A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
The Culture of Cannibalism and Bulimia
August 17, 2003
Ordinary Sunday 20 John 6:53-59
Today's gospel reading leaves me with an awful feeling of déjà vu. Jesus is the bread of life, the living bread, the bread from heaven etc. I could have sworn that was the theme of last week's passage, and the week before and possibly the week before that.
It seemed to be John's intent to make whatever point he was making in a repetitious manner, leaving the preacher with the challenge of saying something new on the subject. So, here we go one more time, at least for now, exploring food, consumption, spirit and Jesus. This week I have reflected on cannibalism and bulimia as twin themes in the makeup of society.
I read about cannibalism in a book called Food: A History. Listen to this delicious quote: "Cannibalism is a problem. In many cases the practice is rooted in ritual and superstition rather than gastronomy, but not always. A French Dominican in the 17th C. observed that the Caribs had most decided notions of the relative merits of their enemies. As one would expect, the French were delicious, by far the best. This is no surprise, even allowing for nationalism. The English came next, I'm glad to say. The Dutch were dull and stodgy and the Spaniards so stringy, they were hardly a meal at all, even boiled. All this sounds sadly like gluttony." After the rugby of the past few weeks, you could say that there are a few South African players who know what an Australian tastes like!
In any case, the book traces the various revolutions of food where cannibalism marks the transition from eating to survive on to eating for meaning. It highlights the alchemy of eating, the journey of food through health and illness, the interconnections of the personal and social, eating incorporates ritual and magic. It is power giving and identity forming.
The book describes bulimia as "ironic eating, where excess and obsession meet; the sufferer gorges in secret and induces vomiting." My reflection revolved around aspects of our culture which are both cannibalistic and bulimic. They are cannibalistic as they devour the individual by absorbing them into the whole in such a way as to remove their distinctive identity. They are bulimic as they draw the individual in, only to then spit them out.
The sociologist Levi-Strauss described this phenomenon in relation to crime and punishment. He saw in primitive culture the tendency to absorb criminals, include them, rehabilitate them. In modern societies the tendency is to eject or, as he would say, vomit criminals out, excluding them from society.
All of this points to the extremes; the smothering inclusion of cannibalism and the judgmental exclusion of bulimia. Neither are truly accepting as one wants to absorb or change the person into a group norm while the other will reject the person outright as useless.
The invasion of indigenous lands and peoples by colonisers is another example of the inclusiveness of cannibalism. The native peoples, those that survive, are given complete freedom; to become westernised, that is. Their languages, customs, names, cultures are devoured by the imperial predator. Those that don't survive become the collateral damage; they are not useful so they are excreted.
This theory applies equally well to church communities as to prisons. What some people mean by inclusiveness in church is people being welcome to join in, as long as they assimilate and become Anglican or whatever the culture of the church is. This is little better than outright exclusion, in fact may be more hurtful as it offers the illusion of acceptance. All people are welcome, just as long as you stop being gay, or stop using drugs, or start believing in a certain way, and on it goes.
I saw this happen in a striking way in the church in Kings Cross in Sydney. The church building was situated in the midst of streets lined with prostitutes and drug users. It was an eerie experience to be praying inside the church and to know that outside the church men from the suburbs were preying on young girls on the street corner. One particular sex worker came in to church one day; straight from a client no doubt and still dressed accordingly. She walked past signs and billboards which declared that all people are welcome, only to have some respectable lady so devour her body and clothes with judgment that she left before the service even began.
Is not what we long for most in life to be truly accepted, somewhere, by someone? To have that deep contentment of knowing that there is nothing to prove, or to be other than yourself? It seems to me that Jesus found just the right balance between inclusion and exclusion, which avoided both smothering paternalism and dismissive judgmentalism. So maybe that's why he gets to be called the bread of life.
Jesus sat at tables and ate food with people of dubious social standing. He affirmed people of difference without even hinting that they should change. He got to the core of human experience, so that the stereotyped markers of difference would mean nothing any more. This was true inclusion, and it revolved so often around food.
The breaking of Jesus will on the cross, the bread of life, is the moment when all boundaries of difference are named for what they are. Full life is knowing true acceptance despite, even while affirming, difference.
It's a real theme for us here at St Matthew-in-the-City, where all sorts of people feel a belonging to our church even if they don't come on a Sunday morning. The challenge for us is to find that same balance; where people are welcome, truly welcome, to belong in their way and not in our prescribed way. Its about boundaries between community and individuality, its about spaces in our togetherness.
Let us work together at being an accepting community; where we are not cannibals, devouring each other with judgment, nor where people are drawn in, engorged, then spat out. In this we will be journeying in the company of the bread of life.