Monday, October 05, 2020

Book Review: Recovering Communion in a Violent World by Christopher Grundy

At its best, Holy Communion should and can counter practices of torture and contribute to the re-formation of its devastating habitus. It may well do so to some extent already, but it could contribute more than it does. Holy Communion, after all, is also a political technology of the body: a way of inscribing certain instincts and particular relationships of power. It should and can do more to help to re-member us and to nourish the resilience of the habitus of deep communion, re-inscribing those habitus on us through practices that embody our true connection with God and each other. It can potentially enact the deeper reality that regardless of the violent practices undertaken to dis-integrate us, we all belong, body and soul, to the Beloved Community of God. - Christopher Grundy, Recovering Communion in a Violent World

Have we ever seriously considered the violent aspects of the sacrament of communion? What if the traditional language of this sacred meal reinforces cultural messages of violence and bloodshed, rather than transforms or runs counter to them? Is there a way to redeem this language and reimagine the particular observation of the sacrament to make it more true to the spirit in which it was established?

These questions are at the heart of Christopher Grundy's Recovering Communion in a Violent World: Resistance, Resilience, and Risk. Dr. Grundy is Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship and Associate Dean of the Chapel at Eden Seminary (full disclosure: my alma mater), and explores them in the hope that the answer to them all is "yes."

First, the book breaks down why the focus on "body" and "blood" in communion is problematic, and perhaps counter to what Jesus had in mind. Grundy is very quick to acknowledge that the very idea of this project may seem strange and unnecessary to many who observe this ritual. After all, Jesus himself says, "This is my body" and "This is my blood." What is there to examine?

Grundy answers in several ways. He shares experiences of several who have endured trauma and body objectification who in turn are repulsed by the theological idea of eating a body. For them, it reinforces that trauma rather than heals it. How so? Every time we observe communion, Grundy answers, we ritually produce a body that is referenced in sacrificial terms: "[W]e don't spend a lot of time worrying about what this body is experiencing or feeling...We specifically produce a type of body we can destroy" (p. 35). 

In other words, by using certain body language in communion, we are engaging in a ritual act of violence over and over again. And that causes a personal repulsion for some, but in a larger scale, Grundy argues, it contributes to a damaging theology of violence that can have a negative effect on the church as a whole over time. If we focus on the beneficial sacrifice of a body that does not have its own agency in communion, it communicates that such objectification and sacrifice is what God may wish in other situations as well.

Grundy's solution to this problem comes as he does a deep dive into the scriptural stories and early church traditions of communion that focused less on body sacrifice and instead lift up community, love, and service. He examines Paul, the Upper Room narratives in the synoptic Gospels, the unique narrative in John, the feeding of the multitudes, and several post-resurrection stories where Jesus shares a meal with the disciples. As he does so, he shows that these narratives and traditions are not rooted in sacrifice, but in sharing an awareness of God's presence in community, which the early church retained as well. 

Recovering Communion in a Violent World pulls from Biblical analysis, feminist and womanist theory, trauma theory, and the concepts of resilience and resistance to reclaim communion as a counter-cultural practice that envisions a world without violence. It is thoughtful, scholarly, accessible, and timely for a moment where the church is in need of a message to present in the face of the desecration and disrespect of bodies through injustice, violence, incarceration, and disease. What better way to present that message than through one of our most treasured rituals?

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)