by Matthew Whelan

MATTHEW WHELAN completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia in May 2000. This essay from his senior's thesis, "I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food: A Spirituality of Nourishment." He currently lives in Joyas del Carballo, Honduras, working as a Peace Corps volunteer. 

ELIZABETH WHELAN, whose photography illustrates this article, is a student at the University of Virginia. After spending last summer in Lusaka, Zambia, working on a photo essay documenting daily life at Kasisi Orphanage, she received a Harrison Undergraduate Research Grant to spend six weeks in Honduras. There, she photographically documented the role of the Catholic Church in the recovery process after Hurricane Mitch.

The hungry body is a critique of the state and of the church.

A woman of forty, but who looked as old as seventy, went up to the priest after Mass and said sorrowfully: "Father, I went to communion without going to confession first. . . I arrived rather late, after you had begun the offertory. For three days I have had only water and nothing to eat; I'm dying of hunger. When I saw you handing out the hosts, those pieces of white bread, I went to communion just out of hunger for that little bit of bread."(1)

"There are so many hungry people among us," prayed Padre Andres. . . as he held the consecrated loaves in his hands, "that God would only dare to appear in the form of bread."(2)

The encounter with God does not come to [us] in order that [we] may henceforth attend to God but in order that [we] may prove its meaning in action in the world. All revelation is a calling and a mission. But again and again [we shun] actualization and [bend] back toward the revealer: [we] would rather attend to God than the world. . . [and] thus. . . will not let the gift take full effect but [instead reflect] on that which gives, and [miss] both.(3)

The Eucharist is the principal act of worship of the majority of the billion and a half or so Christians in the world today. It has been, since the church's beginnings, an integral part of its identity.(4) Among the many possible reasons for this emphasis, there is one so palpable, so unquestionable, it stands out among the others: it is a meal. As a meal, it resonates with the most basic practices necessary for life and its nourishment. In the Eucharist, extraordinary attention is drawn to the utterly ordinary.

The Eucharist is the communal remembrance of Jesus' gift of himself for others. When Jesus instituted the Eucharist, he spoke of the bread as his body. But he was concerned with bread not only at the last supper. Issues surrounding food, feeding, sharing meals, and the banquet at the end of the age, marked his entire ministry. Concern with food animated a life, followers believe, lived as a gift for others. So when he takes the bread, breaks it, shares it, tells his disciples that the bread is his body and that they should "do this in remembrance" of him, he speaks of a way of living in which his followers' bodies, like his, are to be gifts for the nourishment of others. Such bodies are Eucharistic: the spirit that moves them is one of concern for the nourishment of others. It is through this labor of peace, in which the self pours itself out (Isaiah 58:10), that individual bodies and the communal bodies in which they participate bear witness to the lord's light, which flickers in our world like a candle in danger of being extinguished.

The meanings of the Eucharist, then, lie both in the bread itself and what is done with it. In the texture of the bread, the materiality of the meal, and the necessary recognition by the church body of the meal, the Eucharist connects with human hunger. The divine breaks into history in the ways in which the members of the church body understand their own food and the food of others, and how they understand their identity in relation to the hunger of others.

The Eucharist is no mere moment in a mass or service. Rather, it is the summit of Christian life, toward which everything is directed and from which everything flows.(5) But it is not the usual kind of summit; it is not abstract or ethereal or difficult to comprehend. The Eucharistic community is a paradigm of a communal response to human hunger, one which offers an alternative vision of what constitutes a peaceful social body -- one that is, perhaps, comparably easy to envision since its embodiment can be touched, tasted, and swallowed.

In Torture and Eucharist, William Cavanaugh speaks of a "Eucharistic ecclesiology," or a church community structured upon the performance of the Eucharist, and how that practice embodies a "counter-politics"(6) to the politics of the world. When Cavanaugh speaks of the Eucharist, he uses words like "performance," "practice," and "politics" to denote the active dimension of participation in the Eucharist.

The Eucharist is the redemptive self-gift of Jesus in the form of his body, which is given up out of love for others. Participation in the liturgical remembrance of Jesus' gift of his body transforms the bodies of participants into gifts for others. Augustine captures this in his Confessions: "I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me."(7) This transformation does not lead to the abandonment of or withdrawal from the world, but engagement with it, which seeks its mending. In its life as church, as well as in the words arising from that life, the church prophetically critiques a world that pays no heed to hunger.

In a Eucharistic ecclesiology, the church is not merely a collection of individuals, but a communal enactment of an alternative way of being-in-the-world. This the root sense of the word "liturgy."(8) To enact communally the Deuteronomist's injunction that "there shall be no poor among you" (15:4), or the promise of the Magnificat that the hungry will be well fed (Luke 1:53), is in Cavanaugh's words, "already to be engaged in a direct confrontation with the politics of the world."(9) To work to alleviate the hunger of others is to engage in a counter-politics.

To speak of the Eucharist as embodying a counter-politics might seem odd to Americans accustomed to the separation of church and state, religion and politics. These distinctions, however, were created, not discovered. In State Theory: Putting Capitalist States in their Place, Bob Jessop notes: "It was only in the seventeenth century that politics was first linked to the idea of an abstract, impersonal, sovereign state distinct from other parts of society (church, economy, civil associations)."(10) As John Milbank contends in Theology and Social Theory, the notion of the "secular," as well as a certain conception of the "political," had to be "imagined, both in theory and practice." It was the late medieval nominalists, the protestant reformers, and seventeenth-century Augustinians who "completely privatized, spiritualized, and transcendentalized the sacred, and concurrently reimagined nature, human action, and society as a sphere of autonomous, sheerly formal power." The story told by secularists is one of a gradual desacralizing or the removal of the superfluous, leaving a pure residue of the human. But this story is fundamentally flawed, for it overlooks the "positive institution" of the secular, in which the political came to be defined "as a field of pure power."(11)

The creation of the political as a field of pure power is significant, not because it encourages us to long nostalgically for Christendom, but because it highlights what exactly is at stake in the politics of the current organization of the social body. In Weber's famous definition of the modern nation-state, for example, the state is "a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory."(12) The state is not defined in terms of its ends, for it has no ends other than its own self-preservation, but by its means, which is coercive violence. For the state, the self-preserving conatus, provides the "universal hermeneutic key."(13) The state's monopoly on legitimate violence produces "peace" by taming the conflict of power among social groups, which differ from the state only in their lack of access to the means of legitimate violence.

In Realist Thought from Weber to Kissinger, Michael Smith argues that for Weber, like all realists, a struggle for power pervades human existence:

The struggle for power -- which defines politics -- is a permanent feature of social life and is especially prominent in the relations between states. . . States act according to their power interests, and these interests are bound at times to conflict violently. Therefore, even if progress toward community and justice is possible within states, the relations between them are doomed to permanent competition that often leads to war.(14)

Milbank sees the theme of "original violence" articulated here, which "assumes some naturally given element of chaotic conflict which must be tamed by the stability and self-identity of reason," as a "thread of continuity" between "antique reason and modern, secular reason." Christianity, on the other hand, "recognizes no original violence," but "construes the infinite. . . as harmonic peace. . . [which is] the sociality of harmonious difference."(15)

If the sociality of which Milbank speaks is to be peaceful, it must include responsiveness to the hunger of others. Such responsiveness is constitutive of a peaceful social body, which attends to the sufferings of others. When everyday life for the hungry is pervaded by violence, such responsiveness is the only possibility of the sociality of harmonious difference. Otherwise, the difference between those who hunger and those who don't remains characterized by violence.

Thinking in this way exposes how the assumption of the necessity of hunger contributes to its persistence in the world. Ultimately at stake are alternative definitions of the polis, the social, the wholeness of being human. The issue is how social bodies are imagined.(16) The political is a much broader concept than simply the competition among nation-states. If we broaden polis to mean a community embodying the organization and fulfillment of human social relations, then the state, an organization which arose at a specific time and place, is not the only way but simply one way of imagining the organization of a social body.(17)

This is not to say that Christians should engage in a revolutionary overthrow of the state. Rather, it is crucial that we see how the violence embodied by the nation-state system might not be ideal, logically proper, or the model of what it means to organize and negotiate our living together. Insofar as it is constituted by violence, the existing political and economic orders should not be simply taken for granted. When hunger is understood as an acceptable reality in the politics of competing states, the conviction that hunger is intolerable is itself revolutionary. The attempt to unimagine its necessity in our present actions transcends and relativizes national commitments. This opens the space for alternative accounts of how we live with and relate to one another, the possibility of a peaceful society within a violent one.(18) The toleration of hunger is simply one way of envisioning the organization of the social body; the rejection of hunger requires the imagination of a radically new organization.

Contrary to popular belief, the church is not apolitical, for in its very existence it is a political body. It is not political in the Weberian sense; it does not strive to attain a monopoly upon legitimate violence. What is at issue is not a distinction between the spheres of religion and politics, but rather, between alternate conceptions of the political itself. Milbank, among others, has argued that Augustine's project in the City of God is a reimagination of the political.(19) For Milbank, City of God is first and foremost about the community of the church as an alternative city or altera civitas, with its own social theory grounded in a "Christian mode of action, a definite practice."(20) This underscores the praxis of the church as a distinct society, constituted by peace. Milbank makes no attempt to represent an "objective" social reality. Instead, the social knowledge advocated is the imagination-in-action of a peaceful social order.(21) In its responsiveness to the hunger of others, in its concrete being-with people in their hunger, it is a "critique-through-practice"(22) of the present organization of the social body.

In its praxis of peace, the church in the world, or altera civitas, embraces a different metanarrative than the earthly city, or civitas terrena, which is governed by violence. It is not that the altera civitas embraces a mythos that the civitas terrena does not. Rather, the secular social theory of the civitas terrena embodies a mythos which, Milbank contends, is nothing less than another theology, one which imagines the priority of power and conflict over peace.

Limiting this discussion of the reimagination of the political to Christianity alone, however, is flawed. A powerful example of this alternative imagining of the political can be found in Israelite prophecy. This is the main argument in Walter Brueggemann's book, The Prophetic Imagination, in which he writes: "The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us."(23) The prophetic heritage enriches a Eucharistic counter-politics. At the center of the prophetic social vision is a concern for justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tsedeq-tsedaqa), two concepts which are starkly incompatible with an indifference to the persistence of hunger. These terms, together, connote an active concern for the "least" within the social order. For the prophets, this concern is the essential prerequisite of a social body characterized by peace (shalom). The inauguration of a peaceful human community begins with an approach toward God manifested in justice and righteousness done to the poor.

The prophets help us to understand that discussions of peace cannot be separated from this concern for the poor. The prophets speak in order to urge turning (swb)(24) of the people to right relation with God, a relation which is inseparable from justice and righteousness. For the prophets, one cannot think of God and be indifferent to the hunger of others.(25) As Hermann Cohen writes, "[the prophets] wish to address man's heart. . . and arouse his compassion. . . compassion becomes the motivating force of an entire Weltanschauung [worldview]."(26)

For a church focused upon the communal performance of the Eucharist, and situated squarely in the prophetic tradition, hunger is symptomatic of a profound wrong in the present social organization. We might contrast an image, found in Shakespeare's Coriolanus, of a disordered social body, in which hunger persists and is tolerable, with Paul's vision of the church body in 1 Corinthians 12. In his "pretty tale," Mineneus depicts the disorder of a social body: a headless entity with a grotesque, smiling belly. His speech is part of an effort to quell a rebellion that has broken out over the lack of food, in opposition to the rich of the city who have purportedly hoarded the food for themselves. (27)

Paul's description of the church as a social body contrasts vividly with Minenius'. For Paul, when one member of the church suffers, all suffer (1 Corinthians 12). For the church, the existence of hunger is never social order but is always disorder. Today, there are many hungry Christians, a fact that too rarely causes suffering, let alone thought, for those Christians who are well fed. When a woman eats the Eucharistic host simply out of hunger, yet Christians in America eat excessively, there is a problem in the very fabric of the church, running through its identity like a weak seam, calling into question its present organization and self-understanding.

When the practice of the Eucharist is central in the life of the church, the breaking and sharing of bread is a critique of the present organization of the hungry social body. The church is nothing less than the body of Christ; in their existence for others, the bodies of the church members are Christ's body in the world. "The church is the church," Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, "only when it exists for others."(28) Like the Eucharist itself, the bodies of church members are food for the nourishment of the world, to be broken, shared, and consumed. As Monica Hellwig writes in The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World, "to accept the bread of the Eucharist is to accept to be bread and sustenance for the poor of the world."(29)

For Gustavo Gutiérrez, this means the church "has to rethink itself from below, from the position of the poor of this world, the exploited classes, the despised races, the marginal cultures. It must descend into the world's hells and commune with poverty, injustice, and the struggles and hopes of the dispossessed."(30) Gutiérrez's ecclesiology, like Bonhoeffer's, exemplifies what James Nickoloff calls an "ecclesial shift" from "moral exhortation to solidarity."(31) To measure the church by its solidarity with human suffering is what it means to speak of the church as a communal enactment of a counter-politics, in which the bodies of church members pour themselves out on behalf of the hungry.

The church is called to be companionate because Jesus breaks bread, shares it, tells his followers that the bread is his body, and that they should "Do this in remembrance" of him (1 Cor. 11:24). The Eucharistic practice of breaking bread and sharing it is not restricted to the inauguration of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, but, as was mentioned before, is reflected in Jesus' concern with food and feeding throughout his public ministry.(32) An ethics of companionship underlies the New Testament as a whole. In The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Richard B. Hays writes:

The New Testament witnesses speak loudly in chorus: the accumulation of wealth is antithetical to serving God's kingdom, and Jesus' disciples are called at least to share their goods generously with those in need, and perhaps even to give everything away in order to follow him more freely. . . For the church to heed the New Testament's challenge on the question of possessions would require nothing less than a new Reformation. (33)

The paradigm for compassion is that Jesus' body is given up for others. The church is therefore called to "make up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions" (Col. 1:24) in its participation in God's suffering in the world. Cavanaugh views the significance of this in the following way: the "Eucharist is the liturgical realization of Christ's suffering and redemptive body in the bodies of His followers. . . the Eucharist effects the body of Christ, a body marked by resistance to worldly power."(34) The suffering bodies of Jesus' followers become redemptive when their suffering is undergone on behalf of others, as Christ's was.

Exposure to danger was a central aspect of Jesus' own initiation/inauguration of the Eucharist; this is no less the case today. To stand with the hungry in resistance to the processes of the world creates witnesses to the Lord, but also martyrs. This is what Larry Rasmussen has called the "costly worldly solidarity"(35) of the church. As Gutiérrez writes, "few things are as life-threatening as defending the right to life. The path of commitment to the poorest. . . is strewn with imprisonment, torture, disappearance, exile, and death."(36) This is a conception of salvation, to paraphrase Archbishop Romero, which would not offer heaven without a renewed earth. Living as we do, in a world in which the cross has not been superseded, in which God hungers in the hunger of others (Matthew 25:31-36), there can be no quick leap across Gethsemane and Calvary.


In the Eucharistic meal, eating is a radically public, communal act. Juxtaposing the Eucharistic meal with the strain placed upon the communal relations of populations facing acute starvation(37) spotlights what is at stake in a Eucharistic counter-politics in a world of hunger. In Torture and Eucharist, Cavanaugh analyzes the way the state practice of torture engenders a social imagination in which individual bodies are organized into a collective performance, not of community, but of atomized, mutually suspicious individuals. Such is the case with hunger, too. In Death without Weeping, Nancy Scheper-Hughes notes that the hungry of the Brazilian Northeast do not like to eat in front of others, for "[t]here is a great deal of shame associated with eating. Eating is almost as private an act as sex or defecation. . . Eating in public. . . shows the extent of one's desires, the. . . bottomless pit of one's needs."(38) For Cavanaugh, resistance to hunger, like resistance to torture, "depends upon the reappearance of social bodies capable of countering the atomiz[ation]."(39) It depends upon the reappearance of social bodies in which eating becomes radically public. This is the task of the church.

Hunger's atomizing effect upon communal bodies is not unique to the Brazilian Northeast. Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen note that when communities hunger, "the ordinary rules of patronage, credit, charity, reciprocity, and even family support tend to undergo severe strain and can hardly be relied upon to ensure the survival of vulnerable groups."(40) When people are hungry, the horizon of their vision tends to progressively shrink -- from the community as a whole, to immediate family, then finally, to the individual. Often, a point is reached in which everything is subsumed in an individual's struggle for physical survival. This is summed up in a Rwandan proverb: "Hunger makes you selfish to the point of letting your own child perish."(41) That such a proverb even exists in the collective conscience of a people speaks volumes.

There have been numerous accounts of this phenomenon. Colin Turnbull has given an account of the collective experience of hunger of the Ik in Uganda.(42) Social bonds, cooperation, and sharing disappeared as the Ik became, not a community, but a collection of starving individuals. In their research on Warsaw and in the Austrian village of Marienthal, B. Zawadzki and Paul Lazarsfeld described a people for whom "the consciousness of belonging together did not bind any longer" and among whom there "remained only scattered, loose, perplexed, and hopeless individuals."(43) James Davies concluded about this study: "without enough to eat there is not a society."(44) In his research on the German concentration camps, Bruno Bettelheim stressed desocialization due to hunger. A British physician, F. M. Lipscomb, who was a member of the British Army unit that liberated Bergen-Belsen noted an "increasing selfishness, more or less proportional to the degree of undernutrition."(45)

In the Scheper-Hughes analysis of the Brazilian Northeast, this atomization of the social body happens not simply in the way that people eat, but in how they understand their hunger as well. She speaks of "the medicalization of need."(46) The "madness of hunger," once understood as the end point in the experience of a starving community, becomes transformed into an individual problem, one which is psychological and requires medications. Hunger is individuated and denied by the medical authorities and those with social power. An individuated discourse on sickness and "nervousness" (nervosos) replaces a more socialized discourse on hunger.(47) The hungry understand themselves primarily as sick and only secondarily as hungry.

The medical appropriation of hunger, the failure of those in power to see hunger as hunger, as well as their willingness to treat it with tranquilizers, vitamins, sleeping pills, and elixirs, is not simply a misuse of medical knowledge; as Scheper-Hughes argues, it is also "an oblique but powerful defense strategy of the state." The social presence of hunger is a standing critique of the social body as it presently exists in the form of the Brazilian state. For Scheper-Hughes, these state processes represent "a macabre performance of distorted institutional and political relations. Gradually the hungry. . . have come to believe that they desperately need what is readily given to them [medications], and they have forgotten that what they need most [food] is cleverly denied." A hungry body implicates the state. A sick body, on the other hand, implicates no one: "[s]uch is the special privilege of sickness as a neutral social role. . . In sickness there is (ideally) no blame, no guilt, no responsibility."(48)

Hunger affects not only how people eat and how they understand their need, but on a much larger scale imbues every aspect of their lives with what Scheper-Hughes calls "a free-floating, ontological, existential, insecurity." The individual bodies of the region's inhabitants, like the social body itself, are understood as "shaky, nervous, and irritable." The people's anxieties about hunger dominate their perceptions of their own bodies. They describe themselves as breathless, wobbly, disoriented, embarrassed, unsure of their gait, constitutionally weak, and frail. These anxieties also dominate their perception of the social body of the state. Scheper-Hughes notes how the nervous and weak body of the hungry person serves as a metaphor for the political and economic system and the weak position of the poor within that system.(49)

The Eucharist is a radically contrasting vision to the atomization that social bodies experiencing acute malnutrition undergo. This atomization is precisely what the church as a communal body seeks to counter through its existence in companionship and compassion.


Early Christians considered eating together and sharing food with one another the proper way both to recall Christ's life, death, and resurrection, and to affirm their hope of his return. Hunger distorts such a remembrance. This is precisely why Paul criticizes the performance of the Eucharistic meal at the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 11). Poorer Christians and slaves, who could come only later to the gathering, participated in the rite of the bread and the cup, but were excluded from the main meal itself. Paul regarded this as a scandal, which made it impossible for a true Lord's Supper to take place (11:20). Paul views such an exclusion as a violation of the essence of the institution of the Lord's Supper itself (11:27). The Eucharist fails if it does not resist the discrimination between rich and poor that exists in the larger society. For a community today to partake of the bread and the cup, but give no communal response to hunger, is to fail to enter into the deepest dimension of the Eucharist.

Cavanaugh, Henri de Lubac, and Michael de Certeau,(50) among others, have documented how an inversion came about in Eucharistic theology. Patristic and early-medieval tradition, using the Pauline images of the body of Christ, spoke of the sacramental body of the Eucharist as corpus mysticum, or the mystical body of Christ, and the church as corpus verum, or the true body of Christ.(51) Around the twelfth century, however, there was an inversion of meaning. In following centuries, the sacramental body of the Eucharist was increasingly seen as Christ's corpus verum, and the church, his corpus mysticum.(52) As corpus verum, the Eucharistic host became an object of reverence, rather than the center of a communal performance. The emphasis was increasingly placed upon the miracle of transubstantiation in the priest's blessing of the bread and wine, rather than the transformation of the community itself in its participation in the Eucharist.(53)

Cavanaugh notes the way the silent contemplation of the Eucharistic miracle corresponded with a diminishing of the communal nature of the Eucharist and an individualizing of Eucharistic piety.(54) Dom Gregory Dix describes this trajectory in church practice of the Eucharist as follows: "The old corporate worship of the [E]ucharist is declining into a mere focus for the subjective devotion of each separate worshiper in the isolation of his own mind. And it is the latter which is beginning to seem to him more important than the corporate act."(55) The increased localization of the sacred in the host had the effect of secularizing all that lay beyond it.(56)

In For the Nations, John Howard Yoder attempts to recover the economic dimension of the Eucharistic celebration, evident in Paul's criticism of the church at Corinth. In the history of Eucharistic theology, emphasis increasingly has been placed upon the worship of Christ in the host. Adoration replaced sharing. Controversies have raged over what happens to the bread and wine when the priest blesses it. But as Yoder contends, these controversies have obscured from our memory

the fact that the primary meaning of the [E]ucharistic gathering in the Gospels and Acts is economic. It was the fulfillment of the promise of the Magnificat that the rich would give up their advantages and the poor would be well fed. . . At the Lord's table, those who have bread bring it, and all are fed; that is the model for the Christian social vision in all times and places.(57)

In another essay in the same collection, Yoder writes that the Eucharist is "the paradigm for every. . . mode of inviting the outsider and the underdog to the table."(58) The Eucharist extends the boundaries of economic solidarity, normally restricted to the family, to include the widow, stranger, orphan, alien, and hungry.

In comments like Yoder's, we begin to get a sense that the Eucharist has much to say in terms of the way Christians orient both their bodies and their resources toward the world. In God without Being, Jean Luc Marion asserts that this orientation toward the world, modeled upon the Eucharist, must be understood in terms of the gift. Marion argues that the Eucharist as gift is governed by the charity of God's free gift of love, which sustains each moment of the present. In order to receive the Eucharist properly, one does not explain the gift, but is assimilated into its movement in the performance of companionship and compassion. Thus, our failure to recognize the gift, which is love, lies precisely in our failure to love. What Marion calls the "Eucharistic present" is "the commitment of charity," which signifies the true reception of the gift of the Eucharist.(59) This entails proving its meaning in our lives in the world.

The Eucharist is therefore not a gift we receive while remaining unaltered. Rather, if we think of the Eucharistic gift as a constantly flowing river, we might say that one who treats the gift correctly does so by allowing oneself to become a channel for its current. The incorrect way to receive the gift is to dam up the river.(60) Passing the gift along through one's body as well as through one's participation in communal bodies, both of which open outward toward others, is the labor of gratitude that is the true acceptance of the gift. The Eucharist becomes communion bread in the church's concern for the bread of the hungry. This is the connection made by Padre Andres in one of the above epigraphs: "There are so many hungry people among us that God would only dare to appear in the form of bread.' "

This notion of the gift, which underlies the Eucharist, is at the heart of Gutiérrez's theology. James Nickoloff writes that "[t]he central axis of Gutiérrez's entire theology is the gratuitous. . . love of God."(61) This is evident in Gutiérrez's insistence in A Theology of Liberation that "a spirituality of liberation must be filled with a living sense of gratuitousness. Communion with the Lord and with all humans is more than anything a gift."(62) Gutiérrez speaks often about the gratuitous nature of God's love and the responsibilities to which it calls us.

For Gutiérrez, to think of the world and everything in it in terms of a gift does not render one passive. Rather, as we have seen above, if received properly, the gift awakens a sense of gratitude in one that accepts it, a gratitude that is made flesh in the receivers' body. If God is love (1 John 4:8), and love is fluid and dynamic like a river, then God is not approached by standing and watching on the bank, but by swimming with the current. Love cannot be contained within the self, but must flow through the body in works of love. To see the world and everything in it as a gift, yet possess great abundance while others have nothing, are starkly incompatible notions. The self's abundance is a responsibility to be of service to those who live in poverty.

In one of his Talmudic commentaries, "The Youth of Israel," Levinas speaks of responsibility on the model of the gift. A passage in this commentary concerns saying grace before a meal and the Third World. We pray before a meal in order to see the food we eat as a gift. But what does it mean, Levinas asks, to see food as a gift? It means seeing our possessions not as rewards bestowed upon us or as our inalienable property, but as things for which "thanks must be given and to which others have a right."(63) To bless food is to realize that one is not in ultimate control of one's nourishment. Consider all that must happen, for example, for a loaf of bread to appear on the shelves at a supermarket. Grain must be extracted from the earth, ground, shipped, stored, mixed, baked, packaged, and delivered. At each point in this process, countless others perform numerous tasks. To see bread as a gift allows us to see the need of others for whom food is also a gift, but a gift that might have, in some way or another, been diverted.

For Levinas, the essence of the gratitude expressed in a mealtime prayer lies in the responsibility it lays upon the self to acknowledge and work to provide for others' need of food. The giving begins with the individual body, but moves to the level of the communal body, which "must follow the individuals who take the initiative of renouncing their rights so that the hungry can eat. . . [T]here must be. . . in the world. . . a source of disinterestedness so [the hungry] can eat."(64)

In "God's Loving Care and Human Suffering," Bonhoeffer points to the uneasiness that we who live in a land of abundance should feel at the fact that we have so much while others have so little. This uneasiness unsettles the core of ourselves. It is the beginning of the recognition of the responsibilities incumbent upon us as a result of the gifts we have received. The very act of eating food, recognized as a gift, places obligations upon Christians in the First World to whom much has been given.

We likewise see this trajectory in the prayer Jesus taught his followers to pray, the "Lord's Prayer." In this prayer, the supplicant prays: "Give us this day our daily bread." These words are not at the beginning of the prayer nor at the end of it; they are at its very center, beating there like a heart. "Give us this day our daily bread." The concern here is not me and my salvation. The concern is not even me and my bread. It is our bread for which we are taught by Jesus to pray. In this most central prayer of Christianity, those who pray find themselves enfolded into a narrative in which concern for others' bread, or lack of it, is their obligation; they find themselves responsible for the hunger of others at the roots of their selves.


1. [Back to text]  Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, trans. Paul Burns (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1996), 1.

2. [Back to text]  Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 519.

3. [Back to text]  Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 164.

4. [Back to text]  David Ford, Self and Salvation: Being Transformed (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 137.

5. [Back to text]  The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World, vii; see also The Documents of Vatican II (New York: Guild Press, 1966), 545: "No Christian community. . . can be built up unless it has its basis and center in the celebration of the most Holy Eucharist. Here, therefore, all education in the spirit of the community must originate."

6. [Back to text]  In what follows, I rely a great deal upon William T. Cavanaugh's discussion in Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998). Whereas Cavanaugh is concerned primarily with the state practice of torture, I am concerned with hunger, though the presence of hunger and a state that practices torture can go hand in hand.

7. [Back to text]  St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 124.

8. [Back to text]  In For the Life of the World (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1988), Alexander Schmemann defines "liturgy" as "an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals" (25).

9. [Back to text]  Torture and Eucharist, 12.

10. [Back to text]  Bob Jessop, State Theory: Putting Capitalist States in their Place (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), 350. This is also one of the major arguments John Milbank puts forth in his Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).

11. [Back to text]  Ibid., 9-10.

12. [Back to text]  Max Weber, "Politics as a Vocation," in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, trans. and ed. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), 78.

13. [Back to text]  Theology and Social Theory, 10.

14. [Back to text]  Michael Joseph Smith, Realist Thought From Weber to Kissinger (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986), 1.

15. [Back to text]  Theology and Social Theory, 5.

16. [Back to text]  Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 93.

17. [Back to text]  In Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, ed. Philip Babcock Gove (Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 1993), Polis is defined as "a community embodying the fulfillment of human social relations." "Body politic" is defined as "people organized and united under an authority." The point is simply that the nation-state is one way of imagining the polis or the body politic.

18. [Back to text]  To reiterate, this is not to say the present nation-state system should be overthrown. Rather, I am suggesting that the present organization of the social body into nation-states and a communal concern for hunger are bound to be in conflict at times. It is in this way that the church is a counter-politics to the state.

19. [Back to text]  Rowan Williams, "Politics and the Soul: A Reading of the City of God," Milltown Studies, no. 19/20: 55-72. See also Milbank's Theology and Social Theory.

20. [Back to text]  Theology and Social Theory, 380.

21. [Back to text]  Ibid., 6.

22. [Back to text]  Ibid., 387.

23. [Back to text]  Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 13.

24. [Back to text]  "Justice," The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3, ed. David Noel Freedman, Gary A. Herion, David F. Graf, John David Pleins, Astrid B. Beck (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1127-29. "Originally the substantive mishpat referred to the restoration of a situation or environment which promoted equity and harmony (shalom) in a community" (1128). "God's mishpat has special concern for the poor, particularly the widow, the fatherless, and the oppressed."

"Righteousness," The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 5, 727-36. "The word tsedeq-tsedaqa is used frequently in combination or in parallelism with mishpat" (727). "The meaning of the word-pair is proper comportment in every area of life, social and cultic. . . The tsedeq-tsedaqa of the community and the individual is comportment according to God's order in every area of life, in just and proper social order (justice to the helpless, the poor, the oppressed, the widow, the orphan, the resident alien)" (736).

"Repentance," The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 5. "The basic Hebrew word which is used to express this change [in repentance] is swb, the root of which means simply 'to turn.'. . . Repentance in the prophets, then, is an act of the heart. It is more than mere words. It is defined by clear actions that lead to justice, mercy, and fidelity" (671-72).

"Peace," The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 5. "The principal word used to express the idea of peace in the Hebrew Bible is shalom. . . the notions of wholeness, health, and completeness inform all the variants of the word. . . Shalom is the daily greeting in Israel. . . [which means] 'may you be well.' To be well, is of course, to be 'whole, to be complete,' to have physical and spiritual resources sufficient to one's needs" (206).

25. [Back to text]  Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1962), 76.

26. [Back to text]  Hermann Cohen, Reason and Hope: Selections from the Jewish Writings of Hermann Cohen, trans. and ed. Eva Jospe (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1971), 71.

27. [Back to text]  "Coriolanus," in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Maus (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 1.1, 85-103.

28. [Back to text]  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 382.

29. [Back to text]  The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World, 72.

30. [Back to text]  Gustavo Gutiérrez, "The Poor in the Church," in The Poor in the Church, ed. Norbert Greinaher and Alois Müller (New York: Seabury Press, 1977), xxi.

31. [Back to text]  James B. Nickoloff, "The Church of the Poor: The Ecclesiology of Gustavo Gutiérrez," in Theological Studies 54, no. 3 (September 1993): 512.

32. [Back to text]  See for example, "Lord's Supper," Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 4. The logic of possessive individualism that is predominant in the United States is inimical to the teachings of Jesus on possessions. Again, what seems to be the most "natural" or "taken for granted" for us as Americans is the most problematic. The sharing of possessions advocated by Jesus is, in our own time, fundamentally intertwined with a relation to the poor within our own nation and without. For Jesus' participation in meals see, for example, Mark 2:15-17, 6:32-44. 14:3; Luke 7:36, 11:37-38, 14:1, 7, 15; 15:1-2; 19:1-10. For discussion of the coming banquet at the end of the age, see Mark 2:19, Matthew 6:11, 8:11, Luke 6:21, 14:15-24, 22:29-30

33. [Back to text]  Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 466-68 (italics mine).

34. [Back to text]  Torture and Eucharist, 206.

35. [Back to text]  Larry Rasmussen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: His Significance for North Americans (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 68.

36. [Back to text]  Gustavo Gutiérrez, The Density of the Present: Selected Writings (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1999), 99.

37. [Back to text]  The presence of altruism even in the context of acute deprivation has likewise been noted, so I do not want to suggest that hunger necessarily leads to a breakdown of communal relations. But we would expect the presence of severe deprivation to return people to the pain of their own bodies, thus individuating them, as well as disintegrating the presence of communal bodies other than the state itself.

38. [Back to text]  Death without Weeping, 160.

39. [Back to text]  Torture and Eucharist, 4.

40. [Back to text]  Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, Hunger and Public Action (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 74.

41. [Back to text]  Quoted in The Changing Politics of Hunger 1999: Ninth Annual Report on the State of World Hunger (Silver Spring: Bread for the World Institute), 24. In "No Home Without Foundation: A Portrait of Child-headed Households in Rwanda" (New York: Women's Commission for Refugee and Children, 1997), 5, this quotation is translated: "The stomach is preferred to the child."

42. [Back to text]  Colin Turnbull, The Mountain People (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972).

43. [Back to text]  B. Zawadski and Paul Lazarsfeld, "The Psychological Consequences of Unemployment," Journal of Social Psychology 6 (1935): 224-51, 245.

44. [Back to text]  James Davies, Human Nature and Politics (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1983), 17.

45. [Back to text]  Bruno Bettelheim, "Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations," Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology 4 (1943): 417-52. See also The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1960).

46. [Back to text]  Death without Weeping, 169.

47. [Back to text]  Ibid., 170.

48. [Back to text]  Ibid., 267.

49. [Back to text]  Ibid., 186.

50. [Back to text]  See Torture and Eucharist; Henri de Lubac, Corpus Mysticum: L'Eucharisie et L'Église au Moyen Age, 2d ed. (Paris: Aubier, 1949); Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

51. [Back to text]  Torture and Eucharist, 212.

52. [Back to text]  Corpus Mysticum, 34-39.

53. [Back to text]  Jean Luc Marion notes this tendency to regard the Eucharistic host in a way which "fixes" and "freezes" Christ "in an available, permanent, handy, and delimited thing" in God without Being: Hors-Texte, trans. Thomas A. Carlson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 164. Accompanying these changes in Eucharistic theology, the church itself began to acquire the identity of the mystical body of Christ. The Eucharist became, in de Certeau's words, "the visible indicator of the proliferation of secret effects (of grace, of salvation) that make up the real life of the church" (84). The church was not becoming the embodiment in history of the true social body of Christ, but rather, more "opaque" (86).

54. [Back to text]  Torture and Eucharist, 214.

55. [Back to text]  Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (New York: Seabury Press, 1982), 599.

56. [Back to text]  John Bossy, Christianity in the West 1400-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 57-75; Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 146-49.

57. [Back to text]  For the Nations, 45.

58. [Back to text]  Ibid., 32.

59. [Back to text]  God without Being, 178.

60. [Back to text]  I borrow this metaphor from Lewis Hyde's The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (New York: Random House, 1983), 8, 47, 50-51.

61. [Back to text]  Gustavo Gutiérrez, Essential Writings, ed. James B. Nickoloff (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 149.

62. [Back to text]  Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, trans. and ed. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1988), 118-19.

63. [Back to text]  Emmanuel Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 133.

64. [Back to text]  Ibid., 132-33.

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Source: Cross Currents, Fall 2001, Vol. 51,  No 3.