“Racism opposes the order of Eucharist.”
-M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010), 109.
Living in rural Minnesota, like in many rural areas of the United States, I inhabit a context where most of the churches in my area are largely white. This can often make issues of race seem like add-ons or external struggles to these communities, issues that are pressing only when someone does the work of bringing them up (Which nevertheless can sometimes be quite powerful. For example, in my home congregation, we were blessed to have Rev. Dr. Yolanda Denson-Byers preach a moving sermon in the wake of the events in Charlottesville). Sometimes congregations do very good work engaging issues of race and injustice, but nevertheless, “quit injecting race into this,” can persist as a common refrain, or perhaps more widespread, the well-meaning afterthought “I suppose we should have a unit on race” can easily make its way into discussions of Christian education or Sunday morning activities.
Holy Communion in particular can be especially problematic when issues of race are brought to the table. The rubricized nature of the ritual tends to lead people to infer that “issues of the day” are best left to the sermon and community prayers, while the Eucharist itself is to be sequestered off on its own without explicit connection to the other, more malleable, pieces of worship. I want to push against this impulse a bit, because while Holy Communion is certainly a practice of those gathered here and now, it is also an action connecting Christians everywhere and always, most especially those who suffer oppression and injustice.
Shawn Copeland’s work Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being moves in this direction beautifully, concluding with a chapter titled “Eucharist, Racism, and Black Bodies.” It is a powerful move in the text, because while the first four chapters deal starkly, even jarringly, with theological anthropology and the sin of racism, this final chapter pivots to the insight of how the embodied ritual of the Eucharist must move participants to solidarity with marginalized sisters and brothers of the body of Christ. At the altar, Christians commune with the entire body of Christ, including the enslaved, the lynched, the oppressed, the despised, and the feared. Racial injustice is not an add-on idea within this Eucharistic framework; it is already at the table as surely as Christ is.
The action of the Holy Spirit may sanctify this communion—make it holy—but Copeland’s point is that such Holy Communion is directional and active. It moves toward a praxis of discipleship that embodies Christ (EF 127), which means that within the context of Holy Communion, indifference to oppression and marginalization becomes not just callous; it becomes unholy. If racism opposes the order of Eucharist, indifference to racial injustice smothers it. It is simply not enough to “internally” be against racism (if that were ever a possibility); participation in Holy Communion implicates the participants and demands action for justice and love.
In a word, participation in Holy Communion calls for the life of discipleship, else the participation itself is twisted to the unholy. The altar is not a neutral space, and receiving the Eucharist is not a neutral action. In Holy Communion one throws one’s lot in with those who suffer injustice, even and especially racial injustice. All the things that may keep one safe—privilege, prosperity, acclaim—all these things one must leave at the altar (or at least one must leave one’s claim to them at the altar) if one is to follow Christ, the one crucified and risen. If one is to follow Christ in his solidarity with the vulnerable, then the ritual actualization of that commitment in Holy Communion must move one toward active love in the form of Christ, resisting the pull of complacency that leads to unholy indifference. As Shawn Copeland writes,
“Eucharistic solidarity sustains our praxis of discipleship as we stand the ground of justice in the face of white racist supremacy, injustice, and domination; take up simplicity in the lure of affluence and comfort; hold on to integrity in the teeth of collusion; contest the gravitational pull of the glamour of power and evil” (EF 128).