Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Holy, Healing Madness: In Battered Liberia, a Woman Catches a Glimpse of the Reconciliation That Only the Bread and Wine Might Bring

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Holy, Healing Madness: In Battered Liberia, a Woman Catches a Glimpse of the Reconciliation That Only the Bread and Wine Might Bring

Article excerpt

Jesus Christ--who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily into the heavens--can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin words spoken over your favorite burgundy, and you can drink his blood as well. Is there any doubt that a lone subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad? Bather, is there any doubt that he would be mad? The danger of religious faith is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy.

My beloved book club, not to be confused with a Christian gathering, was reading The End of Faith, by Sam Harris, during Holy Week as it turned out. I cited the above quote as proof when several in my group protested my description of Harris as somewhat harsh. It was then that one of my friends asked, "But you don't believe that about Communion anyway, do you? That it is really a body and blood? You couldn't. How could anyone? So that wouldn't offend you personally, would it?"

I answered awkwardly, honestly, as true friends really grappling with these things from different worldviews and religious beliers do. And I continue to consider these questions more since my experience at the Liberian Communion table at Monrovia United Methodist Church in April 2006.

I visited the church as a guest of Liberia's new president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first female African head of state. I was in the country as part of a team led by former Ambassador Swanee Hunt, whom Johnson-Sirleaf had asked to provide training for the newly elected parliament, government ministers, and civil society members.

Liberia is just emerging from two civil wars over the course of 14 years. It is a small country of 3 million, rich in natural resources but devastated by war. About a quarter of the remaining population is under the age of 14, and the unemployment rate is 85 percent.

In Johnson-Sirleaf's Liberia, former boy soldiers, who are now between ages 15 and 25, uneducated and vocationally untrained, make up half of the adult male population. These and other ex-combatants have killed and maimed, terrorized and raped many of their countrymen and countrywomen. Estimates say 40 percent of Liberian females over age 8 have been raped. These soldiers are also infamous for hacking off the hands of men and children in villages that did not side with whichever faction the soldiers were with, especially in neighboring Sierra Leone.

We had the privilege of sitting at tables with many groups in the post-conflict reconstruction community during our brief stay in Liberia. We sat with United Nations workers, the U.S. ambassador, and parliamentarians. We shared outdoor tables with villagers and refugees, at playgrounds and camps. We sat at negotiating tables with government ministers and NGO representatives. We were guests at presidential banquet tables.

But the Communion table was different. There we were with ex-combatants, women and girls who had been raped, men whose hands had been cut off, the president, her guests, and American Secret Service agents. Pastors presided and ordinary citizens, children, and the elderly joined us. No other table could gather such a diverse group of society members and outsiders. No other could call us to repentance and reflection, healing and transformation. Only this table offered the internal and collective place where the rebuilding of a nation can begin.

DO I BELIEVE Communion is "just a symbol" or that it is "real? …

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