutions to injustice which Christ himself had rejected and which were in fact less dangerous and seditious than the vulnerable approach chosen by Christ; that is why the leaders chose Barabbas. Again, Christ was certainly tempted to make use, for excellent ends, of the power that was his for the asking and the significance of his threefold temptation in the desert must be quite clear to anyone who understands questions of international justice and development today. The insidious temptation to use wealth or power to produce food or material prosperity at the expense of higher spiritual and cultural values (we really do not live by bread alone); the temptation to use demonstrations of power or status to win people or nations; the temptation to control the whole world at the expense of its and our true freedom to God – these are by no means outdated in our own day. Unfortunately, not enough of us ever withdraw into the desert in order to see these for the temptations which they are and the roots of injustice.

Perhaps the greatest need for the western world is to grow out of its sense of superiority and learn humbly to get off the backs of other nations. As Christians we need to learn that Christ did not come to help the poor, he became one of them; it was not a question of pity or of Christ being God’s gift to the wretched, but a question of the poor being the ones, after all, who really mattered. The Kingdom was to belong to these, and with power or riches would find it desperately hard to enter. This was not because they would be refused but because power and riches involve concern for ever more material affairs and consequent blindness which precludes people from appreciating the real issues at stake, from ever hearing God’s call to freedom, and to life, which is the ‘kingdom’.

Jesus did not accuse the rich of malice, he warned them of blindness, of having ears that simply couldn’t hear and eyes that couldn’t see. What would cut people off from that kingdom was not, after all, sin but it was the good things – buying oxen (or a car). It was the clutter of good things which would pre-occupy people’s hearts and heads. Jesus made this clear in the language of a prophet, one who is dealing with an issue that is both critical and ultimate. In this respect the Church’s voice needs to be heard as a prophet’s voice, the voice that can challenge people to generous decisions, that can elicit the ultimate good in people. And of course this voice is far less the spoken word than the living image presented by the Church and her members.

In particular this presenting anew of Christ’s warnings needs to make quite clear that nations or classes of people and people of goodwill (ourselves and our friends) can be upholders of situations of injustice which they themselves have not chosen.

For people to discover this – and it must be a painful and demanding discovery – is the first liberation for the affluent or the powerful.

The Power of Life and Love

It is often urged that Sunday Mass be used to get over to people the urgency of international injustice and poverty in the world. The homily and bidding prayers are to be used as God-given teaching platforms. But it is the whole celebration of Mass which leads us into the heart of human suffering and injustice and life and joy and peace. We celebrate the paschal mystery of Christ and in that celebration acknowledge that the forces of love and reconciliation in the world are more powerful than the forces of evil and injustice. This is not a pious memento of an event over and done with two thousand years ago, nor is it naïve wishful thinking about another world hence; it is an act of faith about the concrete historical world in which we live. He who was a failure, who was rejected by people, was raised to life by God. His death was not a hero’s triumph, it was not a Pelagian achievement, he was not a ‘martyr to self’. Jesus Christ Superstar is quite wrong.

Our ways are not God’s ways, and the mystery of Christ’s cross and subsequent resurrection can only be understood in the language of faith. But it is nevertheless the archetype of God’s whole command of the world. The failure and rejection of Jesus was precisely that through which God liberated his people. Christians cannot be content with a humanism that sees suffering as simply evil. Christ has triumphed, God has not lost control of his own world, neither over-all nor in detail. All really will be well.

There are two opposite poles in this both of which have to be held at the same time. The first is that there is profound social injustice in the world that it is of a critical nature, and that God’s invitation to an effective and vigorous response is real. The second is that God is in control and whatever the degree of human misery and injustice, he will turn all things to good. These two faces of the mystery cannot be grasped together, they can only be lived and not expounded, and they can be seen most clearly in the serene peace of mind found in those deeply involved in serving the destitute in Christ. We like to think that God raised Jesus in spite of his passion and death, but in fact he was raised because of it; his new life emerged through his death and God will achieve his purpose in the world not in spite of the mess but through and within it. The death of the seed in the ground is one and the same movement as its growth to life and fruition.

Christian hope is never naïve wishful thinking, it always takes the mess seriously. But it does not become so agonised by sheer impotence when faced, say, by the structural injustice and sin of our own society, that it ceases to ‘find a way’. Christ was not a solver of social problems and we do not expect easy answers to the mess, but he does show us how to live within the mess, he does show us the power of patience, and he does give us the vision which shatters the conventional (and at present quite baffled) ways of interpreting the mess.

Love of men and women is from God.

The final political statement in which we say “yes” in the Eucharist is that concern for mankind springs from our experience of God, or as St. John put it it is the love of God in us which enables us to love our brother and sister in need. There is a tendency today to reduce the gospel to social activity; a tendency to think of humanists, communists, and Christians as all doing the same basic thing, but the last as having some sort of overdrive which should make it clear to everyone that they can do good better than others.

But Christian faith is grounded in our experience of God, our encounter with God, and this is not “for” anything. It is not to enable us to love each other more. When we experience moments of great beauty, moments which take us out of ourselves, such appreciation is its own end, its own justification. So it is with our experience of God and we must be able to say, with St. Peter on the mount of Transfiguration, ‘It is good for us to be here’ full stop. It is only then that Christian ethics have meaning. Otherwise we submit God to humanity, we use his presence and don’t enjoy it. Until we know that there is a good beyond the ethical, the ethical itself is groundless.

Communion in the first place, therefore, is not for peace, or for freedom, or for anything; in the first place it is for itself, communion with our God. And we say all glory and honour is his, Amen, full stop. It is only then that the social involvement of the Church and the believer makes sense. But of course it makes far greater sense because of this subordination to the divine encounter, than if we attempt an independent social concern centred only on “humanity” as contained in itself. Humans can only arrive at mature freedom, at personal dignity, at complete reconciliation with our fellow human when we are in union with God. This is because our whole being is open-ended towards communion with God, and we are necessarily immature until that communion. This is not a pious nicety for believers, but a basic statement about what men and women, ordinary men and women, three thousand million men and women, are all about.

The immediate consequence, politically, is that no ‘system’ will ensure for humans what they dream of, it will never be ‘satisfactory’. We have already mentioned that human freedom can never be insured by any formal politics, however essential it may be to struggle for those political structures which most enhance people’s inner freedom, and competition. But political structures are necessarily unsatisfactory, not because they are merely provisional until the real kingdom of heaven (as early Christians thought); but because they have to do with the conditions in which we live, not ultimately with life itself. This is not to underplay the fact that the way men and women are treated is what they become: that social and economic structures can, as Marx made clear. condition people to be alienated from themselves and from their fellow human. Indeed, it is this alienation within a consumer and affluent society which will prove our saddest legacy to the emerging nations.

But Marx’s accusation that religion alienates men and women because it places their real self not in the here and now political reality, but in some other-worldly religious sphere, is only valid given a world view that is non-incarnational. This view (which Marx met in Christians) interprets the world as a massive and dangerous ambush, with religion, faith, prayer as the only secure and saving flight from the world. Today we need, rather, a world view that deeply appreciates the world as God’s creation, and a faith that discovers in prayer and the experience of God the full dignity and importance of men and women. We shall then discover that real politics and justice and social concern matter more than we ever realised, because we humans have an openness to communion with God and in that communion, to our fellow humans. It is this very openness which is hindered and blocked by our failure to take the here and now tragedy of humanity seriously.


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