Catholics Arrested at Capitol: Eucharistic Politics in Action

Catholics Arrested at Capitol: Eucharistic Politics in Action July 21, 2019

I was brought to tears this afternoon by seeing the photos of the 70 Catholics who were arrested at the nation’s capitol. As much as I’m concerned by the treatment of migrants at the border, I tend not to be moved by news stories about them, nor by the condemnations issued by bishops and priests.

Maybe it’s because I’m cold-hearted. But regardless of my personality flaws, I had to stop and ask myself, “why are these photos and videos bothering me so much?” I didn’t even cry after seeing the photo of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his daughter’s dead bodies last month (“Oh, how horrible! Stupid Trump! Hail Mary, full of grace…” my prayer trailed off as I continued scrolling through my Twitter feed).

For some reason, I felt personally implicated in the arrest of the 70. Something about seeing habited nuns and priests being carried away in handcuffs pierced my heart. I look up to so many priests and religious, including the ones with whom I work on a daily basis. Not only that, but I depend on their counsel and witness as I strive to be more closely united to Christ. The bodily offering they make of their lives to Him make His presence concrete and tangible for me.

In a strange way, I felt like I was being arrested in that moment. They are my brothers and sisters; we are one through the Eucharist. As I scrolled through the photos leading up to the arrest, I saw the photos of the faces of the children at the detention centers that they were holding up. I had never felt so impacted by their suffering until this moment. It was as if their suffering ceased to be the ball in a political football game. Their suffering took flesh through those protesters; it became a reality that was looking at me in the face.

This brought to mind a book that I highly esteem: William T. Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist. Cavanaugh spent 17 months in Chile during Pinochet’s regime and drew upon this experience to develop this book. Much of it deals with the faulty theological and pastoral approaches of the Chilean bishops, which was based on Jacques Maritain’s New Christendom Ecclesiology. According to this view, the nation is separated into temporal and spiritual spheres. The State tends to the temporal needs of the nation, while the Church tends to the spiritual needs.

In a well-intentioned attempt to extricate itself from coercive politics, the Catholic Church since the 1930s had accepted a distinction between “political” and “social” realms, vacating the former and trying to influence the latter through the articulation of general values to individual Christians. The church saw itself not so much as a body in its own right, but as the “soul of society,” effectively handing the bodies of Christians over to the state. When the state began to torture those bodies, the church was at first at a loss to respond, having already “disappeared” itself through its own ecclesiology.”

Fortunately, a significant portion of the church was able to break out of this paradigm and, drawing on the theology and practice of the eucharist, made the church a visible body in direct contradiction to the regime’s strategy of atomization. The church reappeared by excommunicating torturers, providing a space for grassroots groups to organize, and participating in street protests against the regime and its policy of torture. If the regime’s strategy was one of scattering, the contrary Christian strategy was one of gathering, what I describe as the eucharistic counter-politics of the body of Christ.

Cavanaugh relies heavily on De Lubac’s writings on the Church as Corpus Mysticum, in which he claims that “the Church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the Church.” His understanding of the Church as a tangible body in itself, as opposed to being merely an ethical-spiritual reality, is based on his Eucharistic theology.

Notice that, in Matthew 25, Christ does not merely identify himself with the good people who help the hungry, the imprisoned, and so on. What is truly radical is that Christ himself is the hungry and imprisoned person. If the Eucharist is a participation in the sacrifice of Christ, if we become the Body of Christ, then we too are called not just to minister to the victims of this world but to identify with them.

The Eucharist is not just about seeing the world in a certain way, but about acting. Social imagination is not merely a mental act. The Eucharist is about the construction of a social body — the Body of Christ — that is capable of resisting the imagination of the state when resistance is called for. In the early Church, the term anamnesis was not a recalling to mind, but a re-membering of Christ’s body, that is, an action that knit together the members of the Body of Christ.

This act of memory is not just theoretical, it is real–as real as Christ’s blood dripping off the Cross, and as real as the pain and hunger of the children in detention camps at the US-Mexico border. Thus, the Church’s witness in these matters doesn’t end with a public statement or a letter to Trump. Our witness must be physical, visible, and embodied.

What happened at the nation’s capitol echoes much of what Cavanaugh saw while living in Chile. He recounts the works of the Sebastian Acevedo Movement Against Torture, which

was a group of priests, nuns, and laypeople who took this imagination of the Body of Christ to the streets. At a prearranged time, they would appear in front of torture centers and government buildings, block traffic, pass out leaflets, and perform ritual actions denouncing torture. They made visible in their own bodies what the regime tried to conceal. They were usually tear gassed, beaten and arrested. Their actions publicly revealed the truth of what the regime tried to keep hidden. The repressive apparatus of the regime was seen operating on their very bodies. As one member wrote “If to some extent we share the sufferings of the tortured, He who was tortured by Roman justice and nailed on the Cross accompanies us and we for our part accompany Him, because He identifies Himself with the tortured.” The “dangerous memory” of Jesus’ torture and death interrupts the imagination of the state and opens up new possibilities. The movement assumed the communicability of pain in the Body of Christ to reach out to those in clandestine prisons. “With symbolic gestures that expressed our desires, we were able to break the isolation of their incommunication, take their chained hands, embrace their broken bodies. We believe that there exist mysterious channels that can make the solidarity of friends reach those who languish in the deepest dungeons.”

I want to be careful not to equate the mistreatment of migrants at detention campus with torture as Cavanaugh defines it. Nevertheless, the situation seems to be bad enough to merit appropriating Cavanaugh’s work on torture and Eucharist to it. Regardless of how one feels about building walls, open border policies, and the way the government regulates illegal immigration, I would hope that all Catholics and people of good will agree that no one, especially minors, should not have to face maltreatment for any reason.

And this is why these protester’s witness is crucial: they turned what is for many (including me) an abstract political issue into a visible reality that we must face for what it is. These are human persons’ dignity at stake here. The Church cannot afford to treat them as if they are an issue about which we make moral judgments or take political stands.

The Church is not merely a “moral voice” or spiritual guide for the world. The Church is not a self-help group, it is not a social club for like minded people nor is it a political bloc. The Church is a bodily presence whose unity is as tangible, visible, and fleshly as the faces of those nuns, priests, and lay people as they were being carried off in handcuffs. Her witness ought rely less on making statements and more on concrete acts of witnessing that give flesh to the truth with our very bodies.

*Quotations are from Cavanaugh’s article at The Other Journal.


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