Monday, October 20, 2014

Welcome Table, Jesus's Practice of Open Commensality, and Catholic Discussion of Welcoming the Gays: Theological Soundings

Yesterday, I shared some reflections about the old spiritual, "I'm Going to Sit at the Welcome Table." I did so, obviously, because, at its highest levels of leadership, my own Catholic church continues to find it exceptionally difficult to say the simple word "welcome" to me and others like me — to openly gay human beings. At the highest level of its leadership structures, many of its pastors continue to wish to give us the message that we do not belong and that we are not welcome at the Catholic table.

In fact, during the deliberations about whether the pastors of the Catholic church can or may not say the word "welcome" to gay folks, one of the top pastoral leaders of the church, Cardinal Raymond Burke, explicitly stated that gay folks who do not abide by magisterial teaching about sexual morality should leave the church. Note that neither Cardinal Burke nor any of the other Catholic leaders and their supporters who wish to deliver an explicit message of unwelcome to those who are gay ever suggest that the vast majority of heterosexually married Catholics who contracept and approve of the use of contraceptives should leave their church.

The message of explicit unwelcome is reserved for gay Catholics, and it is spelled out in concrete, crude, hurtful ways through ongoing firings that, as journalist Frank Bruni recently noted, quite specifically target openly gay employees of Catholic institutions while ignoring heterosexual employees of Catholic institutions who contravene magisterial teaching about sexual morality. At the level of its official structures of leadership, the Catholic church has a very serious problem when it comes to welcoming those who are gay, and that problem is clearly rooted in homophobic prejudice.

As a complement to these reflections, and a contribution to the discussion of the problem the leaders of the Catholic church confront today as they discuss welcoming gay human beings to their Catholic table (or turning them away), I'd like to gather together a selection of excerpts I've shared here in the past, but not, as well as I remember, as a single collection. These all have to do with the theme of the table, and with how central the concept of a shared table open to all, and especially to the outcast, was to the thinking and practice of Jesus.

In his book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (NY: HarperCollins, 1994), biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan notes that the practice of open commensality — of maintaining an open table, and, in particular, a table open to those despised by the rest of society — was at the very heart of Jesus's kingdom preaching with its challenge to make the last first and to find him among the least among us:

The deliberate conjunction of magic and meal, miracle and table, free compassion and open commensality, was a challenge launched not just on the level of Judaism’s strictest purity regulations, or even on that of the Mediterranean’s patriarchal combination of honor and shame, patronage and clientage, but at the most basic level of civilization’s eternal inclination to draw lines, invoke boundaries, establish hierarchies, and maintain discriminations.  It did not invite a political revolution but envisaged a social one at the imagination’s most dangerous depths.  No importance was given to distinctions of Gentile and Jew, female and male, slave and free, poor and rich.  Those distinctions were hardly even attacked in theory; they were simply ignored (p. 196).

Biblical scholar Marcus Borg echoes this understanding of Jesus's practice of open commensality in his book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (NY: Harper, 1994), and he notes that Jesus's practice of keeping an open table is historically foundational for the Christian eucharist:

The meals of Jesus embodied his alternative vision of an inclusive community. . . . Ultimately, the meals of Jesus are the ancestor of the Christian eucharist (p. 56).

In a book that is not theological, but is about the significance of the family table to French culture — The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food (NY: Vintage, 2012) — writer Adam Gopnik also notes the centrality of Jesus's practice of open table fellowship to his proclamation of the reign of God: 

It isn't an accident that Jesus's most original act was at a table, too, which seemed so shocking to a peasant honor society, where values depended on clean and unclean. Jesus would eat with anybody, whores and tax collectors, Gentiles and tribesmen. What did he eat? We can't be sure, but we know he liked wine enough to make a lot. He ate what he liked where he liked with whom he liked, at a table open to all (309).

And, finally, there's theologian Hans Küng, who insists over and over again in his recent book Can We Save the Catholic Church? (London: William Collins, 2013) that the church undermines its credibility at the starkest level possible when its practices are not explicitly and intentionally rooted in the life, teaching, and example of the historical Jesus:

Without a concrete and consequent return to the historical Jesus Christ, to his message, his behavior and his fate (as I described it in my book On Being a Christian [1977]), a Christian church – whatever its name – will have neither true Christian identity nor relevance for modern human beings and society (58).

If Küng is right (and he's absolutely correct), what is at stake in the refusal of some Catholic leaders to welcome gay people to the Catholic table at this point in history is the very identity of the church as a Christian church, as a church rooted in the life, teaching, and example of Jesus. Ironically, Catholic leaders who want to shove gay people from their table, and Catholics who support them, claim to be preserving the purity of Catholic faith as they protect their table from fellow Catholics they regard as the very embodiment of impurity.

But the action of tagging a despised minority group as impure and sending that minority group explicit messages that its members are not welcome at the Christian table: this action actually sunders the connection of the Catholic church to Jesus, its founder, in a way that radically undermines its claim to represent Christ to the world today. There is, in fact, no action more counter to the gospels than to turn a targeted minority community away from a table that Jesus himself sets for all, and, above all, for those declared impure by the righteous and the powerful.

On the graphic, please see this previous posting, noting that the painting "He Ate with Outcasts" was painted by Oregon artist Margaret Puckette as a response to my book Singing in a Strange Land: Praying and Acting with the Poor. Steve and I have had the painting hanging in our dining room since Margaret painted it for me in the early 1990s. 

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