Part 1: Chicken Run
Eating. It can unite us, or divide us. How – and with whom – we eat divided many of us as a nation late this summer when news of Chick-Fil-A’s track record of anti-LGBT lobbying hit the mainstream. Progressives were aghast, and conservatives rallied the base. Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee declared Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day, attended by millions. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered families, their friends and allies, grieved, as a nation seemed to gleefully say to them: “Let them eat chicken.”
Mealtimes in Jesus’ day were divisive, too. In the ancient Near East, observant Jews were careful to practice “safe sects,” eating only with their closest co-religionists, the ones that interpreted their purity codes just like they did. The less-than-pure were sure to be kept away from the immaculately prepared meals, socially-stratified tables, and carefully-washed utensils. The ‘pagan’ Romans were no better, with a firm pecking order of who got to eat where based on citizenship, social standing, and rank.
Jesus, by contrast, ate indiscriminately. Scholar Bruce Chilton suggests that Jesus, like many tradesmen of his day, was often paid in meals. At these meals, he could invite whomever he wished and his client had no choice but respect his table arrangements. It is here, Chilton believes, that Jesus honed his conviction that God was near when a table was full – of good food and “whosoever.” So Jesus invited sex workers and religious leaders, government stooges and terrorists alike to share a common meal around a common table. In so doing, he enacted Isaiah and Ezekiel’s eschatological vision of a heavenly banquet come to earth, where God lays a spread of the finest foods and aged wines to all humanity. How inclusively does Jesus mirror this image of God’s all-encompassing shalom? Even at his final meal before execution, Jesus invites his betrayer to dine with him.
Do we eat like this today? I confess that every time I sat at a table with my social group in high school, every time I turn away from others at the mall food court, every time I refuse to meet a homeless street hustler’s gaze on the sidewalk downtown, I do not.
And in a worshiping context? So often, communion or eucharist or Lord’s Supper follows society’s norms rather than reshaping them.
But it doesn’t have to be this way; another meal is possible. The meal that Jesus left us with can cause endless social and doctrinal divisions, or it can unite us against the larger societal forces that fragment us. Radical theologian William Cavanaugh frames our meal choice – between consumption or communion – in his ground-breaking essay The World in a Wafer:
Globalism is a masternarrative, the consumption of which ironically produces fragmented subjects incapable of telling a genuinely catholic story. [T]he Eucharist [by contrast] produces a catholicity which does not simply prescind from the local, but contains the universal Catholica within each local embodiment of the body of Christ. The body of Christ is only performed in a local Eucharistic community, and yet in the body of Christ spatial and temporal divisions are collapsed. In the complex space of the body of Christ, attachment to the local is not a fascist nostalgia for gemeinschaft in the face of globalization. Consumption of the Eucharist consumes one into the narrative of the pilgrim City of God, whose reach extends beyond the global to embrace all times and places.
As Cavanaugh states elsewhere, “To consume the Eucharist is an act of anticonsumption, for here to consume is to be consumed, to be taken up into participation in something larger than the self, yet in a way in which the identity of the self is paradoxically secured.” In sharing Eucharist we enter the suffering of one another – the literal meaning of compassion - and in so doing “ we see the distance between friend and enemy overcome.”
To this end, my Facebook friend Andy and I created People Appreciation Day – an attempt to stem the Chick-Fil-A food fight that was, absurdly enough, gripping much of the nation. Its premise was simple: Invite someone out for a meal, someone you’d normally be uncomfortable dining with. Perhaps someone of another race, class, orientation, or religion…or perhaps, an outright enemy.
For me, many of the above categories weren’t particularly challenging. I’m married to a woman of another race, and have a veritible ‘rainbow coalition’ of friends; while I don’t do it as often as I’d like, I joyfully break bread with people who live outside; I get together with my Turkish Muslim friends monthly and enjoy baklava and other treats as we catch up on matters of family, nation, and faith. No, for me, my boogeyman wasn’t a black or homeless or gay or Muslim person – it was a ‘fundamentalist,’ the people I came from…the people I used to be.
I decided to invite my former Facebook friend Art Mealer. Art and I met a year or two ago, online and in-person. He’s a businessman and house church organizer. He has a ministry called Waging Love. We got together for dinner at Market in Raleigh. We really wanted to like each other…we found that, besides professing Jesus as Lord, we had little in common. It was awkward. Over the months, he’s invited me to house church barbecues (I’ve usually had other things to do, but honestly felt nervous around getting together in this setting); I’ve invited him to my church, Trinity’s Place (which made him nervous, he said to me plainly, on a number of theological and even moral levels.) Thus, Art and I’s primary interaction has been online, where tempers flare, partisanships are on display like proud peacocks, and the decorum that usually accompanies in-person interaction is all-but-absent.
I forget which online post it was from one of my friends that triggered it: Was it the one from Kimberly Knight? Or Matthew Paul Turner? Or Rachel Held Evans? Or Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove? Whichever it was, after reading one post too many, Art de-friended me on Facebook. As online connections, we were “over.” A connection severed over our very real differences – different conceptions of ethics, the public square, governance, and even God. I knew that if I was going to follow my own mandate and break bread with someone who made me uncomfortable, I’d have to ask Art out to lunch. He accepted, and light-heartedly (?) proposed we meet at Chick-Fil-A. After some back-and-forth about politics and nutrition, he suggested Aladdin’s instead. I accepted.
Art and I had a great meal. Hundreds attended People Appreciation Day – not the million or so that defiantly ate chicken a few weeks before, but what is that line about not despising small beginnings? If the planet is a loaf, a little leaven is a good place to begin. The News & Observer did a great little write-up on PAD, in which they quote me saying:
“If I can look in their eyes and share food, I won’t be able to callously dismiss their perspectives the next time I’m surrounded by like-minded people,” said Morrell, who often references the meals Jesus shared with people whom others avoided. “I’ll be able to see their perspectives in a more human and less sound-bitten way.”
Part 2: Election Indigestion.
What have I learned since then? That I need to share even more such meals. I have been sound-bitten, and I have been the biter. In the run-up to election season, I have posted my fair share of opinionated pieces, news items, and videos – all advocating a particular vision of our nation’s future. Others have advocated their visions similarly. As you could imagine, these visions sometimes clash.
Be specific without being exclusivistic is my frequent refrain for myself. As I allow myself to partake of God as my Tree of Life beyond the knowledge of good and evil, and enter into unitive consciousness as I see life through a renewed, Christ-like, and spacious lens, I recognize a paradox: I don’t un-become who I am. I don’t suddenly become formless. I’m still me, in all my partisan particularity. Though hopefully, as I keep breaking bread with enemies and eating God, I take myself and my particularities less seriously.
I needed this reminder after being de-friended by yet more people – including a relative I will likely see at Christmas, or her daugther’s wedding next Spring – over online political posts.
I needed this reminder after eating at Zaxby’s tonight with four of my MKP brothers, most of us laughing about a particular presidential candidate’s idiotic policies and presence – only to look over and notice that one of our brothers wasn’t laughing, because he voted for the candidate the rest of us were deriding.
And so, after dinner on Election Night, I drove around the corner to Raleigh Moravian Church, where I knew Election Day Communion was taking place. What’s this, you ask? Well, as their homepage reads in part,
On November 6, 2012, Election Day,
we will exercise our right to choose.
Some of us will choose to vote for Barack Obama.
Some of us will choose to vote for Mitt Romney.
Some of us will choose to vote for another candidate.
Some of us will choose not to vote.
During the day of November 6, 2012, we will make different choices for different reasons, hoping for different results.
But that evening while our nation turns its attention to the outcome of the presidential election, let’s again choose differently. But this time, let’s do it together.
Let’s meet at the same table,
with the same host,
to remember the same things.
We’ll remember that real power in this world — the power to save, to transform, to change — ultimately rests not in political parties or presidents or protests but in the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus.
We’ll remember that, through the Holy Spirit, this power dwells within otherwise ordinary people who as one body continue the mission of Jesus: preaching good news to the poor, freeing the captives, giving sight to the blind, releasing the oppressed, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:16-21).
We’ll remember that freedom — true freedom — is given by God and is indeed not free. It comes with a cost and it looks like a cross.
We’ll remember that the only Christian nation in this world is the Church, a holy nation that crosses all human-made boundaries and borders.
We’ll remember that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.
And we’ll re-member the body of Christ as the body of Christ, confessing the ways in which partisan politics has separated us from one another and from God.
On Tuesday evening, November 6,
make a choice to remember.
Let’s meet at the Lord’s Table.
Let’s remember together.
I wanted to remember, together. I wanted to counter the brokenness of my relationships with the brokenness of Christ’s body. I wanted to partake of a common cup to remind me of the transcendent meaning that we all share in a common humanity.
The only problem was, Raleigh Moravian had their Election Day Communion at 12:30 that afternoon. Looking up an N&O article on my phone, I discovered that my friends at Raleigh Mennonite started their Election Day Communion Gathering…20 minutes before I read the article. I zoomed over, just in time to hear my friend Duane Beck read from John 17…to speak of communion, common union, working its way through bread and wine and bodies – diverse bodies, political bodies, divergent bodies…common bodies. He invited everyone to come up and partake – black and white and hispanic, Republican and Democrat and anarchist, old people and young parents and students…we ate, we drank, we lit candles if we wanted…and we lingered, reminding one another of our shared identity as God’s beloveds.
So I ate ate the bread, drank the cup, and passed the peace in embrace of friends and strangers. Did I overcome division?
It’s a trickier question than I first supposed. It’s not only I’m divided from those who think and act and live differently than me; I’m divided from myself, sometimes. A stranger from myself. When it comes to politics, I am part-idealist, part-pragmatist, part-hypocrite, and part-cynic. Anarchism, third parties, intentional communities, partisan rancor, ambivalence, compromise, resignation, even apocalyptic fantasies. All of these exist within me.
As I type, I hear a still, small voice.
This is My Body, broken for you.
Even me, Lord?
Even you. And every ragamuffin, ne’er-do-well, teamster, prankster, gangster, poseur, pollster, reality-upholsterer and gun-holsterer that walks this planet. Even all of you…saints and scoundrels…broken apart like so much bread, in the fragments of your violence toward one another and Me; forgiven and re-gathered, reconstituted and re-mattered, as My Body is consumed and digested, I am consumed with love for you. You are bodies…broken and re-born. You matter to Me.
It is in this consummation that I am consumed; it is in divine digestion that I rest. The election was called a few hours ago – in the world of manifestation, ideological divisions still exist between us. As a nation, planet, and ecosystem, we have a lot of healing left to do. I pray that we can “taste and see” God’s sustaining goodness together. And with each other imagine a common future. Another world is possible – and in the scandalously-inclusive table of God, is already here.
Please…tell me your story of Election Day Communion, or other boundary-breaking meal-sharing, in the comments below. I’d love to hear.
Update: Welcome, Brian McLaren readers!
- Richard Beck on Torture and Eucharist
- Chris Smith on The Hope-Full Politics of the Table
- and, for another take, Fred Clark on Why I’m Worried about Election Day Communion
- Rachel Held Evans, Let Us Put Away our Swords and our Sound Bites