Almost all of Stephen Colbert‘s congressional testimony about migrant farm workers today was in (goofy) character, but during the question and answer period, he was asked why he chose the particular issue of immigration reform.  Colbert was silent for a moment, running his fingers through his hair, and then, stepping out of character for a moment, said, “I like talking about people who have no power.”  He then went on to say, “You know, ‘Whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers…’  and these seem like the least of our brothers.”

I’m not sure of the Bible version (it’s none that I have on hand — perhaps others know), but I found it interesting that, when pushed, Colbert found himself reaching back for scripture.  It was a rare glimpse of the man behind the (often irreverent) wit.  It was also a good reminder that, because our relationships through the marketplace are moral and spiritual as well as economic, the inherent sacredness of our meals calls us to pay attention to those who work so that we might eat.

What’s the supply chain of your communion elements?

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Where did this search begin?  When did the question of violence and Holy Communion, of their relationship with each other, first begin pushing its way up toward my awareness?  When did the general, low-level uneasiness begin to form itself into a question, or a problem, or a  sinking sense of recognition?

It may have been in Tom Driver’s Ritual and Sacrament class at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  We watched a movie in which a group of people puncture the jugular vein of a cow, and as the blood streams out they fill a cup and pass it around, each taking a drink.  The shock of realizing the parallel between this ritual and Holy Communion stayed with me.  Of course, it’s not really parallel at all.  I mean, it just isn’t.  Right?

It may have shifted toward a problem, a quest, when I had a conversation with my Uncle Jack about violence and ritual, and he sent me Renee Girard’s Violence and the Sacred and Gil Bailie’s Violence Unveiled.  Their mixture of ritual insight and Christian apologetics both fascinated and frustrated me.  When you begin with a search whose end necessarily arrives back at orthodox (small “o”) Christian belief and practice, there are many things you can’t ask or see.

It may have been earlier than that, just listening to my friends’ stories of rape, battery, and childhood abuse.  It may have been later, when I found myself preaching Easter sermons that began to reinterpret Holy Communion.  It may have been the first time I admitted to another pastor that I was thinking of going back to school to study these issues.  It’s actually difficult to say.  “How did I get to this place?”  becomes such an obviously constructive and selective task.

A colleague of mine recently returned from an academic conference wondering whether, in this postmodern era, it’s possible to write history at all.  Do we really have access to events after they occur?  Are there “events,” at all, or do we carve them out?  Is history more construct than anything else?  Is it all just social location and self-interest?  My response was, “No, it isn’t possible, but it’s important that we do it anyway.”

Like Holy Communion itself, we make a beginning by selecting a point of origin from the flowing stream of our living, and our memory, personal and collective.  We stick a pin in the “Last” Supper, in the meals of Jesus’ ministry, in early Jewish meal practices, or the Greco-Roman symposium tradition.  We draw the point of origin, still dripping, from that continuous stream, often based on the needs of the moment. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily.  The problem comes when enough time goes by that we lose sight of the beginning we have made.  Then we may start to think that we have only observed what obviously was The Origin. We cannot see ourselves polishing, tweaking, and shoring up our story as we go along.