Thursday, December 22, 2011

a week’s work: communion in a world of hunger

Most of this week has been a writing week, preparing to speak at a conference on Post-colonial theology and religion in Melbourne later in January. My paper is titled – This is my body? A post-colonial investigation of the elements used in indigenous Australian communion practices – and over the week I’ve put together 4,800 words, which is a pretty good effort.

For those interested, here’s my introduction:
It is tempting for much post-colonial discourse, despite it’s subject matter, to remain abstract, the stuff of conference paper and footnote. It is even more tempting for theology, also despite it’s subject matter, to remain a subject of abstraction, similarly circumscribed by an intellectual elite, speaking in a form of longhand removed from mass.

My interest is much more mundane. My study before theology was in horticulture, with a particular interest in organics and disease resistance. Hence the subject of this paper is food. Specifically bread, essential for the health of human bodies. Source of “almost one quarter of humanity’s calories.” (Location 174 of 3891) In other words, what the masses consume. Before issues of justice, wisdom and ethics, so central to post-colonial theology, humans need to eat.

Susan Dworkin in The Viking in the Wheat Field: A Scientist’s Struggle to Preserve the World’s Harvest describes the scientific search “to constantly rebreed the harvest to grow in greater abundance on the same old acreage in a hot new century” and in particular the work of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (known by its Spanish abbreviation CIMMYT) to navigate “between the forces of natural bio-diversity and the need [in a hungry world] to produce food under increasingly intensive production systems.”1

Her history includes a description of how, when the Catholic church arrived (colonised) South and Central America, they brought the belief that in Christian practice, wheat flour rather than the (indigenous) corn flour must be used to bake communion wafers. “Back in the sixteenth century, there was no wheat in Mexico. It arrived by force, carried by the Spanish invaders, who brought with Christianity the belief that only wheat flour, not the local corn flour, could be used to bake communion wafers.”2 In other words, the essential Christian religious practice of communion, the act that includes the consumption of that human staple bread, was in fact an enforcement of processes of colonisation. Lest one think this is history, she continues. “This ironclad rule remains on the books today. In 1994, the Vatican Office declared that men with celiac disease who could not eat wheat could not serve as priests.”3 Are the very elements of “Take, eat, this is my body” complicit in Eurocentric expansion, an intrinsic domination over, the essential eating practices of indigenous cultures?

So we have begun with mundane that is the eating of bread, but all too quickly have found ourselves in a clash between religion and post-colonial discourse. How should Eucharist be practiced? How might the choice of elements be complicit, or resistant, to processes of colonisation? How might the Eucharist be celebrated among indigenous cultures in a manner that might indeed be “life of the world”?

Posted by steve at 12:04 PM


  1. I do hope you will be blogging more- this really is food for thought in the best way!

    Comment by sally — December 23, 2011 @ 12:22 pm

  2. thank sally.

    as per the usual academic gig, there will be a conference, followed by a call for papers, followed in probably 18-24 months time by a publication. and as per most things, they like to feel they have first rights on publishing, and can tend to view blog-ication as them losing that right.

    however, while it’s only an initial draft, i’m happy to send you a copy by email if you want.


    Comment by steve — December 23, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

  3. Hi Steve. Can I have a copy of your paper to read sometime?



    Comment by Garry Deverell — February 8, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

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