Gather Up the Fragments
“When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself” John 6:14-15, NRSV).
Did the crowd misunderstand the meaning of Jesus’ action in feeding the crowds? No. And yes.
No, they didn’t misunderstand. Feeding the poor, the powerless, and the put-upon is always a political act. It is a political act whether we intend it or not. Feeding the poor is a political act just as visiting the prisoner, comforting the sick, housing the homeless and clothing the naked are political acts.
You can’t (or at least you shouldn’t) engage in such actions without wondering how people got into such situations. Wondering leads to investigating. Investigating leads to information and insight. That information and insight reveals the systems that make people poor, powerless, and put-upon.
“The social structures shaped by bread,” Judge and Taliaferro argue, “are themselves directed towards the attainment of a single goal: control” (page 370). They note that agriculture itself was invented to domesticate and improve grain stocks as a way to have reliable food sources. Control of cereal stock drives construction projects and environmental destruction. Colonization, whether ancient or modern, is motivated in part by the hunger for productive land.
“Massive tax and subsidy programs have been levied and supported by governments across space and time in attempts to meet national goals of adequate control of the bread supply,” they continue. “Riots and revolutions have been instigated by a desire to control access to the supply of bread” (page 370). The fact that the crowd, in John’s account, wants to make Jesus a “bread king” may be one of the most realistic and recognizable observations in the whole text.
Did the crowd misunderstand the meaning of Jesus’ action in feeding the crowds? No. One of the main themes in the Gospel of John is the kingship of Jesus. That is the central focus of his debate with Pilate in John 18. The good king in the Hebrew Scriptures is responsible for the health and well-being of God’s people. Jesus comes to be that sort of king – the opposite of the emperor that Pilate serves.
Thus, the crowd understands and misunderstands. They know that Jesus is the prophet that was promised. They know he is the sort of king that God would send. But they don’t see beyond the bread. That is the burden of the discourse to follow – to see beyond the bread. But in the meantime, we should not lose track of the real and concrete basis for the discourse – hungry, poor, disenfranchised people are fed with abundance.
The result of the feeding is a kind of political organizing. The crowd begins as a collection of individuals and family groups who seek what they can get from Jesus, based on his reputation. After they are fed with abundance, they organize themselves sufficiently that Jesus has to flee their efforts to make him the Bread King by acclamation.
The crowd has been transformed from an atomized collection of desperate individuals into an ecclesia, a public assembly of citizens! It was Jesus the host and substance of the meal who did this. It was the presence and power of Jesus that turned this ragtag rabble into a potentially revolutionary brigade. If this is a prefiguring of how the Eucharist should work in the Church (and I think it is), then we have degraded our political expectations of the Eucharist almost beyond recognition.
William Cavanaugh has written extensively on the relationship between the Eucharist and politics within and beyond the Church. He was formed by work on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church in Chile under the brutal and authoritarian Pinochet regime. In his 2002 article, Cavanaugh notes that the primary strategy of the regime was to reduce organized collectives (including the Church) into crowds of atomized individuals who were left naked to the power of the State. By privatizing Eucharistic piety, the Roman Church locally participated at first in this atomization. We Lutherans, for example, should take note that the privatization of Eucharistic piety is precisely what authoritarian forces seek in order to take the political bite out of that piety.
“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,” Cavanaugh writes. “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,” he argues, “the contrary Christian strategy was one of gathering, what I describe as the eucharistic counter-politics of the body of Christ” (2002, page 172).
Cavanaugh’s observations put an interesting spin on the report that the fragments of the feast in the wilderness were gathered up “in order that none may be lost” (John 6:12, my translation). The verb for “gathered up” is synago. This is the word for calling together an assembly, for welcoming a guest or stranger to the community. It is the verb form of the Greek word that gives us “synagogue,” which really refers to a gathering of people rather than merely to a place or building.
The purpose of the gathering is in order that none may be lost. The syntax is ambiguous, although the NRSV decides that it should be translated as “nothing.” It could just as easily be translated as “no one.” I think it is better left in the multivalent mode of “none.” We can already hear vibrations of Jesus’ prayer later in the Gospel, where he gives thanks that none of his were lost, except for the “son of lostness.”
The Eucharist is given in order that none may be lost. To digress a bit, this gives us a different understanding of so-called “worthiness” as a standard for admission to Holy Communion. Some parts of the Christian family put a great deal of emphasis on standards of “worthiness” in their Eucharistic piety. We see none of that in this account. The concern is not to keep out the unworthy but rather to gather together all. The community does not define the Eucharist. The Eucharist creates the community.
To return to Cavanaugh’s reflections. He argues that the torture regime of Pinochet and the individualism of the neoliberal economic state “issue from the same dynamic of atomization on which the modern state is founded. Rights transfer power from social groups to the state in order to build a protective wall around the individual. Torture also aims at building walls around the individual,” Cavanaugh continues, “except the walls have ceased to be protective. This is not, of course, to say that rights and torture are equivalent. It is only to say that atomization is a common pathology of modern states and is a severe problem for the church wherever it is found,” he concludes, “as the church is one of the groups that is compromised in the calculus of state and individual” (2002, page 174).
This may sound like some pretty esoteric puffery. But Cavanaugh brings his argument directly to the communion rail. “As many pastors know,” he observes, “the church is hemorrhaging from the inability of Christian discipleship to out-narrate the ideology of the market” (2002, page 175). He notes that the “market” and Christian discipleship describe two very different roles for human desire. “The tragedy is that we have been trained by the market that desire is self-validating, and so we become incapable of escaping the confines of the self. The landscape of postmodern spirituality,” Cavanaugh writes, “is one of lonely and isolated individuals fabricating their own small gods” (2002, page 175).
He argues that the Church in the United States has made the same theological error regarding the Eucharist that paralyzed the Church in Chile in the face of political repression, torture, and disappearances. “The church is charged with the care of the soul,” he notes, “the body, in effect, is handed over to state and corporation” (2002, page 175). The atomization of society and the dualistic division between “spiritual” and “physical” (between “faith” and “politics”) serves authoritarian political purposes in Pinochet’s Chile and authoritarian market purposes in Reagan’s/Trump’s America.
The dynamic that is missing from Cavanaugh’s analysis in the United States is, however, the reality of racialized identity. On the one hand, there is no greater threat to the authoritarian market and the plutocratic oligarchy it represents than the gathering of “identity politics” groups. Groups are better able to defend themselves against autocracy than are individuals. So, groups – especially racialized groups – must be dispersed and destroyed.
On the other hand, only the WHAMs (white, heterosexual, affluent, males) are allowed to be “individuals” in the sense that the market will recognize. We who fit that profile don’t need a group identity. Instead, we believe we define the “normal,” mark the “center,” and police the boundaries. “We may be abandoning our brothers and sisters in Christ to their isolation,” Cavanaugh writes, “simply in the interests of getting along” (2002, page 177). In the imperium of the market “getting along” really means “getting ahead.”
Cavanaugh’s conclusion is powerful and worth reading several times. “The eucharist is not a mere symbol, a source of meaning which the individual reads and then applies to social issues ‘out there’ in the ‘real world,’” he declares. “There is nothing more real than the body of Christ. The eucharist is not to be applied to political issues; rather, the eucharist makes the church itself a political body. The church practices the politics of Jesus,” he argues, “when it becomes an alternative way of life that offers healing for the wounds that divide us” (2002, page 177, my emphasis).
References and Resources
Cavanaugh, William T. “The Body of Christ: The Eucharist and Politics.” Word and World, Volume 22, Number 2 (Spring 2002), pp. 170-177. http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/22-2_Body_of_Christ/22-2_Cavanaugh.pdf.
Fredrickson, David E., “Eucharistic Symbolism in the Gospel of John” (1997). Faculty Publications. 85. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/85
Johnson, Bryce. “The Bread of Life.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 382-388.
Judge, Rebecca, and Taliaferro, Charles. “Companionable Bread.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 367-372).
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Molina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.
O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.