FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 01/13/2009

Cultural Hospitality: Coming to The Table Before Going to The Polls

October. 1, 2008                                            Volume 1 Issue 1
 . . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .

By Bruce Herman

'If you love those who love you, what credit is it to you?'
--Jesus, on the subject of love for enemies, in the Gospel of Luke 6: 32
It's a well-rehearsed fact that we live in a globalizing--mostly commercial--culture. Hollywood is mirrored in Mumbai's Bollywood. Japan, with its chic in the art world, its autos and electronics, is a cosmopolitan world with only distant echoes of its tribal past. China not only exports consumer goods, but hosts international games and utilizes New York style advertising and fashion.
Our cultures are now merging and morphing in unexpected ways, yet this emerging global city is full of contradictions. And sadly, such change has not created unity, or even respect and understanding. In fact, there's too much evidence of mutual suspicion and stereotyping in this globalization process, both of which are entrenched forms of misunderstanding. When stereotypes harden, the result is violence, scape-goating, and finally terror-ism--that all too familiar reality of a hardened heart.
Only a hard heart can justify indiscriminant slaughter.

Yet, in a world that is increasingly prone to tribal misunderstanding and mutual demonization, there is another way. Christ says to identify with each other, with the stranger, with the one we're tempted to write off. Perhaps such a call is all the more relevant given our hostile political climate, which is the most current public display of what I'd consider a hardening of hearts in the U.S.
So what does it mean, then, to soften our hearts? Simply this: to allow the stranger--or perceived 'enemy'--into our most intimate place--to our table. The table is where we let down our guard and show our needy nature: we need to be fed. We are weak. We are not all-powerful. It is at the table that we encounter each other as dependent creatures. The table is where we are sustained, healed, and enabled to continue living. Showing that vulnerable side makes us more human to each other.
The symbolism of the table is ancient, and many cultures place hospitality at the center of what it means to be human. Jesus instituted the Table as the meeting place of all those who would be reconciled to each other and to God. In a sense, all talk of the "public square"--that place of quarreling and vying--needs to be replaced with the table. Instead of a soap-box and loudspeaker, we are invited to speak in hushed tones, listening over a glass of wine, while we break bread and receive communion--that perfect conversation where both parties are listening.
Mother Theresa was once asked by a reporter how she prays. She answered, "I listen." She was then asked if God speaks to her, and what God says. She replied, "God listens." That stance of mutual receptivity is what leads to healing of rifts. If I really believe that you have something to say, something uniquely yours that I can never arrive at on my own, I listen to you. If, on the other hand, I am simply waiting for my turn to speak, to express myself, I miss your contribution or subconsciously deny your worth. If I persist in failing to listen, eventually I harden my heart and can no longer even see much less hear you. You become a label: you're a liberal, a fundamentalist, an infidel, a redneck, an elitist, etc. You remain a stranger.
But if I invite you to the table, reveal my own weakness and need for food in front of you--and then listen to your story, your dreams, your opinions--I may be changed and begin to see you changed as well. You can no longer remain the stranger, but slowly move toward the place of friendship and trust. No longer labeled a liberal or a right-winger, you are a complex person to whom no label can stick. Once the labels no longer apply, I have no alternative but to encounter you as a person--as a human being. Your point of view becomes for me a complex thing, part and parcel of your personhood--not simply an ideological barrier.
If I invite you into my intimate space, sup with you, and listen to you, we both move toward reconciliation--leaving behind our stranger-status, moving toward healing. That is why hospital and hospitality share the same origin.
The healing of the nations is wrought at the Table.

Bruce Herman is an artist and the Lothlórien Distinguished Chair in Fine Arts at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. He and his wife, Meg, live in Gloucester, MA.