Thursday, July 29

Consumption, the Market, and the Eucharist

by William T. Cavanaugh

There was a woman named Rosalinda with whom I attended Sunday mass when I lived in Chile in the 1980s. Rosalinda lived in a small wooden shanty with her elderly mother. Their income, which sufficed for little more than bread and tea, was derived from the potholders and other items that Rosalinda crocheted and sold at the local market. On one of my first visits to her home, Rosalinda gave me a little crocheted bird that is used for grasping the handles of hot tea kettles. When Rosalinda presented it to me as I was leaving her home, my first impulse was to reach into my pocket and give her some money for it. But I sensed that that would have been the wrong thing to do.

The little blue-green bird with a white fringe currently adorns the rice container on my kitchen counter. I live with my wife and kids a world away from Santiago in St. Paul, Minnesota. We live our lives at the intersection of two stories about the world: the Eucharist and the market. Both tell stories of hunger and consumption, of exchanges and gifts. The stories both overlap and compete. I will try to tell these two stories briefly, and reflect on what they mean for Rosalinda and the bird.

I. Hunger and the market

Economics, we are told, is the science which studies the allocation of resources under conditions of scarcity. The very basis of the market, trade – giving up something to get something else – assumes scarcity. Resources are scarce wherever the desires of all persons for goods or services cannot be met. Hunger, in other words, is written into the conditions under which economics operates. There is never enough to go around. But it is not simply the hunger of those who lack sufficient food to keep their bodies in good health. Scarcity is the more general hunger of those who want more, without reference to what they already have. Economics will always be the science of scarcity as long as individuals continue to want. And we are told that human desires are endless.

This insight about desire is not new. For St. Augustine, the constant renewing of desire is a condition of being creatures in time. Desire is not simply negative; our desires are what get us out of bed in the morning. We desire because we live. The problem is that our desires continue to light on objects which fail to satisfy, objects on the lower end of the scale of being which, if cut off from the Source of their being, quickly dissolve into nothing.1 The solution to the restlessness of desire is to cultivate a desire for God, the eternal. Augustine famously prays to God that “our heart is restless until it rests in you.”2

In a consumer-driven market economy, the restlessness of desire is also recognized. Marketing constantly seeks to meet, create, and stoke new desires, often by highlighting a sense of dissatisfaction with what one presently has and is. In a consumer culture, we recognize the validity of Augustine’s insight: particular material things cannot satisfy. Rather than causing us to turn away from material things and towards God, however, in consumer culture we plunge ever more deeply into the world of things. Dissatisfaction and fulfillment cease to be opposites, for pleasure is not in possessing objects but in their pursuit. Possession kills eros; familiarity breeds contempt. This is why shopping itself has taken on the honored status of an addiction in Western society. It is not the desire for any thing in particular, but the pleasure of stoking desire itself that makes malls into the new cathedrals of Western culture. The dynamic is not an inordinate attachment to material things, but an irony and detachment from all things. At the level of economics, scarcity is treated as a tragic inability to meet the needs of all people, especially those whom hunger and extreme deprivation confront daily with death. At the level of experience, scarcity in consumer culture is associated with the pleasurable sensation of desiring. Scarcity is implied in the daily erotics of desire that keeps the individual in pursuit of novelty.

For a number of reasons, desire in consumer society keeps us distracted from the desires of the truly hungry, those who experience hunger as life-threatening deprivation. It is not simply that the market encourages an erotic attraction toward things, not persons. It is that the market story establishes a fundamentally individualistic view of the human person. The idea of scarcity assumes that the normal condition for the communication of goods is by trade. To get something, one must relinquish something else. The idea of scarcity implies that goods are not held in common. The consumption of goods is essentially a private experience. This does not mean that charitable giving is forbidden, but it is relegated to the private realm of preference, not justice. One might always send a check to help feed the hungry. One’s charitable preferences, however, will always be in competition with one’s own endless desires. The idea of scarcity establishes the view that no one has enough. My desires to feed the hungry are always being distracted by the competition between their desires and my own.

Adam Smith thought that this distraction was a result of the fact that every person is “by nature, first and principally recommended to his own care.”3
Men, though naturally sympathetic, feel so little for another, with whom they have no particular connexion, in comparison of what they feel for themselves; the misery of one, who is merely their fellow-creature, is of so little importance to them in comparison even of a small conveniency of their own.”
In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith pondered the question of how disinterested moral judgments could ever trump self-interest. He developed the idea that pain and other sentiments are communicable from one individual to another by the ability of the human person sympathetically to put him or herself in the position of another. Nevertheless, according to Smith, nature has made our resentment to a lack of justice greater than our resentment to a lack of benevolence, so only the former is subject to punishment: “when a man shuts his breast against compassion, and refuses to relieve the misery of his fellow-creatures, when he can with the greatest ease… though everybody blames the conduct, nobody imagines that those who might have reason, perhaps, to expect more kindness, have any right to extort it by force.”5 Society can exist without benevolence, but not without justice.6 Absent explicit violence or theft, the inability of a person to feed him or herself is not a failure of justice, but a call for benevolence, which falls to individuals. The communicability of pain in the body of society is faint. Moral indignation in its strong form is reserved for explicit attacks on the status quo of life and property.

Adam Smith does not simply leave the care of the hungry to individual preference, however, for in the larger scheme of The Wealth of Nations, the needs of the hungry are addressed by the providential care of the market. According to Smith, the invisible hand of the market guides economic activity such that the pursuit of self-interest by uncoordinated individuals miraculously works out to the benefit of all. The great economic machine of society is driven by people’s wants. Through the mechanism of demand and supply, the competition of self-interested individuals will result in the production of the goods society wants, at the right prices, with sufficient employment for all at the right wages for the foreseeable future. The result is an eschatology in which abundance for all is just around the corner. In the contemporary consumer-driven economy, consumption is often urged as the solution to the suffering of others. Buy more to get the economy moving – more consumption means more jobs. By the miracle of the market, my consumption feeds you. One story the market tells, then, is that of scarcity miraculously turned into abundance by consumption itself, a contemporary loaves-and-fishes saga.

In reality, however, consumerism is the death of Christian eschatology. There can be no rupture with the status quo, no inbreaking Kingdom of God, but only endless superficial novelty. As Vincent Miller writes, “Since desire is sustained by being detached from particular objects, consumer anticipation wishes for everything and hopes for nothing.”7 The witness of the martyrs to living the Kingdom of God in the present becomes a curiosity; how could someone be so committed to some particular thing as to lose his life for it? We are moved by the suffering of others, but we can hardly imagine a change radical enough to undermine the paradigm of consumption. Even the suffering of others can become a spectacle and a consumable item8 – tsunamis sell newspapers. And so we choose to believe that, through the miracle of free competition, our consumption will feed others. The truth, however, is that self-interested consumption does not bring justice to the hungry. The consumer’s pursuit of low, low prices at Wal-Mart means low, low wages for the people in Asia who make the products we buy. Eschatological hope easily fades into resignation to a tragic world of scarcity.

II. Hunger and the Eucharist

The Eucharist tells another story about hunger and consumption. It does not begin with scarcity, but with the one who came that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry’” (John 6:35). The insatiability of human desire is absorbed by the abundance of God’s grace in the gift of the body and blood of Christ. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life” (6:54), they are raised above mere temporal longing for novelty. And the body and blood of Christ are not scarce commodities; the host and the cup are multiplied daily at thousands of Eucharistic celebrations throughout the world. “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away” (6:37).

This invitation to come and be filled is assimilable to private spiritualities of self-fulfillment if it is packaged as an “experience” of divine life. But the abundance of the Eucharist is inseparable from the kenosis, the self-emptying, of the cross. The consumer of the body and blood of Christ does not remain detached from what he or she consumes, but becomes part of the Body. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (6:56). The act of consumption of the Eucharist does not entail the appropriation of goods for private use, but rather being assimilated to a public body, the Body of Christ. Augustine hears the voice of God say “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.”9 The Eucharist effects a radical decentering of the individual by incorporating the person into a larger body. In the process, the act of consumption is turned inside-out, such that the consumer is consumed.

When we consume the Eucharist, we become one with others, and share their fate. Paul asks the Corinthians “The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” Paul answers “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” St. John Chrysostom comments on this passage,
“because he said A SHARING IN THE BODY, and that which shares is different from what it shares in, he removed even this small difference. For after he said A SHARING IN THE BODY, he sought again to express it more precisely, and so he added FOR WE, THOUGH MANY, ARE ONE BREAD, ONE BODY. “For why am I speaking of sharing?” he says, “We are that very body.” For what is the bread? The body of Christ. And what do they become who partake of it? The body of Christ; not many bodies, but one body.”10
The enacting of the Body of Christ in the Eucharist has a dramatic effect on the communicability of pain from one person to another, for individuals are now united in one body, connected by one nervous system. Not only can the eye not say to the hand “I have no need of you” (I Cor. 12:21), but the eye and the hand suffer or rejoice in the same fate. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (12:26). For this reason, Paul tells the Corinthians that we should take special care for the weakest members of the body (12:22-25), presumably because the whole body is only as strong as its weakest member.

This communicability of pain underlies the obligation of the followers of Christ toward the hungry. The point of the story of final judgment in Matthew 25: 31-46 is not simply that an individual performing good deeds — such as feeding the hungry — will be rewarded with a ticket to the Kingdom. The force of the story lies in the identification of Christ with the hungry: “for I was hungry and you gave me food” (25:35). The pain of the hungry person is the pain of Christ, and it is therefore also the pain of the member of Christ’s body who feeds the hungry person. Unlike in Adam Smith, there is no priority of justice to charity here, no prior sorting out of who deserves what before benevolence can take place. In Matthew as in Paul, the hungry and the benevolent are confused in Christ, such that distinctions between justice and charity, public and private, become impediments to seeing reality as God sees it.

Adam Smith’s economy underwrites a separation between contractual exchanges and gifts. Benevolence is a free suspension of self-interested exchange. As such, benevolence cannot be expected or even encouraged on the public level, because the market functions for the good of all on the basis of self-interested consumption and production. Benevolent giving freely transfers property from one to another, but nevertheless respects the boundaries between what is mine and what is yours. In the Eucharistic economy, by contrast, the gift relativizes the boundaries between what is mine and what is yours by relativizing the boundary between me and you. We are no longer two individuals encountering each other either by way of contract or as active giver and passive recipient. Without losing our identities as unique persons – Paul’s analogy of the body extols the diversity of eyes and hands, heads and feet – we cease to be merely other to one another by incorporation into the Body of Christ. In the Eucharist, Christ is gift, giver, and recipient. We are neither merely active nor passive, but participate in the divine life, such that we are fed and simultaneously become food for others.

Our temptation is to spiritualize all this talk of union, to make our connection to the hungry a mystical act of imaginative sympathy. We could then imagine that we are already in communion with those who lack food, whether or not we meet their needs. Matthew is having none of this, placing of the obligation to feed the hungry in the context of eschatological judgment. Paul too places neglect of the hungry in the context of judgment. At the Eucharistic celebration in Corinth, which included a common meal, those who eat while others go hungry “show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing” (I Cor. 11:22). Those who thus, in an “unworthy manner,” partake of the body and blood of Christ “eat and drink judgment against themselves” (11:27. 29). Those of us who partake in the Eucharist while ignoring the hungry may be eating and drinking our own damnation.

The Eucharist places judgment in the eschatological context of God’s inbreaking Kingdom. There is no gradual immanent progress toward abundance which the market, driven by our consumption, is always about to — but never actually does — bring about. The Eucharist announces the coming of the Kingdom of God now, already in the present, by the grace of God. Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium affirms the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist in these terms: “In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims…”11 In the Eucharist, God breaks in and disrupts the tragic despair of human history with a message of hope and a demand for justice. The hungry cannot wait; the heavenly feast is now. The end-less consumption of superficial novelty is broken by the promise of an end, the Kingdom toward which history is moving and which is already breaking into history. The Kingdom is not driven by our desires, but by God’s desire, which we receive as gift in the Eucharist.

I think I have an idea now of why it would have been wrong to give Rosalinda money for the bird. It would have annulled the gift and turned it into an exchange. It would have re-established the boundaries between what is hers and what is mine, and therefore reinforced the boundaries between her and me. The Eucharist tells a different story about who we — the hungry and the filled — really are, and where we are going.


1. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 29-30 [Book II, §10].

2. Ibid., 3 [Book I, §1].

3. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. A.L. Macfie and D. D. Raphael (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), 82 [II.ii.2.1].

4. Ibid., 86 [II.ii.3.4].

5. Ibid., 81 [II.ii.1.7].

6. Ibid., 85-91 [II.ii.3].

7. Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum Books, 2003), 132.

8. See ibid., 133-4.

9. Augustine, 124 [Book VII, §16].

10. St. John Chrysostom, Homily on I Corinthians, no. 24 in The Eucharist: Message of the Fathers of the Church, ed. Daniel J. Sheerin (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1986), 210.

11. Sacrosanctum Concilium 8, in Documents of Vatican II, Austin P. Flannery, ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), 5.

This article first appeared in print in Concilium. 

William T. Cavanaugh :   William Cavanaugh is Senior Research Professor in the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University.  His latest books are Migrations of the Holy (Eerdmans, 2011) and The Myth of Religious Violence (Oxford, 2009).  His books have been translated into French, Spanish, and Polish.

1 Comment

  • We should have BOTH mystical communion with all the hungry folk AND a practical set of methods for outreach to FEED the hungry physical food! BOTH were practiced by our Lord–and we are to “go and do likewise.”

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