Cannibalism, it seems to me, is one of the unspoken issues that lurks beneath all Mormon sacrament meetings. The earliest Christians, of course, were accused of ritual cannibalism and it is one the reasons initially given by Roman authorities to justify their persecution. And honestly, who can blame the Roman officials for a bit of confusion on this point. Consider this passage from the Gospel of John, where Jesus says:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. (John 6:53-55)
The sacrament trades on at least two different sets of images. The first set of images are those associated with the Passover. The Passover, of course, is the ritual meal in which Jews re-enact their flight from captivity under Pharaoh to freedom under God. The sacrament translates this into the context of Christ’s atonement and the bread and the wine (water) now become a ritual meal that recapitulates our flight from the slavery of sin and death to the freedom of redemption and resurrection through the passion of Christ. The second set of symbols is considerably bloodier. Here we look on the bread and wine (water) as flesh and blood. Christ becomes the a propitiating sacrifice, either of the paschal lamb, slain so that its blood would fend off the angel of death, or else as the scapegoat, laden with the sins of the community and driven into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement. Again, the imagery is of atonement, freedom from death and sin.
These two sets of images, however, carefully segregate the sacrament as meal from the sacrament as flesh and blood. When we think of the sacrament as a new Passover, we needn’t think of eating flesh and blood. When we think of the sacrament as the flesh and blood of the fallen lamb, we needn’t think about eating it, unless we push the paschal lamb imagery farther than we generally do. In other words, the traditional set of symbols elides over the literalism of John and thus avoids an obvious fact: the sacrament is a form of ritual cannibalism.
Anthropologists differentiate three kinds of cannibalism. First, there is starvation cannibalism, where people eat the dead to survive. This form is actually fairly rare and is confined to extreme situations like the Donner party trapped in the high Sierras or the siege of Leningrad. Outside of H.G. Wells stories, however, human beings by and large do not rely on the flesh of other human beings for primary nourishment. Rather, cannibalism is almost always freighted with ritual and religious significance. This ritual cannibalism is divided between exocannibalism and endocannibalism.
Exocannibalism refers to eating the flesh of those outside of one’s own social group. Generally speaking, exocannibalism is associated with victory and domination. For example, the Maori tradition of cannibalism takes this form. Maori warriors would eat the flesh of their fallen foes as an ultimate symbol superiority. The basic message was, “I am bigger, badder, and stronger than you, because I am alive and you are dead. I am eating, and you are the one being eaten.” This sort of cannibalism, of course, shows up in western sources as well. In Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice, anguished at the gross insult delivered her cousin by a man, laments the limits placed on her by sex. “Were I a man,” she cries, “I would eat his heart in the marketplace!” Classic exocannibalism.
Endocannibalism, refers to eating the flesh of those who are inside of one’s own social group, generally family members or ancestors. For example, in one moderately widespread ritual, the bodies of family members are buried and allowed to decompose for some time. The remains are then exhumed, and the bones are scraped clean of any remaining flesh. These bones are then ground into a powder (sometimes after first being burned) that is then mixed with water and drunk. As opposed to the domination meaning of exocannibalism, the idea behind this kind of meal is that it allows the participants to take upon them the power and force of their dead ancestors. This idea also shows up to a certain extent in exocannibalism as eating the flesh of a fallen enemy is thought to transfer his courage and virility to the victorious warrior.
Mormonism narrows in some sense the gulf between man and god. We become members of the same species and the same family. We, along with Christ, are sons and daughters of God in a very literal sense. In this context, the sacrament becomes a kind of endocannibalism. By eating — if only in ritual form — the flesh and blood of Christ, our fallen loved one, we take upon ourselves some of his power and force. This infusion of his concentrated divinity into us becomes part of the atonement. By assimilating his flesh into our flesh, he becomes one with us and we take his power into us for the upward path toward exaltation.
Our sacrament prayers back away from the simple literalism of John and the more metaphysically complicated gyrations of transubstantiation. We eat only in remembrance of the flesh and blood of Christ. Never the less, we do eat, and lurking below the surface of our ritual lies a cannibalism that is not without its own spiritual logic.