Whip Handle and Spoon: Forced-Feeding Eucharist in Late Antiquity

In Torture and Eucharist, a study of Catholic resistance during Chile’s Pinochet military dictatorship (1973-90), William Cavanaugh writes that “a Christian practice of the political is embodied in the Eucharist…the Eucharist is the church’s response to torture and the hope for Christian resistance to the violent disciplines of the world.” But what if the eucharist—that ultimate Christian meal connecting community identity with the suffering Christ—is itself an intentional tool for torture? This paper explores two narratives of violent eucharistic feeding within the 4th-to-6th-century christological debates, considering how such aberrant “Christian practice of the political” shaped and expressed ritualized boundary markers of ingestion and otherness. In the first case, a strong-armed Arian bishop used wooden oral wedges through the teeth of non-Arian communicants to feed the consecrated elements; in the second, a zealous Chalcedonian bishop used spoon and whip handle in a murderous effort to induce “orthodox” communion on a non-Chalcedonian priest. Although the extreme brutality of these cases was quickly condemned, tales of more subtle eucharistic “compulsion” from the same period help contextualize such intra-Christian violence as it relates to table fellowship, exclusion, and resistance. Such eating creates an altered cellular digestive identity, imposing “purity” through involuntary reification of victims’ body and world. Such stories illustrate Phil Booth’s recent identification of an increased elevation of the eucharist to shape ritualized identity boundaries in late antiquity (Crisis of Empire, 2013). They also invite reflection on David M. Freidenreich’s thesis that—in general—Jewish food boundaries “mark otherness,” Islamic foreign food restrictions “relativize otherness,” and Christian foreign food restrictions “define otherness.” (Foreigners and their Food, 2011) Forced feeding eucharist, which presumes that both torturer and victim were baptized, suggests an effort to define by the erasure of self-identified meaning; it also suggests a provocative antithesis to the more common practice of mutual exclusion (“closed communion”) in eucharistic meal ritual. Looking at this practice against the background of comparable incidents from early non-Christian trial accounts, and as far forward as the forced feeding torture ethics of early 21st-century Guantanamo, this essay considers timeless tensions in the nutriture of identity, body, and volition.