3. The Narrative Of The Eucharist As Formative For Our Economic Life Together.
Yet as powerful and formative as the narrative of consumerism is it is not the only available narrative. There is another narrative that tells the story of us and our relation with others and creation. This narrative is found in the midst of a community that gather around the bread and the wine. This narrative is rooted in Christ’s broken body and shed blood.
Human beings are necessarily consumers. We consume everyday: food, clothing, air, relationships and sleep. There is no way around it, we must consume in order to survive. The problem is not so much with consuming as it is with consumerism. In a consumer culture, like ours, virtually everything becomes a commodity to be bought and sold. Generally when we think of consumerism we think of greed. We picture Scrooge McDuck swimming in his vault of money. We tend to equate consumerism with always wanting more, yet as William Cavanaugh points out, “consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else.”16 Consumerism then is best described as a restlessness, as being discontent with what we already have. The problem is not that we are attached to our things but that we are detached: “People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things.”17 I remember a few years ago when this sort of restlessness had me in a choke-hold of sorts. I became obsessed with shoes. There was a point where I would buy a new pair of shoes almost weekly, in store, online, it didn’t matter. If I saw a pair of shoes that I liked I had to have them. At one point I probably had close to thirty pairs of shoes. My problem was not that I was so attached to a pair of shoes that I would not give them up but that I was so detached from the shoes that I already had that I could go out and purchase another pair without even thinking twice. This is the sort of attitude that describes our consumer culture, where humans are restless beings, detached from what they have and always wanting something else.
Christians are all too often shaped and formed by the narrative of consumer culture, which “is one of the most powerful systems of formation in the contemporary world.”18 Truly, consumerism is a powerful force that plays on human desire and marketers know this. In the words of one theologian, “Aristotle taught that the desires of the human heart are infinite, but the corporations do not want to leave it to chance, which is why they spend billions of dollars on advertising.”19 While Christians might spend an hour or two a week in church we are bombarded with advertisements everywhere we go, thousands of times a day. We can no longer go to the bathroom without being assaulted by some sort of advertising. While those of us who have grown up in this atmosphere might think that this is just the way things are it is important to realize that this sort of system is not morally neutral. This is not “just the way things are”, rather, we are being trained and formed to see the world a certain way. How we relate to the material world is a spiritual discipline.
So then, if we must consume in order to live, the real question we must wrestle with concerns what kinds of consumptive practices are conducive to an abundant life for all. As Christians we cannot simply be satisfied with consuming as the world does, rather, we must be concerned with consuming rightly. How then might the Eucharist shape our daily consumptive habits? In the Eucharist Jesus offers his own body to be consumed. John records Jesus as proclaiming, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life,” (6:54). It would be easy enough to turn the consumption of the Eucharist into some sort of consumerist spirituality, where Jesus becomes yet another commodity that benefits the individual user. However, the Eucharist is resistant to such a move because in the Eucharist our consumer culture is turned on its head. The ones who consume the Eucharist are in turn consumed by the Eucharist as each consumer is taken up into the larger body of Christ. As Cavanaugh puts it, “the individual consumer of the Eucharist does not simply take Christ into herself, but is taken up into Christ.”20 For, as Christ proclaims, “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” (Jn. 6:56). Consumerism is turned inside out as, through our consumption of the Eucharist, we are consumed by the body of Christ. Augustine echoes this thought when he hears God say, “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.”21 We are no longer separate individuals who simply consume and discard, rather, “the small individual self is de-centered and put in the context of a much wider community of participation with others in the divine life.”22 Paul writes to the believers in Corinth, “the cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread,” (1Cor.10:16-17). The individual consumer is consumed and absorbed into the body where they abide in Christ as he abides in them. In this way the Eucharist challenges the individual nature of consumption as necessitated by the market.
3.2 Kenotic Consumption: Or, consumed for the purposes of being consumed yet again.
However, if we simply stop at this point and admire the unity of our communities then we have failed to really grasp the nature of the Eucharist. We are consumed into the body for a reason. We are consumed in order that we may be consumed by others. In the Eucharist then we move from having to giving as we become food for others. True consumption from a Christian perspective involves a radical self-emptying. The apostle Paul writes to the believers in Philippi on this very matter. He exhorts them to be united and suggests that the way they go about this is to follow the example of Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself (kenoō), taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross,” (2:6-7). The point of the Eucharist is not simply that we are consumed into the body of Christ, although we most certainly are, rather, the point is that we are consumed into the body so that we may follow Christ Jesus in the way of radical self emptying for the sake of others. In other words, as we eat the bread we become bread for someone else. This is central to what it means to be a disciple of Christ and we can see it all throughout the writings of the second testament. To go the way of Christ is to go the way of suffering, the way of self-denial and self-emptying so that others can know the love and presence of Jesus. In baptism we participate with Christ in his death and resurrection. We go down into the waters to die only to come up and hear Christ’s call to “pick up our cross” and follow him. Paul could write these sorts of things to believers because he himself was on the way. “I die every day,” he writes to the Corinthians.
This self-emptying demands that we move beyond our own communities and comfort zones. It has been said that the church is the only community that exists for the purpose of its non-members. This lesson is made abundantly clear towards the end of Matthew 25 when Jesus sits enthroned as judge over “all the nations.” To those who will inherit the kingdom he will say, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me,” (Mt. 25:34-36). But when did the blessed do such things (they do not seem to realize they fed Christ when he was hungry etc.)? Jesus’ reply is that whenever they did these sorts of things for the least of his brothers and sisters, “you did it to me,” (Mt. 25:40). As William Cavanaugh puts it, “all the downtrodden are Christ’s brothers and sisters.”23 Additionally Cavanaugh points out that what is truly radical about these passages is not simply that God rewards those who help the poor, rather, “what is truly radical is that Jesus identifies himself with the poor. The pain of the hungry person is the pain of Christ, and it is thus also the pain of anyone who is a member of the body of Christ.”24 The pain of the poor is the pain of those who follow Christ. If then we identify ourselves with Christ, who in turn took on the form of a slave and identifies himself with those who suffer, then we are obligated to much more than simply charity: “The very distinction between what is mine and yours breaks down in the body of Christ.”25
The gifts we have been given are not ends in and of themselves, rather, they have an end which is to serve the common good. Here, Goudzwaard uses the term “social mortgage” to suggest the same idea: “economic exchange and interaction should be the expression of the fact that God gave the riches and resources of his earth to the whole of mankind.”26 Our economic life together is entitled to development and growth but this must always be understood in light of “its purpose and destination to be an expression of genuine solidarity between men, [and] its obligation to serve God and neighbour.”27 To summarize Aquinas, all property is a gift from God, yet this gift is only valid if we use it for the benefit of others: “Man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need.”28 The purpose of material goods then is to deepen our attachment to others and to God. This is pictured beautifully in accounts of the early believers in the second and fourth chapter of Acts. Luke writes that the believers “were of one heart and soul” (4:32). This is the sort of unity that comes through the Eucharist (2:42, 46). Yet the consumption of the early believers into one body necessitated loving action and so we are told that they “had all things in common” and that they would “sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need,” (2:44-45; 4:32). Here then, we see that the economic praxis of the early believers is directly influenced and shaped by the Eucharist. Finally, in a beautiful reflection of God’s promise in Deuteronomy (“There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you,” 15:4) Luke tells us “there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold…and it was distributed to each as any had need,” (4:34-35). This is where the Eucharist becomes a dangerous meal, for if we eat our fill while allowing our brothers and sisters to go hungry then we “eat and drink judgement against ourselves” (1Cor. 11:29). To be consumed into the body of Christ is to be turned into food for others.
3.3 From Scarcity to Abundance.
There is no hiding the fact that we live within two cultures. There is the predominant North American culture of which we are a part and yet we seek to live out another sort of culture shaped by Jesus. These two narratives of the world, the market and the Eucharist, tell overlapping and competing stories about things like hunger and consumption. We are told that economics “is the science that studies the allocation of resources under conditions of scarcity.”29 Economics assumes scarcity from the get-go. This is based on the understanding that while we live on an earth of limited resources peoples desires are insatiable. Scarcity does not just relate to those who are physically hungry and thirsty. We live in a world where the haves have become the have-nots. Our wealthy, (over)developed Northern countries feel the pinch of scarcity. I heard a statistic recently that while the US is one of the top producers of oil (approx. 8.5 million barrels/day) they still are not able to satisfy their consumption of oil (approx. 19.5 million b/day) and so they are also the worlds top importer of oil (approx. 13.47 million b/day).30 Here is arguably the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth and yet they are a country in need. They are rich and yet they have-not. The US feels the pressure of scarcity because consumerism has blinded them to what they already have. In North America we feel the pressure of scarcity not necessarily because we need more but because we want more.
It is easy to pick on a world super-power like the US but it comes right back to each and every one of us and our desire. As was shown above the narrative of consumerism forms within us a restlessness and so we become detached from the products we have as we chase after and shop for that which we do not have but want. Consumerism is not about wanting more but about wanting something else. The problem, to summarize St. Augustine, is that “our desires continue to light on objects that fail to satisfy, objects at the lower end of the scale of being that, if cut off from the Source of their being, quickly dissolve into nothing.”31 The solution to the restlessness of our desire is to develop a desire for God, the Eternal, or as Augustine put it, “our hearts find no peace until they rest in You.”32 The problem is not only that the market encourages an almost sexual desire for things, rather than people, but that the narrative of the market tells us a fundamentally individualistic story of the human person. One of the driving forces of the market is trade. In fact, this is also a basic assumption of scarcity: in order to get something you must give up something because there is not enough to go around for everyone. The reason this is fundamentally individualistic and, therefore, anti-Christian, is that “scarcity implies that goods are not held in common, that the consumption of goods is essentially a private experience.”33 In other words, private ownership is an underlying assumption of scarcity. In the Eucharist we see this turned inside out as all things are held in common and no one is in need.
Whereas the market begins the story with scarcity the Eucharist renders a different telling of the story: “It does not begin with scarcity, but with the one who came that we might have life, and have it abundantly (Jn. 10:10).”34 The Eucharist begins with abundance! “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’” (Jn. 6:35). Here, in the gift of Jesus’ body and blood the insatiability of human desire is absorbed by the abundance of God’s grace. There need be no anxiousness about scarcity when it comes to the body and blood of Christ for these are multiplied at thousands of eucharistic meals around the world each and every day. The good news continues, there is enough for everyone and no one will ever go needy: “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away” (Jn. 6:37). Some will argue that despite all of these nice things the Eucharist implies the reality is that we still live in a world that has limited resources. Perhaps in a sense this is true. If we continue to put our faith in the progress of an ever-expanding economy then it seems we will most certainly “outgrow” (read: pillage and rape) the earth. Yet, as we have seen our current economic realities are not givens. These are systems and ways of looking at the world that were thought up by other humans like you and I. Therefore, these things can change if we are brave enough to begin to imagine and live out alternate ways of sharing life together. In fact, this is already beginning to happen in many communities, countries and business throughout the world. Also, if we begin to take seriously the Christian tradition that has come before us which reminds us that the resources of the earth have been given to us by God for the good of all people, not just a few rich ones, then we begin to see how the scarcity of the market is swallowed up and dissolved as we hold all things in common and begin to truly share life with one another.
3.4 From Competition to Sharing.
According to the market we are not only individual consumers but competing consumers. Given the conditions of scarcity there is not enough to go around and so we fight and compete with one another for the resources that are available. By this point anyone reading this essay can probably begin to see how the Eucharist may challenge this assumption. We are reminded countless times throughout scripture that we are one body. Paul writes, “because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1Cor. 10:17). As Cavanaugh puts it, “when we consume the Eucharist, we become one with others and share their fate.”35 When the foot hurts the rest of the body feels its pain. The same can be said for any part of the body. This is not a sentimental “feeling”, rather, the body actually shares the pain of each and every part. The same is true for the body of Christ, pain (and joy etc.) are communicated throughout the body via one nervous system. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it” (12:26). Because we are all one body Paul reminds the Corinthians to take special care of the weakest members of the body (12:22-25). No free-market competition here! As has been noted above, the pain of the hungry person is the pain of Christ and it is therefore the pain of those who are members of Christ’s body.
This sort of sharing, the dissolving of the line between what is mine and yours, is foolishness to a market that is based contractual exchanges and self-interested consumption and production. Benevolent giving in the market economy is still possible when we freely transfer property one to another, however, this sort of benevolence maintains and respects the boundaries between what is mine and what is yours. In the community shaped by the Eucharist this all changes as boundaries between you and I are confused and relativized: “We are no longer two individuals encountering each other either by way of contract or as active giver and passive recipient. Without losing our identities as unique persons…we cease to be merely ‘the other’ to each other by being incorporated into the body of Christ.”36 In Christ there is abundance for all. True abundance is never realized by the competition of insatiable desires for scarce goods. It is realized by emptying the small self into the larger reality of God’s superabundant life.
The members of Christ’s body in the (over)developed world live at the intersection of at least two competing narratives of our relationship with the created order, the narrative of consumerism (i.e. the “free” market) and the narrative of the Eucharist. As the pilgrim people of God our economic life together is all too often shaped by consumerism and the market rather than by the Eucharist. Human desire is restless and seemingly insatiable and of course this becomes problematic in a world of scarcity. Our faith in progress and an ever-expanding economy is unhealthy and idolatrous as well as unsustainable. Our gods have failed us. As a community the church then is called to repent of our idolatry and to put our faith in God. Additionally, the church in the (over)developed world needs to become a community whose economic life together is shaped by the cross in which we learn to desire rightly. This happens as we begin to be shaped by the story of the Eucharist. This story begins with the abundance found in Christ, an abundance where our insatiable desire is overcome. The Eucharist is an anti-consumerist meal because in the Eucharist those who consume are consumed and become food for others. As we come to the eucharistic celebration we are taken up into the body of Christ and are joined together with all of Christ’s children, namely, those who suffer and are oppressed. Here then, while we retain our own unique identities, the line between you and I dissolves and this confuses the relationship between what is mine and what is yours. The early believers were known to have no one among them who was in need because they held all things in common. This is the sort of community the church needs to be, a community that is a foretaste of what is to come. To use biblical imagery, we are to be the firstfruits of what is to come, to enter and embody God’s future reign right here in the present for “the hungry cannot wait; the heavenly feast is now.”37
Ultimately the Christian ethic is one characterized by respect for life: “it is about nurturing, cherishing, celebrating.”38 The Eucharist forms us into a people with an economic praxis that is concerned with the abundant life and shalom of the entire created order. I leave you with a quote from a man who has shaped much of my imagination on this subject, Bob Goudzwaard:
“Certainly the church can’t point out the way to go by imitating the service of the gods of this age…the vocation of the church is to demonstrate in its own style of living that the redemption of Christ is also changing all our socioeconomic relations. In the Christian community something has to become visible of the holiness and the harmony of the economics of the Kingdom of God. A basic rule of that Kingdom is that happiness lies more in giving than in receiving, that a man can become rich in Christ by giving away his treasures.”39
May we be a people consumed by God so that we may be consumed by others. May we be a people whose ears are attuned to the voice of God and whose hearts are attuned to our brothers and sisters and the goodness of creation. For we are a people who, by participating in the eucharistic community, are implicated in the way of Jesus, in ushering in the reign of God.40 To the glory of God.
3. The Narrative Of The Eucharist As Formative For Our Economic Life Together.