Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving, the Occupy Movement, and Jesus's Practice of Open Commensality

As American Thanksgiving approaches and many people expect to gather tomorrow around family tables or tables of chosen families, I'm thinking of something John Dominic Crossan says in his book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (NY: HarperCollins, 1994).  Crossan notes that Jesus's practice of open commensality--of inviting anyone and everyone to his table, and, above all, those considered outcasts in his religious and social world--forms the historical basis of the Christian eucharist.  

Embedded in the very foundations of the eucharistic table is the memory of Jesus's open commensality, with all its revolutionary implications, including the way in which it calls into radical question the gender presuppositions of patriarchal societies.  Men seeking to maintain ritual purity in Jesus's culture did not break bread with women, who might be ritually tainted by their biological cycles, thus tainting men who sat at table with them.  Nor did men in Jesus's culture take on themselves the role of both servant and woman, by serving those seated at a table, as Jesus himself did (p. 181).

Crossan writes,

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).

And as I read this, I think of the Occupy movement.  It has been criticized from its inception because it appears not to have a real political agenda.  Its goals are fuzzy, people say, inarticulate and undefined.

And I suspect the same may also have been said about Jesus and his practice of table fellowship with outcasts.  Yet, as Crossan notes, it was precisely this practice that perhaps most infuriated the power centers of his culture, since the presupposition that one not only may but must sit at table with anyone radically unhinged the cultures of Jesus's time and place.  It was Jesus's revolutionary practice of open commensality that got him into serious trouble with the powers that be and led to his capital punishment.

As I think about all of this tomorrow, come (American) Thanksgiving day, the prayer that will be in my heart will, I suspect, be Cyrus Cassells' in his poem "Down from the Houses of Magic" (Soul Make a Path Through Shouting [Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 1994]):

O grant us strength to fashion a table / Where each of us has a name.

I can't think of a better prayer for our world, these days.  Happy Thanksgiving preparations and safe travel to American readers of this blog--with good wishes to those who won't be celebrating a holiday tomorrow, too.

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