“What can students do to facilitate similar conversations?”
The first question, addressed to a panel convened by a local college to discuss religious liberty in light of LGBT rights, came from the college’s own President. Sitting at the end of the tabled line with an imam, a rabbi, and the CEO of an LGBT rights group, I reached first for the microphone and answered.
“Move toward ‘the other’ in good faith, and do not assume that they are your enemy.”
Nadine Smith, CEO of Equality Florida, who is an African-American and a lesbian, answered that, yes, in the workplace we can have a sort of collegial friendliness. She talked about a racist boss, who would say horrible things about Mexicans and about black people. “I can have conversations with him in the workplace, but I’m not going to invite him over to my house to eat at the table with my wife and son.”
Novelist Zadie Smith, would probably have disagreed with me too. On NPR’s Fresh Air, she talked about speaking to someone in a taxicab who had let slip something offensive and bigoted. She explained that she didn’t see it as her role to correct that person, but that she finds it interesting to listen to.
“Not that I’d want to have them around for dinner,” she added.
These responses give me pause — that in my initial response to the question I had not accounted for the very real risk an oppressor could pose to the oppressed. In a very real sense, the other is often not just unfamiliar, but deeply dangerous, not just a stranger, but an enemy. And, in one sense, I would never demand a marginalized person risk seating their oppressor at the table in their own home. It brushes against the grain of every instinct I have as someone with his head at least partially pulled out of the sand in terms of majority-minority, oppressor-oppressed dynamics.
How, then, do I reconcile this impulse with another one echoing through the ethics of Jesus and his Bible?
A Jesus who says, Love your enemies.
A Bible that sings about God spreading tables for his people in the presence of such enemies.
A God who commands his always minority people to feed and water our hungry and thirsty oppressors.
An ethical vision that demands that pastors practice “hospitality,” which literally means “a lover of the stranger,” an other-lover.
A Jesus who called Crooked Matthew the tax collector to follow him, inviting him to dinner with the rest of the ruffians. To the point of hearing the religious watchdogs accuse him, “He eats with tax collectors and sinners.”
I’m not clear on how all the pieces connect. But I am clear that if other-loving and enemy-feeding is the way of Jesus, then the least I can do for strangers and enemies is risk inviting them over for dinner sometimes.
“I think those are exactly the kinds of conversations that need to happen,” I responded to Nadine, “With people we perceive as our enemies, at real tables in our real lives.”
This echoes what Ann Voskamp recently wrote about worshipping and eating with refugees.
Maybe we don’t lock our doors tighter, but open our doors wider.
Maybe the call of Christians isn’t as much to build taller gates, as it is to build longer tables.
Maybe, too, we need to be tabled with others and would-be enemies not only in a line with microphones and nametags, but encircled with mashed potatoes and turkey and pie.