The last time I took the bread and the cup was on Ash Wednesday of 2020. There was already tension in the room accumulated from years of religiously charged political activity, and we were only at the beginning of an election cycle which would overlap with a pandemic, an insurrection, and a national confrontation with white supremacy.
If you’ve attended church with any regularity over the past few years, you probably know what it feels like to swallow crackers and juice while taking mental inventory of the things you resent about life in the body of Christ. If you’ve never done this, I’m happy for you. If, like me, you’ve seen your relationships buckle under the weight of ongoing racial reckonings, the slog of pandemic life, and the acrimonies of a politically polarized culture, you may need strategies to maintain a prayerful posture until the end of a communion service.
Here’s what I often do: I look around the room and imagine I am casting a contemporary retelling of the story of Joseph in Genesis. Joseph is born into a family chosen by God, then expelled from the household and sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. When I'm in church trying to sublimate my anger, I ask myself, who here in these pews would get to play Joseph? And who would get to play his treacherous family?
Having felt wronged by large swathes of the American church, I usually envision myself as Joseph. My recent history with the family of God involves ideologically divided faith communities, attempts at racial conciliation, and an ensuing conflagration that ruined my relationships and left me streaming breakup albums at home every Sunday morning. I like to cast myself as the misunderstood protagonist in a narrative—true in many respects—where Western Christians reject the call to biblical justice, leaving believers of color standing outside the family circle.
This isn’t the only way I could tell the story, or the only way it could be cast. Another narrative of these same years involves fragile congregations struggling to weather a pandemic, the innate difficulty of broaching historically fraught topics, and a group of well-intentioned people underestimating the costs of justice work. In this narrative— also true— the church is not a conflagration, but a smoldering wick trying to survive the shifting winds of time and culture.
The last few years of political and personal upheaval have repeatedly driven me to the Bible for comfort. I want it to organize my thinking about our cultural moment, which usually means I want it to clarify who is a friend and who is an enemy. In America, where we often invoke Scripture to frame politics as apocalyptic confrontations between good and evil, this is a common approach to the Word of God. Unfortunately for those of us who like to nurse our grudges, prolonged exposure to the Bible muddles these categories.
The longer you think about the life of Joseph, the harder it is to divide the characters—both in the story and in your own life—into morally distinct groups. Joseph, who seems heroic to me in his youth, starts to appear villainous in middle age. He emerges from his trials as a governor of Egypt, which is how he encounters his family seeking aid during a time of famine. He recognizes them, they don’t recognize him, and he takes the opportunity to settle the score.
Joseph hides his silver divination cup in a bag of grain and gives it to his brothers. Just as he expects, they find it on their way home, anticipate accusations of theft, and fear for their lives. The brothers return to grovel and Joseph pretends to be unmoved by their begging. Now the hero of the story seems to be behaving maliciously, using his status as a high-ranking official in a violent empire to harass his family. If, like me, you originally cast yourself as Joseph, at this point you are probably rethinking your decision.
As the story moves towards its denouement it only becomes harder to tell which characters are supposed to be good and which are supposed to be evil. In the middle of returning the cup, Joseph’s brother Judah becomes the first to confess their family’s lifetime of wrongdoing: a lost son, a grieving father, a household warped by decades of hurt. Joseph is unable to maintain his composure and starts to cry, revealing his true identity. The brothers, who were callous and violent as young men, have grown humble with age, and their repentance opens up the possibility for reconciliation at the end of the story.
For those of us who are tired of complexity and the challenges of navigating through a confusing cultural moment, this outcome feels disappointing. The whole point of my obsession with the Joseph story, frankly, is to use the Bible to tell me who to blame for the church’s continued failures.
On the evening of my last communion our congregation read its customary passage for the occasion: “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’” (1 Cor. 11:23–24).
I’d joined the service hoping for a sign that my relationships could recover from what then felt like an unendurable amount of political and religious disagreement, but these words did not feel comforting. They made me wonder whether Jesus was administering communion as an encouragement or a warning. Who offers you their flesh and blood as sustenance unless they think you’re about to need all the help you can get?
Before going to the cross, Jesus tells his followers to love one another and abide in him, a simple command which might be impossible to obey. He anticipates the difficulty, understanding that the hunger to be right, the hunger to be on the winning side—whatever hungers animate my mind games—will tempt all of us to carve up his body and brutalize one another instead. In response to our weakness, he serves a supernatural meal that is eaten by those of us who are attempting to do as he asked, given at a price that corresponds to the magnitude of our need, satiating and exposing us at the same time.
By the end of the service I am sobbing. Of course we find it hard to get along; communion is based on the reality that none of us have the strength to repair our mutually inflicted wounds. Later, when these relationships finally dissolve in the aftershocks of 2021, I will lie awake at night and think about the part I played in their destruction.
I also think about what comes after the cup and the grain, the bread and the wine. For Jesus, there is a crucifixion, and for some of his followers, there is a visit to the site of his broken body. It is the latter cast of characters that stays on my mind every Sunday now that I’ve resumed attending church, where I usually sit in the back of the sanctuary with a coffee and donut in hand, and eat slowly as I wait for the resurrection to come.
Yi Ning Chiu is a writer based in the San Fransisco Bay Area. Her reporting and criticism have appeared in Relevant Magazine, Teen Vogue, and Ekstasis.
This article is part of New Life Rising which features articles and Bible study sessions reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Learn more about this special issue that can be used during Lent, the Easter season, or any time of year at http://orderct.com/lent.
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