Today a friend from college posted the following on Facebook:
We just took Skittles and iced tea as communion elements at my church in honor of the situation with Trayvon Martin–because being a Christian is an active, wrong-righting, radical-loving, justice-seeking way of life…
I knew immediately that there were a great many things to unpack in this posting. At the very least I knew her congregation had inspired a conversation about Jesus and injustice and for that I applaud them. But there seemed to be something else nestled into this radical statement that didn’t sit well with me.
For those unaware of the reference, Trayvon Martin was a black, 17-year-old who was killed (some say murdered) in an altercation with a neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was recently acquitted of murdering Martin and the case brought up many controversial conversations about race, self-defense, and injustice. Martin had decided to go out to the store that evening to get Skittles and Iced Tea.
It is clear to me that Trayvon Martin did not deserve to die that night. His death is a tragedy. It simply should not have happened. I do not wish to jump into the cultural, political or legal controversies surrounding his death in this space, but I acknowledge the deep feelings of injustice that are conjured in the hearts of many Americans by his death. Trayvon Martin should not be dead because he wanted some Skittles and Iced Tea.
In many ways I understand what my friend’s church was doing by serving Skittles and Iced Tea in communion. The bread and the wine are two of the most powerful symbols in Christianity. Skittles and Iced Tea have become powerful symbols of racial injustice in America. From an artistic perspective it makes a lot of sense to put these symbols in proximity to one another. The moral complexity caused by creating a relationship between these symbols is explosive. I believe this symbol clashing expression of a Christian sacrament is powerful, but I also must ask “is it good?”
From a purely pragmatic perspective I believe that Skittles and Iced Tea can be used as a substitute for bread and wine in Communion. On a deserted island with nothing else on hand, I think God would find them an honorable means of worship. If I had to guess, I’d say 99% of my worship experiences have been in churches that chooses to use grape juice instead of wine. The LDS church uses water. Most churches serve some variety of crackers, wafers or even bread with yeast. My own church has recently begun to set out gluten-free crackers for those with gluten allergies. I say all of this to acknowledge that many churches use some substitute for the wine and the kind of bread Jesus served in the Last Supper. Not many make the effort to replicate Jewish, First Century wine and Passover bread.
From a symbolic perspective I think the use of Skittles and Iced Tea is wrong. I whole-heartedly agree that “being a Christian is an active, wrong-righting, radical-loving, justice-seeking way of life… ” We should, ought and must be fighting against racial barriers and injustice. Nonetheless I think it was inappropriate to make the Sacrament an opportunity to call Christians to the fight against injustice.
When Jesus broke the bread and served the wine, he said “do this in remembrance of me”. He did not say “do this in remembrance of Trayvon Martin and the injustice of racial stereotypes”. I hope and pray that churches every where are preaching relevant, practical and Biblical sermons on breaking the bonds of injustice. I strongly encourage them to develop programs to help their neighbors overcome those types of struggles. But Communion is not the place to offer that charge. The Gospel of Jesus is in part about racial and societal reconciliation, but that is not the entire message.
The error in using Skittles and Iced Tea in Communion is that it places the Christian mission against injustice at the center of the worship experience rather than Christ. In many ways this story illuminates the Conservative/Liberal Christian divide for me. Churches on both sides of the spectrum fall into heresy when they misplace any one aspect of the Christian pursuit of virtue over Jesus himself. Churches that designate themselves as “open and affirming” seem to easily devolve into nothing more than the message of acceptance. Jesus and his Gospel are far bigger than that. Churches that focus on personal piety and moral regulations can devolve into nothing more than the message of righteousness. Jesus and his Gospel are far bigger than than. Churches that focus on nothing but their liturgy and priesthood can become a place where nothing is more important that the right mode of worship and authority. Jesus and his Gospel are far bigger than that. Churches that passionately pursue complex theological teaching can become nothing more than their sound doctrines. Jesus and his Gospel are far bigger than that. Justice, acceptance, righteousness, worship, authority and doctrine are all wonderful things and should be pursued passionately. . . but they aren’t Jesus. Our Savior calls us to all of them, but they are not saviors.
I imagine the good people at my friend’s church would be appalled if they heard of another church that had replaced the bread and the wine with Budweiser and apple pie. I hope their outrage would not be because they reject the cultural or political message symbolized by those items, but rather because what those items represent are never meant to displace our call to remember Jesus’ death when we partake of the sacraments.
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.