On March 7th, Dr. Jonathon Walton, a former UCR Professor and current Harvard Religion Professor, delivered a lecture entitled “This is my body broken for you…”which connected the Christian ritual of the Eucharist with current issues of social justice. As Harvard’s Pusey Minister, pastor of Harvard’s Memorial Church, Dr. Walton discussed how his Protestant theology of Communion, one in which the bread symbolically represents the sacrifice of Jesus after the words of consecration, is also a type and symbol of the broken bodies who suffer from police brutality. This was vividly enacted when a large amount of Harvard students participated in a ‘die-in’ right at the steps of the Memorial Church just as the Sunday services were ending and the congregants were stepping out. In order to leave the worshipers had to step gingerly through a large area of ‘bodies’ strewn about in a graphic representation of victims of police violence. Dr. Walton brought home the point that his congregants had just celebrated the ritual representation of a body broken by the oppression of the powers of his day only to step out to see another, perhaps more fleshly, ritual representation of just the same thing, only with names such as Freddie Gray and Eric Garner.
Dr. Walton’s use of a Protestant Communion service seems to be echoing the ideas of Durkheim regarding his ‘totemic principle’ and society as worshiping itself. The representation of the broken bodies of both Christ and victims of brutality in the communion ritual are ‘totems’ so to speak in which a community gathers around to have its consciousness raised and united to those very things. The Eucharist service is also a ritual of worship and so by uniting the deeply held values of social justice, as evidenced by the die-in, with a powerful religious symbol, the congregation, along with Dr. Walton, are in effect affirming those very same values as not only worthy but sacred. It is also interesting to note the interaction between these events and the theories of Karl Marx. They seem to contradict Marx’s description of religion as a tool of the bourgeois used to keep the oppressed pacified and restrained in the face of grave injustice. Here, powerful religious rituals are enacted in order to remove blindness to social injustice as well as prick the consciences of the worshipers in the face of oppression.