Holy Communion: Altar Sacrament for Making a Sacrificial Sin Offering, or Table Sacrament for Nourishing a Life of Service?
- Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture
- Michigan State University Press
- Volume 3, Spring 1996
- pp. 201-221
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Holy Communion: Altar Sacrament for Making a Sacrificial Sin Offering, or Table Sacrament for Nourishing a Life of Service? Paul J. Nuechterlein Emmaus Lutheran Church, Racine, WI The title spells out the alternative I would like the reader to consider: Is Holy Communion more appropriately considered the "table sacrament" or, as is more commonly accepted, the "altar sacrament "? I will make my preference clear. In Holy Communion, I believe Jesus Christ to be offering nourishment for a different way to live —namely, the way offreely chosen service to others, as opposed to violent domination over others. "Table sacrament" more appropriately conveys the sense of nourishment toward a new life. I will support this positive reasoning in favor of "table sacrament" through an appeal to Christian scripture. I will also suggest a negative reasoning against "altar sacrament," by questioning whether the very reference to "altar" betrays a link to violence, with its base in the blood ofsacrifice. For this negative argument, the support will come primarily from the brilliant and far-reaching theories ofRené Girard regarding the relation between religion and violence. I would like us to consider whether the most obvious point of the relation between religion and violence—namely, rituals ofsacrifice—has been precariously intermingled with the church's practices and experiences of the "altar sacrament." Girard's theories force us to ask: Is not the altar ofsacrifice essentially the site for a ritualized form of collective violence? 202Paul J. Nuechterlein Girard contends that there are overwhelming cultural and anthropological forces that make it difficult for religions to free themselves from such violent underpinnings. He considers that all religions, in fact, are cultural manifestations ofa generative mimetic scapegoating mechanism, a natural human/social mechanism which contains an all-against-all, communitywide violence by means ofan all-against-one act of violence, i.e., a scapegoating . Religion is, according to this theory, the primary cultural institution that forms in the aftermath ofwhat Robert Hamerton-Kelly summarily calls the "Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism, or "GMSM" event (1994). Institutionalized religion fortifies the relative peace that the event has accomplished through a three-fold structure: (1) laws and prohibitions , established to prevent further outbreaks ofmimetic violence; (2) mythical stories of the GMSM event, told from the perspective of the perpetrators as a means to justify their violence and disguise it behind the veil of the sacred; and (3) ritual reenactments ofthe GMSM event, most commonly in the form of blood sacrifice, that channel any continuing violent impulses into structured, contained releases. We must be bold to ask of each religion, then, the ways in which it manifests and perpetuates the GMSM. This includes Christianity. To the extent that Christians practice religion, we can expect to find effects ofthe GMSM in essential aspects of the church, such as its practice ofthe "altar sacrament." Girardian support for my argument, however, does not end with this negative thesis regarding the "altar sacrament." Nor does Girardian criticism leave us with a wholly negative assessment of the Christian tradition. In fact, Girard himself experienced a conversion of sorts (see Golsan 129-30), as he began to see his basic premises and theories already revealed in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, especially the gospel narratives of Jesus Christ. He came to view the Christian faith—in spite of its susceptibility to the violent forces of religion—as unique in its core message ofrevealing the one true God. Contrary to the gods ofmythology, the Christian message, through Jesus Christ, reveals the true God to be on the side ofthe GMSM's victims. As such, the Gospel ofJesus Christ stands in opposition to the three-fold structure of religion: (1) it frees people from the oppressive systems oflaws and prohibitions;1 (2) it demythologizes the mythical stories told from the perspective of the perpetrators;2 and (3) it 1 A theme of St. Paul and his criticism of the Law? (see Hamerton-Kelly 1992). 2 A theme of St. John's emphasis on Jesus, the Lamb of God, as bearing witness to the Truth? Holy Communion203 makes obsolete the need for rituals of sacrificial violence.3 The Gospel opens up the way for new life, and for rituals that nourish the new...