I would have preferred a zombie apocalypse. The world is on the edge of monumental change. You can feel it – war and famine and disease are becoming impossible to ignore; economies are collapsing, climate is shifting, scapegoating violence is on the rise in all its various forms as societies attempt to mitigate against imminent fragmentation. And the various religious and cultural constructs we have evolved to secure us against such chaos are failing us. In an increasingly connected and globalised world, it is becoming impossible to generate cohesion by creating a problematic other and then sacrificing them. We are too aware of the humanity of our scapegoats and the injustice of the violence against them for our sacrifices to work. Culture has lost its efficacy. But we have not been able to disengage ourselves from the violent logic that drives our social cohesion, and so we have nothing with which to replace defunct culture. We have not yet learned to forgive, which is our only hope. Frankly, the state of the world terrifies me. Zombies would have been less complicated.
All the monsters in our stories, though, whether vampires, zombies or aliens, are ourselves in disguise. Our stories are a form of psychosocial processing. They are how we wrestle with the horror of who we are as a species, how we attempt to conceal and disconnect ourselves from the monstrous violence we are unconsciously aware is at the heart of who we are.
The truth is that we are the zombies. We sustain ourselves by feeding on one another. It is the hidden logic that drives all our social systems. Take for example our obsession with celebrities and monarchs, exiled in their exclusive neighborhoods and palaces so that they are readily available when we need to diffuse social tension and forge unity by collectively condemning them in the media. Or our obsession with sports – creating heroes and villains on the completely arbitrary basis of the teams they represent; the highly ritualised spectacles of game days with all the concomitant hysteria and euphoria. Or our economic systems that allow us to reduce human beings to the monetary value their skillsets bring, and the exploitation of those who are powerless to rebel. You need look no further than our judicial systems – also highly ritualised – that enable us to project all of societies’ ills onto problematic individuals (disproportionately representing marginalised groups) and then banishing them out of mind. We devour one another.
Our stories are designed to hide this ugly truth from us. The zombies are us, but not us. Vampires are no longer human and aliens are, well, alien. We need to be monsters if we are to continue to live relatively peacefully in large groups, but we also need to blind ourselves to the reality of what we are if we are to reconcile ourselves to the violence inherent in our social systems. In a very real way human society is held together by its stories.
In the Johannine gospel story (John Chapter 6), Jesus alienates a lot of his followers by insisting that they need to cannibalise him. Thousands have followed him into the wilderness in the hope of persuading him to lead them into battle against the Roman oppressors (I am happy to unpack this reading of the text more fully at a later stage). But, notably, Jesus rejects their attempts to make him a general and a king and instead – having provided food for them – insists that he is the bread of heaven and that they will find life only by consuming him. The teaching so appalls the people that by the end of the chapter, only a handful of (bewildered) followers remain.
This teaching, which Jesus reiterated at the last supper, was so significant in the minds of the early Christians that it became the foundation for what was to be the definitive ritual of early Christianity: the Eucharist. Today it has become almost an optional extra, an afterthought in Christian worship services. But it would seem that it formed the core of early Christian gatherings. What shifted in our perceptions of this activity that allowed us to marginalise it so?
To put it simply, we subsumed it into culture. We took an activity that was countercultural and inclusive, and we framed it within a Christian culture that was exclusive (as, indeed, is all culture). We could not break free from culture and its violent logos.
The Eucharist unifies the community the way all rituals do: through collective violence against a scapegoat. Where the Eucharist differs is that it makes explicit that this is what it is doing. To participate in the Eucharist is to accept the fact that we are all complicit in cannibalistic systems. We accept that we are all responsible for perpetuating these violent and unjust systems. We are all sinners and all fall short of the glory of God.
Too often we claim some sort of divine mandate for our hatred. And I use the term “divine mandate” in a very broad sense: any time we appeal to some form of greater authority to justify our actions we claim divine mandate. It may involve a particular interpretation of a sacred text that legitimises violent exclusion, but it could equally be an ideological higher power, like democracy or feminism, that sanctions our hatred of, say, racists or men. It might be a political higher power that permits us to hate liberals or conservatives, or an economic higher power that lets us hate the working class or the wealthy elite. It is easier to hate than to forgive. And only forgiveness allows for the possibility of real social coherence.
The Eucharist falsifies any claim on a divine mandate for our hatred because the Eucharist reveals that God is synonymous with the victim, not the perpetrators of sacred violence. Jesus was right: we cannot find life until we can acknowledge that when we feed on one another, God is the victim. What we do for the least of these we do for Jesus. All of our hatred is ultimately hatred of God. We all hate and thus we all hate God. Nobody has any claim on righteousness. In effect, the Eucharist nullifies all culture and all religion.
Thus, in the words of Paul, the one who is without sin becomes sin for us so that we may become the righteousness of God. By positioning humanity as uniformly unrighteous in our violence toward one another, Jesus grants us the unity we seek. But there is more: there can be no true unity that does not also include the victim of sacred violence. And so Jesus returns as the forgiving victim, overthrowing death and offering reconciliation to us: the righteousness of God. And as we reconcile with God, all are finally included.
The Eucharist is a powerful ritual that awakens us to the possibility of corporate life that does not centre on death. Evidently the early believers felt that they needed this reminder daily if they were to live together in a community where no righteousness or unrighteousness was attributed to a person on the basis that they were a Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free. The Eucharist was a reminder of the necessity of forgiveness and reconciliation.
But we do not like to forgive. We do not want to forgive. We do not believe that reconciliation has any part to play in creating a just world. Blood, however, does. And so over the centuries the Eucharist has been perversely twisted into a picture of an imagined blood transaction with God, with the forgiveness it holds at its core conditional on our repentance and willingness to commit to certain holiness codes. And, incapable of accepting the shocking revelations it compels, we have relegated the Eucharist to a marginal position in our worship.
Even as we recognise the injustice of our scapegoating and attempt to address issues like racism, sexism and homophobia, we consistently fail to abandon a logic of violence. We do not seem to be able to escape our craving for blood. And those to whom Jesus assigned the ministry of reconciliation, who should know better and who might offer a better way forward, refuse to live the ethics of Jesus. Hatred is easier than love. A world of forgiveness is just too hard to take. So we have reshaped the gospel to make Jesus more palatable: a bloodthirsty warrior, who will return in vengeance to immolate the unrighteous. Instead of eradicating the arbitrary distinction between ‘righteous’ and ‘unrighteous’, we have drawn new lines: Muslim and Christian, atheist and believer, gay and straight.
We are the walking dead. We have seen the way to life but we will not follow it. We trust, instead, to our cultures and our religions to protect us from the coming storm. Maybe I will get my zombie apocalypse after all.
Great piece, Peter. I’ve struggled to understand your point on the Eucharist in the past, but this clarifies it nicely. Do you believe there’s a way for the world to get back to that way of thinking? You seem a bit resigned to the idea that it won’t