This story is the perfect convergence of theology, food issues and what I believe to be the center of a theology of food – Eucharist. This blurb from Soulpancake sums up the story.
It looks like a handful of Catholic churches across the country are changing their sacred practices in reaction to the swine flu (pardon me… H1N1) outbreak. A Beliefnet story indicates that hundreds of churches in Mexico have temporarily closed. Meanwhile, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is encouraging priests to wash their hands with anti-bacterial soap before Mass. Many churches are taking it a step further: In Austin, Texas, Catholic churches are being encouraged to dispose of holy water at church entrances and suspend Communion. Similar advice is being offered in Chicago and Green Bay, Wis. Now, the country’s largest Catholic high school—St. Francis Prep in Manhattan—has also shut down in light of swine flu outbreaks. I’ve always thought it a little unsanitary to share a gilded cup with thousands of other people. Maybe this outbreak—and the rapidity with which many diseases are spread today—will cause us to rethink communal religious practices.
Okay, I completely understand the health concerns. I respect those issues and take them very seriously. (Even though I’ve admitted I don’t believe in germs and I’m a fan of the common cup. I want to be able to drink deeply at communion and I mean that.) However, I think this is actually a symptom of something deeper that is going on.
First, it points to the continued depersonalization and fragmentation of our communities. Part of what makes us so afraid of things like the swine flu is our lack of community. We don’t know our neighbors and fellow congregants. Fear breeds and grows in a petri dish of the unknown. This doesn’t mean that just by knowing each other better we will prevent disease, but it does mean that we would react differently.
Historically, faithful Christians have often been the ones to care for those ravaged by disease and plague. Rodney Stark claims that this is an essential element of what precipitated the growth of Christianity prior to Constantine. When we embody our doctrines in acts of compassion and mercy the kingdom becomes flesh and blood. What would this mean right now for the swine flu (or future outbreaks or the financial crisis)?
Second, this outbreak has been connected over and over again to the conditions created by factory farms. It is true that there has not been an actual link established yet, but it is clear that the conditions for swine flu to develop come from our industrial food system (New Scientist).
In this sense the food system has now infected the Eucharist. Our insanity in food production has made its way into the church’s central act of worship. We should certainly care for our members and take precautions. We should also be outraged that our disconnection from each other and our food has now infected our spiritual practices.
How could we practice Eucharist in a way that would protest this system and stand against the problems that it is creating? I don’t know. I’m really asking, because I think this is what the Eucharist should be.