We know the story. We watch in horror as we see the first blurry footage, the blood and shrapnel on the ground, and the harried paramedics. There is talk of Islamic radicalization, immigrant assimilation, lone wolves, and of third-world exclusion, followed by an endless commentary loop on how this attack is somehow different. Eventually, the cameras cut to various world leaders, who express sorrow and solidarity, announce a new war on various ideologies, and vow to bring the terrorists to justice. Whether in Brussels, Paris, London, Madrid, New York, San Bernardino, Tel Aviv, Nairobi, Garissa, Maiduguri, Tunis, or Kabul (and the list goes on), the story is depressingly familiar. Here we go again.
Of course, the less savory characters of the West immediately offer extreme, seductive, and exclusionary solutions. Donald Trump – with his ban on all Muslim immigration to the US; Ted Cruz – with his police patrols of Muslim neighborhoods, and the rogues’ gallery of Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders, and Golden Dawn with their various “proofs” that refugees and immigrants are the cause of nearly every societal ill.
So it goes. The nation-states, the hateful, violent nihilists who claim “true” religion, and the opportunists who profit from human pain play their predictable cards. This depressingly true story has its own twisted and destructive logic – the “us vs. them” mentality, the scapegoating, and a continued cycle of violence. This is, ultimately, the narrative of the state and terrorism. We line up on our sides, and cheer our champions. We express the easy solidarity of social media. And we wait for the next time, the next opportunity to express our hate at those un-redeemable infidels – or those un-redeemable Islamist terrorists.
And yet this week, for those who are Christian – it’s Holy Week. Christians live and breathe the triumph and tragedy of Palm Sunday, the powerful parables and witness of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, the servant leadership, first communion, and betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the catastrophe and violence of Good Friday; and the powerful, unstoppable power of resurrection and love of Easter Sunday.
I don’t know how to reconcile the reality of the universe’s arc towards justice and peace with the ongoing reality of violence and exclusion. But I do want to offer one small reflection – perhaps, on Maundy Thursday, all of us can reclaim just one small piece of the story.
On what might have been the most eventful night of his life, Jesus took time to have dinner with his buddies. He made a point of leaving a powerful ritual – the breaking of bread and the drinking of wine together. This was to be both a particular and universal story – a story that is practiced in the here and now, with our friends, with babies crying, with crumbly bread and leaking cups, and a mystical union with God and the saints across time and with neighbors halfway across the world, speaking so many different languages.
If we let it, practicing the quiet ritual of communion this Maundy Thursday can start transforming us. It will help train us to resist the narratives of violence and revenge that dominate the current stories of 21st century life and terrorism. How are we to learn to love our enemies, to seek to overcome evil with good, and to seek justice for the oppressed, if we don’t connect regularly with an alternate story of forgiveness, redemption, and community? As William Cavanaugh writes, in his beautiful and challenging book, Theopolitical Imagination: “… the very Eucharistic practices by which the world is fed in turn join people in one Body that transcends the limits of the nation-state…The Church… transgresses both the lines which separate public from private and the borders of nation-state, thus creating spaces for a different kind of political practice, one which is incapable of being pressed into the service of wars or rumours of war.”
In that vein, from Fr. Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest in El Salvador in the 1970’s:
“The Lord God gave us… a material world for all, without borders… without frontiers. A common table, with broad linens, a table for everybody, like this Eucharist. A chair for everybody. And a table setting for everybody. Christ had good reasons to talk about his kingdom as a meal. He talked about meals a lot. And he celebrated one the night before his supreme sacrifice… And he said this was the great memorial of redemption: a table shared in brotherhood, where all have their position and place… this is the love of a communion of sisters and brothers that smashes and casts to earth every sort of barrier and prejudice and that one day will overcome hatred itself.”
For words like this, Fr. Rutilio Grande was assassinated by death squads within the month. His sacrifice pushed a cautious Bishop by the name of Oscar Romero to become a powerful witness for social justice who lost his life for his advocacy for the poor.
So, this Maundy Thursday, I urge you, regardless of your background: mourn with those who mourn, lament the violence that snuffed out so many innocent lives this week, but most importantly, practice the quiet stories of communion – simple bread and wine that can (if we let it) transform us to resist the siren songs of violence, scapegoating, and revenge.