Driving the Spoke

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer


There is a community of people living on the outskirts of Manila who reside on the edge of the city’s garbage dump. These people survive and support themselves by gleaning through the rubbish and scavenging items that can be sold. On Sunday morning a priest arrives and sets up an altar and offers the Sacrament of the Eucharist to the dwellers of Manila’s garbage dump. When the priest makes the sign of the cross over the elements he accomplishes a dual purpose: Consecration of the elements and swatting the cloud of flies away from the chalice. Presently, when consecrating the elements and making the sign of the cross, American Catholic clergy figuratively face the same dual purpose as the Filipino priest: Consecrating the elements and swiping away the “political flies” that are swarming over the Body of Christ. While being a servant of the people, Catholic clergy of the 21st century are being challenged to maintain and honor the “wall of separation” between religion and the state. The political flies are partisan politics that allow politicians and government to “divide and conquer” through its legislation of laws in an effort to marginalize and atomize the Body of Christ and obscure the Sacrament of the Eucharist.


I was raised in an Evangelical Christian world, my sainted mother and church elders educated me that the wall between church and state kept us safe from potential hostilities from those in our country who didn’t share our beliefs. During the turbulent 60’s television news often depicted scenes of violence during civil rights demonstrations and protests against the war. Through my childhood and teenage years the wall of church and state seemed like an impregnatable symbolic barrier that protected our church from misguided politicians and unethical government. However, in the past two decades of my life I’ve seen that wall crumble away with high-minded politicians and Evangelical pastors who use the Bible and the doctrines of their church to legislate and enforce their brand of Christian morality into our lives.

Most alarming has been the recent appointment of the United States Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions, who is a radical Christian extremist who rejects the separation of church and state. “Americans United” and the “Freedom from Religion Foundation,” and other sources all report that Attorney General Sessions believes that the separation of church and state is an “extra-constitutional doctrine” and “a recent thing that is unhistorical and unconstitutional.” I used to think that supporting the separation of church and state wouldn’t be a controversial issue in the United States. However, lately I’ve realized the sad reality that many moralizing politicians, and voluminous conservative Christians, dispute the existence of the separation of church and state in the U.S. Constitution.

Technically, the words “separation of church and state” are not found in the U.S. Constitution. However, the sentiment and meaning behind the phrase is contained within the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The actual phrase “separation of church and state” is derived from a letter written by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to Baptists from Danbury, Connecticut, and published in a Massachusetts newspaper soon thereafter. The following is an excerpt from Jefferson’s famous Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

President Jefferson clarifies that the separation of church and state is contained within the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Yet despite the irrefutable historical and constitutional evidence, Christian extremist, much like Attorney General Sessions, continue to deny the separation of church and state. That denial derives and drives legislation and policies of the state that enable Christian extremists (like the Attorney General) to enable and enforce ideologies that slam against the very teaching Jesus gave us with his Sermon on the Mount of Olives. In light of the radical direction Christian extremists have taken towards tearing down the wall of separation of church and state, a question facing Catholic clergy could be: Has the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist been hijacked as well with a political agenda?


In his book, “Torture and Eucharist” Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh writes about the failure of the Catholic Bishops in Chile to resist the policies and laws of the bloody dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. For Cavanaugh, conceiving liturgy and ethics, or liturgy and politics, as separate activities that one must work hard to connect, is to make a categorical error with disastrous consequences for the Church’s service to the world. This is because the distinction between politics and religion is not one that was discovered by “Enlightened Thinkers” determined to move beyond the wars of religion, but one invented in order to confine the Church to the margins of the law. The Enlightenment creation of a political realm that excluded the body of Christ did not therefore so much solve the conflict of religion and politics as enact it. The problem with the idea that religion and politics are separate spheres of life that need to be connected is that it suggests that to enter the political is to leave the liturgical. Where liturgy must be “applied” or made relevant to political life and ethics the separation of religion and politics remains intact. Exactly this error lay at the heart, Cavanaugh contends, of the response of the Catholic Bishops in the early period of Pinochet’s rule. By claiming in the first two thirds of the Pinochet era that the Church was the “soul of the nation” the Church acquiesced in its exclusion from the Chilean body politic. Against this view Cavanaugh maintains that the Eucharist is not a sign pointing to a more concrete political reality, but a sign that performs a distinctively Eucharistic political community capable of “Eucharistizing” the world.

Cavanaugh’s views are similar to those of Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he addressed the German nation through a national radio broadcast. The broadcast was given in July 1932, when the Nazi Party won 230 seats in the elections and was well on the way to appointing Adolph Hitler as their new Reich Chancellor. In his broadcast, Bonhoeffer’s opening comments were to assert that the Gospel of Jesus is not a Gospel for the Church or its members alone, but Good News for the world: “The church as the one community of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is Lord of the world, has the commission to say his Word to the whole world. The territory of the one church of Christ is the whole world.” Pastor Bonhoeffer emphasizes that “areas or spheres of life ordained by God” and governed by their own laws over which Christ has no authority must vigorously be repudiated.


In a well-intentioned attempt to extricate itself from coercive politics, the Catholic Church in the 1930s had accepted a distinction between “political” and “social” realms, vacating the former and trying to influence the latter through the vocalization of general values to individual Christians. The church saw itself not so much as a body in its own right, but as the “soul of society,” effectively handing the “bodies” of German Jews over to the Third Reich for extermination. When the Nazis began to torture and kill those bodies, the church was at a loss to respond, having already “disappeared” itself through its own ecclesiology.

Later during the war Pastor Bonhoeffer would be imprisoned and ultimately executed for his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler and his resistance of the Reich’s unjust laws that murdered millions of Jews. Bonhoeffer believed that the Eucharist was not just a balm for the soul; he preached that the Sacrament of the Eucharist is a public act of the church that disciplines the bodies of its members. Bonhoeffer wrote that through the action of the Holy Spirit, the one true “Body of Christ” is formed, in which the sufferings of others become our own sufferings and simultaneously the sufferings of Christ himself. This point, Bonhoeffer declares, is one that we need to proclaim boldly if the church is to help heal the fragmentation of the world. To proclaim it, though, is more than a verbal act. It requires making the Body of Christ visible through concrete practices. It is my opinion that many of our present churches have too often become dispensers of what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” that is, doling out the sacraments without making clear what the sacramental life entails.

In his book, “The Body of Christ: The Eucharist and Politics” Cavanaugh writes, “The Eucharist is not a mere symbol, a source of meaning which the individual reads and then applies to social issues ‘out there’ in the ‘real world.’ There is nothing more real than the body of Christ. The Eucharist is not to be applied to political issues; rather, the Eucharist makes the church itself a political body.” Both Bonhoeffer and Cavanaugh would agree that the church practices the politics of Jesus when it becomes an alternative way of life that offers healing for the wounds that divide us.


During the months of his imprisonment Pastor Bonhoeffer ministered to his fellow inmates and he wrote numerous letters to a close friend. In those personal letters Bonhoeffer clarified his position regarding Christian ethics and his reasons for resisting the state. Bonhoeffer was executed a few weeks before Hitler committed suicide and the Third Reich surrendered to the advancing allied forces. His last words on the relation of ethics, the Body of Christ, and public action is cognizant to the politics of his time: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation to humankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and in doing what is right among the people.”

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