I do not mean that Ferguson, Missouri, is somehow a first-century locale, especially with all the twenty-first century military gear on display of late to keep unarmed protesters terrorized. I do mean that some first-century Christian insights might help some of us to think a bit differently about race and violence and Gospel in the U.S. today.
For the last couple of years, I’ve started all of my seminary classes with this: “Christian faith began not with a doctrine, or a text, or an institution, but with a radical social practice: table fellowship.”
To be clear, I am convinced of the importance of teaching, words, and structure in Christianity, but all of that serves but one thing: communion with God and with each other, or table fellowship, in all its many forms.
I’m not an expert on race and racism. I’m a white guy, who enjoys much more privilege than I am actually aware of in my daily life, and I am committed to learning and doing what I can to dismantle racism – my own and this country’s. I am also a Christian theologian, and I do believe that Christian theology and Christian faith and Christian spiritual practice can make a difference in undoing racist structures and animating a vision of thriving life for all.
As a theologian, I try always to be mindful of this: First-century Mediterranean societies were no less stratified than the modern West. Food mattered a great deal back then, more so than in today’s fast-food culture. In the first century, with whom one shared food helped to maintain the strict social stratifications based on gender, class, ethnicity, and religion. Food and sex served the same purpose in those societies: maintaining a social hierarchy of value. Or more simply, some people mattered more than others. (I offer an extended commentary on this very thing in my book Divine Communion.)
First-century Christians, following the example of Jesus, interrupted that social dynamic with a bold move: eating with the “wrong” people. By doing so, they declared that all people matter, no exceptions. (Of course it took them some time to get to that insight and not everyone did, thus St. Paul’s frequent diatribes in his letters…)
I was reminded of that first-century insight by reading Acts 10 just recently. That text has been used often by LGBT people as an ancient analogue for the struggle to welcome sexual and gender diversity in today’s churches. Welcoming Gentiles into that early and mostly Jewish Christian community was cause for significant scandal – and it reshaped the whole movement. But I realized something else from my recent reading of that text, and I’m rather stunned that I hadn’t really considered it before.
In that ancient story, Peter and his Jewish companions spend several days in the household of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. Remember, at that time Palestine was an occupied province of the Roman Empire, In this biblical story, the ones oppressed enjoy the hospitality and the food of their Roman oppressors! More than this, the Spirit is poured out on all of them (Acts 10:44-46)!
So many Christians read that ancient story in a very narrowly theological way; it is also, and just as much, social and political. The story is both because God is social, and thus political.
Can we imagine a world in which white Ferguson police officers sit down and share a meal with African American Ferguson citizens? First-century Christians could imagine that. Can we?
I’m not suggesting a “solution” to the ongoing horror of race relations in the U.S. I am suggesting that finding such a solution will not happen without a table, without shared meals, without the totally irrational, seemingly impossible commitment to eat together. Remember 1950s’ lunch counters? It’s not just accidental that race relations in the U.S. orbit so often around shared food. This matters.
This is the heart of Christian faith, in my view: God sets a table for all of us to enjoy. It’s now up to us whether we will sit there, with each other, and with the Other we have been taught either to fear or to despise.