This is a revised version of a piece Michael McRay wrote after attending the 2010 Thanksgiving Tokens Show “The Welcome Table.” For some, tolerance is a noble endeavor. Many speak of the need to tolerate other religions, other viewpoints, other orientations, other cultures, or maybe even simply other denominations. But for others, and hopefully for Christians, tolerance does not go far enough. Tolerance merely allows the other to speak without actually taking the time to listen and understand. Tolerance says the other can stay but just so long as we don’t have to genuinely engage one another. Tolerance, itself, is not a Christian discipline. Christianity teaches hospitality.
Hospitality takes tolerance to the next level. It is inviting, welcoming, and gracious. Hospitality encourages the other to speak, and then listens, and engages the other in their story. Tolerance says, ‘You may stay, but on your side of town.’ Hospitality, though, is an open door. It means inviting the Muslim, the Arab, the enemy, the poor immigrant, the former prisoner, the stranger, the friend to come inside and be at home. Hospitality invites everyone to the welcome table, to break bread and fellowship.
Since the creation of the Church, eating together has been a central component of Christian practice. The book of Acts tell us that the disciples met in each other's houses for the ‘breaking of bread; they shared their food gladly and generously’ (2:42). Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is constantly seen participating in meals, eating with those that mainstream society claimed should not be welcome at the table: tax collectors, debtors, prostitutes; in short, the ‘other.’ Many of the parables Jesus told describing God's kingdom centered around the image of a feast table where the poor and outcast are ushered in off the street to share in the King's celebration meal. The Gospels record Jesus performing two miracles pertaining to food: the feeding of the 4,000 and the feeding of the 5,000. For some scholars, particularly referring to the Gospel of Mark, the miraculous nature (or at least emphasis) of these stories is not the multiplication of the food, but rather the fact that there was enough for everyone. This is God's kingdom. All of people's basic needs are met. No one has more than he or she needs, and no one has less. There is simply enough. The meal was a microcosm of this reality, but the disciples translated this ethic into all areas of their lives, sharing all they had so that all were provided for. As Ched Myers writes, the disciples, in keeping with the example set by Jesus, created an economy of enough within a cosmology of grace.
At the welcome table, everyone is disarmed, and society's classes are destroyed. As ethicist and theologian John Howard Yoder notes, equality is present at the table as the meal provides the space for the ‘condemnation of economic segregation’ (Body Politics, 22). At the table, host and guest are made one as everyone eats together. Power structures do not exist at the welcome table, only relationship and fellowship. The powerful are dethroned, and the poor are exalted - all by the sharing of a meal.
During my time serving as a volunteer chaplain at Riverbend maximum security prison—before the warden banned me—I often shared a meal with those working in the chaplain’s department. Prison at its very core is a place of segregation, physically, relationally, visually, etc. Prisoners all wear the same attire, always with a white stripe down the leg that reads, “Department of Corrections.” One Friday, before a chapel service that night, a few other inside friends joined the chaplain’s department for dinner. We all gathered in the office and handed out plates of rice, salad, and enchiladas, compliments of the head chaplain, Jeannie Alexander. Some of us sat on bookshelves, others in chairs, others on tables, and still others stood. There was laughter; there was conversation; there was silence; and there were second helpings—but there were no stripes. There were no insiders and outsiders. There was just “us.”
The night before Jesus was killed by the powers of his day, he broke bread with those closest to him, those with whom he had shared his life of ministry: essentially, his community. The welcome table is the lifeblood of true community. We come together with those among whom we live and work so that we might encourage and strengthen one another in our vocations. The meal provides the opportunity for everyone to break from life's hectic routines (except for maybe the cooks!) and be reminded of the presence of God and the vitality of community. During the holidays, the meal is often the central point of the seasons' events. For many families, the meal is a chance to regroup and reconnect after a long day, or for extended families at the holidays, after many months. The meal is a place to be renewed and rejuvenated, and perhaps even to reconcile offenses. In my family, the table has always provided the occasion for laughter, tears, and storytelling. Some of the most important lessons and conversations of my life have occurred around the meal table.
Hospitality and the welcome table are central components of many cultures. Within Islam, for example, one of the names for God is hospitality. In Palestine, many families, especially the poorer ones, share a meal sitting in a circle, whether at the table or on the floor, and everyone eats from a single dish laid at the center of the circle. Here there is equality. No one sits above or below anyone else, and no one has greater access to more food. Everyone is the same. If inequality exists at all, then it is in favor of the guest, who is honored and cherished.
Jesus describes and incarnates God's kingdom as such an event. All are provided for, all are welcome, and no leaves wanting. There is enough for everyone. Today, regardless of the origins or transformation of this holiday, this community of generosity and jubilee can be celebrated. As we gather as family and friends, we both rejoice in the hospitality and fellowship that we experience but also are mindful of those who are alone. As Dickens so profoundly notes in A Christmas Carol, this season of the year is one where ‘want is keenly felt and abundance rejoices.’ May we always and in all ways extend the welcome table to those who so intensely feel this want and are left in the cold of despair and involuntary isolation. And may we also celebrate this economy of enough, fellowshipping in the breaking of bread, as we both literally and paradigmatically participate in God's beloved community.
Michael McRay (M.Phil. Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, Trinity College Dublin | at Belfast) is adjunct professor at Lipscomb University, lecturing in forgiveness and reconciliation, international conflict resolution, storytelling, et al. He is the co-founder of No Exceptions Prison Collective, organizer and host of Tenx9 Nashville Storytelling, and author of Letters from “Apartheid Street” and the forthcoming Where the River Bends: Considering Forgiveness and Transformation in the Lives of the Incarcerated (Cascade, 2015), with a foreword by Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu.
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