From The Edge of God
A Story of a Eucharist
Manjolai is a small tea estate, owned by a group of shareholders under the name of Bombay Burma Trading Corporation. It has seven estates with more than 2,000 full-time workers. The majority of the laborers are from Dalit communities. I worked in this place as a priest in 1994 and 1995. During my ministry there I experimented in a project for the Church of South India (CSI) synod named a “Laborer’s awareness project.” Interestingly, the church became the center of the community and the priest was seen as a labor union representative. As I ran this project, I could mediate between the company managers and laborers. Very often during and after the Holy Communion service, the congregation shared their problems and issues among themselves. This provided space for the members and even for non-Christians to express their voices. The church invited the managers to many of our project initiatives and so had a reasonably good relationship with the executives in the company.
Our project coordinator raised many of their problems with the managers and thereby they attempted to address a few of them. At times managers and executives themselves were present in our post-Communion discussions. When I left for studies, the priests who followed me also had good relationships with people and the company. But unfortunately in 1998, the CSI priest and a new political group joined together and encouraged the laborers to agitate against the company. This led to the closure of the company and the murder of a number of people by the political groups and by the police. My bishop, the company’s former executives, and I attempted to mediate but the local political group known as Pudhiya Tamilagam (New Tamil Nadu), which had become a well-known Dalit party in Tamil Nadu, did not allow any immediate solution to this problem. After my research degree in Edinburgh, I returned to the church in March 2001. My bishop in Tirunelveli asked me to go to Manjolai to celebrate Holy Communion services among the seven CSI churches, as no other priest was allowed in either by the police or the company.
As I conducted the communion service in each church, most of the members were crying and trying to stop the service. The first Eucharist was held at Manjolai CSI church. Nearly half of the congregation members were in favor of compromising with the company, as they needed monthly salaries to manage their lives, whereas the other half were against any settlement and committed to achieving the full rights, backed by the Pudhiya Tamilagam party. The community was divided and the factions were suspicious of each other in every area of life, and a number of those who were trying to work out a compromise formula had been murdered. The total number of deaths during these years was more than 30 people, mainly laborers. In such a context, I was managing myself to come to the point of sharing of the communion elements. I stopped and asked people to forgive each other. It was a tense moment as no one wanted to do so. I then called on the community to greet each other with the sign of peace. No one turned to the other group, but within their own groups they shared peace. I challenged them not to come and receive if they had not shared peace with those outside their own group. It was at this point I was told by a group of members to go ahead and share the bread and wine with the people as a priest. They had not had regular communion for two years since 1999.
I challenged them to share peace among their own brothers and sisters even if they belonged to the opposite groups. It was a tense moment, and they took a long time to recognize and share peace with each other. I knew many of them by name and they knew me. Many of them cried aloud as they were challenged and peace was finally shared. They realized that the pastor would not share the communion elements unless they gave peace to each other. This service lasted for four hours on Easter Day. After this service, I continued with services in the other six churches and returned to my home. This was a very symbolic and moving experience for me as my own awareness program started with a gathering around the communion table. I found people standing around the communion table as an alternative space where they can be challenged to recognize each other’s dignity and to belong together as the body of Christ. This provided the tea estate laborers with an alternative space where they expressed their views among themselves and also found a way to express their grievances even with the company authorities. Thus, after division among themselves the eucharistic table provided a space for reconciliation and renewal in their lives.
People in Manjolai are still wrestling with the company and trying to get their wages regularly through the court. Since then the company and the people have been working with the CSI church and have accepted the priest and the local bishop to be mediators at times. The court cases are still going on with occasional political intervention. This is in the context of a globalization process in which labor laws are flouted in favor of liberalization. The companies are no longer owned by a single owner, but rather by shareholders. The media often side with the rich and the executives rather than the laborers and poor people. The local mass media often provided a negative picture of the laborers’ issues. The global media was not aware of the problem until many people were deprived of their living. There was no space where the estate laborers found themselves able to communicate their problems until such a space was created in the church.
The communion service provided a space for the people to come and participate not only in sharing the body and blood of Jesus Christ but also in sharing their suffering and their problems among themselves in the presence of the priest. Other religious workers usually waited outside the church until the Eucharist was over. In the context of global media, can the communion table become a model for an alternative form of communication in providing a space for the people whose voices are silenced by power, structure, money, and culture? An ideology of neo-liberalism cannot be countered by another political ideology that can also harm the very people whom it seeks to liberate. But the space created around the Holy Communion table provides a reconstructed space where laborers and managers can meet and address their issues through critical and tough negotiation. This scenario offers a background for me to deconstruct the globalization of the communication systems and thus provide a direction for reconstruction of alternative spaces within the churches. Let me begin with a historical critique of the globalization of communication.
Eucharist as Alternative Space?
It is essential for a theologian to reflect upon such situations as described and provide a reconstructed alternative space for the people to reaffirm the importance of life and of faith – both individuals and communities who can interact among themselves. One cannot reconstruct an alternative without deconstructing the ideologies and concepts that tend to monopolize and promote false consciousness among the people. Can churches provide an alternative space where the voices that are not heard through the mass media can be heard? Can the practice of Eucharist in which human dignity and life are affirmed provide a counter and alternative space to a global media dominated public space? These are a few questions with which I struggle in this essay.
In this chapter, I give a historical background of the New World Order which sets the basis for globalization of the neo-liberal values particularly in the media markets. Then I point out the need for alternative media to counter such values and the process of globalization that are promoted through the mass media. In conclusion, I argue that churches can redefine the rituals of Eucharist as community space to counter the values and ideologies that are promoted by the process of globalization. Secular initiatives on alternative models have often failed as they cannot bring people on to a platform that binds them through a particular faith or worldview.
For me, globalization refers to the inevitable interconnectedness of cultures, economies, communities, societies, nations, and races at international level. Thus globalization of the media means internationalization of the process of information and communication through huge media corporations and cultural industries in every part of the world. Before we analyze the effect of globalization we need to look at the background of the globalization we need to looks at the background of the globalization of media. Globalization is an escalating reality of global interdependence. If globalization is one of interdependence, we need to address the issue of internationalization, universality of values, emerging multi-polar values and meanings, intercultural communication, and so on. The globalization of media has particularly eliminated all other small, alternative, and counter voices and spaces by using power, money, and neo-liberal ideology. The voices of people who have lost their dignity, power, values of life, and resources have been silenced by the global communication system.
To counter globalization one needs to create alternative spaces where the human dignity of all can be recognized and respected. In this space, life is not commodified, but rather celebrated as part of the community. The Eucharist provides an alternative space within the concept of the body of Christ where not only is life affirmed and resources shared by the human dignity of all the participants is accepted and respected. The Eucharist can be an alternative space where not only dignity is shared but communicated, reiterated, and voiced. IT is the place where all can hear the voice of the silenced. First one has to highlight the rise of globalization as a process. In the following section, I will highlight how the global public space was taken over by those who supported the New World Order and thus commodified the public space where even life is identified as a commodity. Before identifying and recognizing the Eucharist as an alternative communicative space, it is essential to highlight how the global space enhanced and further marginalized the poor, victims, differently-abled people, minorities, and people living with HIV/AIDS. The global network of communication has reinforced local exploitation through a neo-liberal ideology. Thus, the process of communication eliminated all the other voices even from the local community space by providing an entirely negative image of such voices.
Background of Globalization of Communication
In 1973, the fourth summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Algiers called for more cooperation in the field of mass media among developing countries. The member countries established the Non-Aligned New Agencies Pool (NANAP), regional news agencies, and the Broadcasting Organization of Non-Aligned Countries (BONAC). NAM wanted such cooperative efforts to operate at the international level through the United Nations. The New International Information and Communication Order (NIIO) was accepted by NAM countries ans was brought to UNESCO in 1976 in Nairobi and was accepted as the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) resolution. A commission was set up in 1977 under Sean MacBride. The MacBride Report was accepted in 1978 at the twentieth General Conference of UNESCO. In 1978, the UN General Assembly adopted this resolution. It was in 1981 that the Reagan Administration began to interpret NWICO as a threat to press freedom and asked UNESCO to eliminate NWICO from UNESCO. This was one of the reasons for the withdrawal of the US and UK from UNESCO in 1987. From this time onwards, NWICO lost its momentum. The US President, Ronald Reagan, an UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, came up with new ideas for a New World Order in which intellectual property rights and patent issues were brought up. Thus new world bodies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank (WB), World Trade Organization (WTO), and G-6/8 nations have been introduced to bring about this New World Order.
The NWICO movement highlighted a number of problems with the old international information order, including the big gap in the worldwide distribution of the means of communication; the imbalance in the worldwide information flow; the one-sided and distorted coverage of the developing world by the dominating Western mass media. Against the above problems, the NWICO emphasized fiver major objectives in communication development: first, there should be equity and autonomy within global communication. It emphasizes a vision of national self-reliance in communication and reaffirms national cultural identity within an expanding system of international news agencies and other transnational cultural industries. Second, there is a need for establishing national communication policies that will support the developing countries’ communication systems. Third, a more participatory communication institution within every nation needs to be promoted. Fourth, there is a need to stimulate indigenous cultural expression and local culture industries in the midst of transnational marketing of the media. And fifth, major nongovernmental and autonomous institutions should be encouraged to provide free expressions and raise the voice of the voiceless people within and outside the nation.
These are the five major objectives of the NWICO movement in bringing about changes in communication and media systems around the world. It aims at eliminating the imbalances and inequalities of information and communication, eliminating the negative effects of certain monopolies, public or private, removal of internal and external obstacles to a free-flow and wider and better balanced dissemination of information and ideas, plurality of sources, and channels of information, freedom of the press and of information, the freedom of journalists and all professionals in the media. Respect of each people’s cultural identity, respect for the right of all peoples to participate in international exchanges of information on the basis of equality, justice, and mutual benefit, respect for right of the public to have access to information sources and to participate actively in the communication process. If these are the aims and objectives then it is unfortunate that a few powerful countries with the clear intention to dominate and control the process of communication stopped the NWICO movement.
Global Public Space and “No People”
Globalization as a process has create an international public space where many people are identified as “no people,” because they do not have money for guying advertised good, do not have power to manipulate, and are not meeting the qualities of a consumer. If people do not have money to buy the goods that are advertised they are not counted as part of the audience. They are neglected as “no people.” This is why I argue that in this internationalized space many people are recognized as “no people.” The New World Order has created a large number of “no people” who cannot be counted as people or audience for the markets. This has been enhanced by four kinds of impact of the globalization process. There is no space that exists for the people – or the public – to share or express their concerns unless a counter means is established. It becomes very difficult to survive in the world of the media market and competition. In this way, the media are often used as weapons of mass distraction (WMD) to divert people’s interest towards a desire for material goods and possessions, thus creating artificial needs. This often leads to misrepresentation of other people in the media, thus polluting the information itself.
A few elite individuals who are primarily motivated by profit-based or political interests control the international communication systems. Media technology, content, messages, professionals are all controlled by a few multinational corporations (star agencies/Microsoft industries) or owners such as Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates. Thus the globalization process has created new global media giants who can influence and change the political, social, and cultural lives of the masses with their media industries (Time Warner, Walt Disney Co., Sony). Information, like other indices of wealth, tends to cluster around the already rich and powerful. It is far from being a common resource available to all on an equal basis. The heavy influence of commodities and communications, with advertising seeking aggressively to forge in consumers ever stronger links of product-related desire and purchase, leads many to fear that cultural diversity will be lost.
Thus the diversity of voices is eliminated, and the people who are poor and live at the margins of the society are not recognized by such communication as “people” at all. If information is a commodity, and thus communication is sold, then it is available only to those who buy it. Most of the international organizations have used this to their advantage and thus continue to dominate the weaker and peripheral nations, through a process sometimes referred to as “Westoxification” – that is, converting people to adopt non-indigenous forms of behavior that could result in a certain schizophrenic paralysis of creative power. People who cannot access these international communication systems are not consumers and cannot be counted as audience even if they have free access to them. They are considered as “no people” because they are not worthy of being reported or gaining access to any content of this international communication. Only if they exist in huge numbers (either in death or protest) are they reported or communicated in the public media, but often more negatively than positively.
“Silencing People’s Voices Rationally”
Within the New World Order the concept of intellectual property rights and neo-liberal values are embedded and promoted around the world. The mass media plays a major role in promoting neo-liberal values of the markets, as the global media moguls have bought many of them. It is about free flow of goods, resources, and enterprises across the borders of the world. There is competition between enterprises that make goods available at cheap prices and with high quality. The five basic tenets of neo-liberalism are: first, there should be greater openness for the international trade and market, thus allowing the rule of the market; second, the government should cut the public expenditure on, for example, education and social security; third, the government should reduce the regulations on the social conditions of the people, such as the working environment of laborers; fourth, state-owned companies should be privatized; and finally, the concept of public good or existence of community is eliminated by replacing it with individual responsibility. These are the core values of neo-liberalism. In simple terms, for a company or business institution to survive one has to compete with the other and thus provide quality goods to succeed in the market at cheap price.
Neo-liberal values have found an easy way into the media market, thus eliminating all other voices that would not bring in money to the owners of the media industry. Only those things that can be sold can be shown or broadcast. This has led to degradation of the quality of programs and a focus mainly on making profit for the media industry. If anything good is done by the churches or by the community at large, it cannot be a newsworthy issue; rather the exploits of a mass murderer or a rapist fill the front page. The more negative the news is, the more it becomes worthy of being published. Industrialists and rich owners have bought the shares of the media industries and thus eliminated the concept of public service from such cultural industries. Thus the media industries survive today merely as entertainment agencies or private means to sell goods via media. They not only do not show any interest in public service but also tend to highlight only the problems and mistakes of those institutions that are trying to serve the public. Of course there are still a few public broadcasting institutions that serve the people with the help of the support from the government.
The mass mediated public space is bought and sold for huge sums of money, and only those who can convert religious values into a package that can be sold like soap can find room in such a space. Otherwise, religious, social service organizations, and particularly those whose voices are never heard in public are silenced, rejected, and negated. It is therefore essential for the churches and other socially motivated organizations to use the existing space or create new spaces among communities where they can enable the voices of poor, differently-abled people, and HIV/AIDs infected, and other other marginalized communities. Many of these people’s voices are sidelined or silenced either by not providing a space for them or by creating negative stereotypical images about them. For example the mass media often present mass protests by people against any government policies in a negative way.
In order to counter the neo-liberal ideology that degrades human life into a commodity, it is necessary to affirm human life at the center of one’s faith and to respect the dignity of all human beings. The basic values of many religious communities are questioned due to the commercialization of human life in the public sphere. Communities find it hard to express alternative views among themselves in many contexts and so become dragged into a passive acceptance of neo-liberal views. Here, religious institutions and also social service organizations can play a major role by creating an alternative community sphere where people can communicate to themselves. This is not to return to old values without being critical of them and not to maintain the status quo of the structure of the society where some people’s dignity is not respected. But it is an attempt to develop an alternative space where human life is not commodified and where human dignity is affirmed regardless of gender, caste, color, and class.
Let My People Speak – Eucharist as Alternative Space!
Though the New World Information and Communication Order was not given importance by UNESCO under the pressure of a few rich countries, con concepts have remained in the mind of many communication scholars and practitioners who were committed to the cause of the poor and marginal communities. This enabled many to identify alternatives to the New World Order and the Global Media that work in favor of such order. Alternatives were developed in many ways including concepts, perspectives, and practices. But alternative types of communication already existed in some South American countries.
The concept of alternative media is often explained in binary opposition to the mainstream media – horizontal/vertical; communication/information; democratic/authoritarian; dialogic/monologic. The alternative media are those media that play an alternative role in a community, often as alternatives to the mass media, as means for social change, as agents of harmony and peace, as voice of the voiceless, as liberating agents and as counter, participatory and democratic methods. the alternative media are accessible, affordable and easily available to the people. An alternative medium does not necessarily meet all the aspects of the definition stated above, but can be called alternative if it meets a few of the characteristics.
Our question here is this: can the Eucharist be an alternative model for Christians and non-Christians? Can it provide an alternative space for people to think, imagine, and communicate in dignified and life-affirming ways? This is not possible either through mass communication or through any other communication that divides people and communities. More often than not the Eucharist is seen by the churches as a sharing of the bread and wine among their own denominational members, thus affirming their affiliations and confessions. It becomes an exclusive denominational ritual act that does not involve anyone who is outside the particular denomination and community. But the Eucharist can be an inclusive and open community that not only invites people but also demands that participants recognize each other’s dignity and become part of the alternative community of love. For the Eucharist is not merely a ritual sharing of the body and blood of Jesus Christ; it is the community gathering around the table of the Lord in the church. If it is the community of Christ, it invites all and includes anyone who wishes to join in this fellowship and recognize each other’s dignity and share their resources.
The Eucharist is a celebration of the life in Christ. It is also an act of affirming our being part of the body of Christ. In Christ there is no male and no female, and there is no Jew and Greek. This does not eliminate all differences and does not make all into one race or color. Rather it invites us to accept each other’s dignity and accept each other as we are. Of course the denominationalism and religious narrowness of many Christian traditions tend to eliminate or reject others from being part of this wider body of Christ. But in its real sense the Eucharist provides a space for all people to come together and share the body and blood of Jesus Christ. There is a unity among the participants, not uniformity; there is also demand for oneness but not sameness. Those who affirm life and who accept others’ dignity are to be invited to be part of this celebration of life in God. This is in continuity with what Christ did and so the body of Christ becomes inclusive of all those who affirm life in God and respect others’ dignity. If this is the case, then the Eucharist can be a counter space where dialogue can happen between people who affirm human life and the dignity of all.
In effect, the Eucharist becomes an alternative space that: is dialogic, intercultural, local, and interpreting universal/global; promotes values; entertains, but is not only about entertainment; is secular, democratized, and development-oriented; promotes the dignity of people; highlights justice and ecological concerns; remains cheap; is both top-down and down-top; is culturally rooted; is non-profit but not at loss; promotes a culture of peace, reconciliation, and harmony; involves people’s participation; identifies and highlights alternative issues; not merely accepts the public opinions but challenges them; highlights public concerns as well as minorities’ concerns; is simple and not professionally communicated; represents the voice of the voiceless; accepts people as they are; and engages in people’s search for meaning.
One might rightly ask the question, “Why should Eucharist provide alternative communicative space?” Isn’t this a Christian ritual celebration of the body and blood of Jesus Christ which is given only to those who belong to a particular denomination and also to those who are confirmed through a certain process of education? The Eucharist was originally a celebration of life in God and being the body of Christ. It was intended as a space for inviting people to join and experience the body of Christ which is the church. Having made it into an exclusive gathering such an act of open celebration led Christians not only to separate themselves from others; it also led to conflicts within the Christian community. Yet, the Eucharist offers us a model for widening the reign of God to include all. The eucharistic communication should also take into account the concerns of ecology, refugees, disabled people and women. It needs to become the means of connecting and relating people at the margins and people at the center.
Eucharistic space can be used as an alternative method of communication where human dignity is assured and all are considered to be part of the body of Christ. In my example I have pointed out that the ideologies have failed in their attempt to bring about radical changes among these communities. Such concepts divide people and lead to violence among, within, and between communities. It is the community’s gathering before, during, and after the Eucharist that brings about radical changes and enables them to think of an alternative community where people’s dignity is restored and where everyone is invited to share this dignity and share their resources as well. I argue that without such a faith-centered approach a critical engagement alone will not bring about social change among communities. The Eucharist provides a space for communities to share their issues and facilitate discussion on the issues of globalization. Thus it becomes a reconstructed alternative space where not only is faith expressed and experienced but also where experience and social realities are communicated and discussed among the communities. Such communication cannot happen elsewhere in the public or community sphere through the mass media or any other mediated public communication.
The churches’ mission is to provide an alternative space where values affirming human lives are discussed together with other religious communities. The churches can use their communication methods and practices to creative, sustain, and develop such spaces where globalization is critically discussed and alternatives are developed locally and globally. In this chapter, I have suggested the Eucharist as an alternative space. In order to create an alternative community space, the churches have to widen the present practices of communication which only serve the Christian community. The churches need to use the available methods and means of communication for this purpose or invest in new media to create such space for critical engagement of the community with the process of globalization. Without theologically sustaining such alternative communication the churches may find it difficult to provide an alternative space for communities at large. It is only through the Eucharist that a new community is created and reconstructed. In this new community there is a demand from the participants not only to recognize and accept human dignity bus also to facilitate each other and thus make it a participatory, dialogic dynamic, and an alternative to the dominant voices. It also provides a space for those voices that are never heard and that are sidelines. In this way, the Eucharist becomes an alternative and reconstructed space for leading people into new creation in Christ.