(RNS) — This week, Christians celebrated World Communion Sunday, which reminds Christians of what they hold in common instead of what divides them.
As Christian nationalism and other religious nationalisms rise globally, threatening democracy and the planet, this celebration can become something more — not just a unifying ritual for our religious tribe but also a ritual that moves us beyond the tribal to the universal.
World Communion was envisioned by Dr. Hugh Thompson Kerr, pastor of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, in 1933. But it was not until after the genocidal horrors and mass death of the Second World War that it caught hold.
“World Wide Communion symbolized the effort to hold things together in a spiritual sense. It emphasized that we are one in the Spirit and the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” his son Donald told the Presbyterian Outlook years later.
Yes, it is important to get our Christian house in order as part of our effort to bring unity and peace to the world. Yet, all too often, the focus on Christian unity turns to doctrine and institutional unity, distracting us from the more significant implications of Communion.
Jesus offered the table as a vision for all humanity, a shared meal in the shadow of empire, an embrace of the sacrifice of the individual for the sake of all.
Biblical scholar Ched Myers writes that the “Eucharist gathered Christians around the life of a Jewish prophet (Jesus) who Caesar’s imperial execution stake could not vanquish.”
Likewise, the Jewish Passover, which Jesus celebrated in Mark 14, “signaled the liberation of Hebrews from the imperial straightjacket of Pharaoh’s Egypt,” wrote Myers.
These two meals gave birth to a people whose “actions of disarmed resistance to empire eventually became historical watersheds, animating countless future slave revolts and inspiring many subsequent believers, famous and forgotten, to embrace the via crucis.”
World Communion Sunday can help us see beyond our own religious, racial, gender or national tribe and help us embrace a vision of human and planetary flourishing — a realization that all are one.
What happens to one — human or nonhuman — happens to all. One is not free until all are free.
Myers, in writing about both Communion and the Jewish Passover, reminds us that these sacred meals do not exist for our own benefit. Instead, they are an invitation “to turn the world right side up.”
“Let us not imagine that these sacred meals are some sort of religious entitlement, or empty ritual, or venue for strictly private spirituality,” he writes. “Rather, when we Jews and Christians come to our respective table of Memory, we are part of a legacy that invites our embrace, an ongoing struggle to take back the Freedom story from empire-builders and profiteers and to restore it among Kingdom-seekers and prophets.”
Taking the Freedom story back means to see ourselves as world citizens, unified with those of all faiths and ethical persuasions who embrace dignity, respect and well-being for all and to reclaim faith for justice at a moment in history when powerful religious movements are making common cause with authoritarian leaders.
Religion is being used to fan hatred and divide communities — with the goals of autocratic power-building and greed.
From the United States and Brazil to Uganda and Russia, Christian nationalists are using issues of sexuality and race to divide and conquer, distracting from real issues like the environment, inequality and corruption.
This kind of misuse of religion is not limited to Christianity. Hindu Nationalism in India is sparking violence against religious (Muslim and Christian) and social minorities and even impacting U.S. politics. Buddhist nationalism is oppressing Muslim minority groups in Myanmar. Millions of Israelis recently turned out in the streets to resist Jewish nationalism in the current ruling coalition.
Transformative nonviolent movements have galvanized millions in the last century and a half to bring about an end to apartheid, segregation, colonial rule and repressive regimes around the world and to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Religious beliefs that are rooted in the concept of universal human dignity and freedom were inspirational in these movements. It will require a transnational movement of this magnitude to counter what is transpiring today.
May our celebrations of World Communion move us to action that fulfills our vision of a world free from oppression and exploitation.
(The Rev. Jennifer Butler is the founder and the former CEO of Faith in Public Life, a nationwide network of over 50,000 faith leaders. She was chair of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under the Obama administration. She is the author of “Who Stole My Bible: Reclaiming Scripture as a Handbook for Resisting Tyranny.” A version of this essay originally appeared on her Substack newsletter Reclaiming Faith. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)