Sunday, November 11, 2007

Open Commensality in Practice

John Dominic Crossan is one of the world’s premier Jesus scholars. He has devoted the majority of his academic career to the study of Jesus, in order to develop a more historically sound image of just who Jesus was.

In the prologue to his book “Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography”, Crossan states the following:

This book gives my own reconstruction of the historical Jesus derived from twenty-five years of scholarly research on what actually happened in Galilee and Jerusalem during the early first century of the common era.
He goes on to say:

…my endeavor was to reconstruct the historical Jesus as accurately and honestly as possible. It was not my purpose to find a Jesus whom I liked or disliked, a Jesus with whom I agreed or disagreed.
Crossan defines Jesus as a peasant Jewish Cynic – meaning he followed in the footsteps of the Greek Cynics, but with his own unique Jewish twist, and his message was for the poor, the oppressed, and those who lived on the fringes of society. Crossan states that Jesus’ Cynicism:

…involved practice and not just theory, life-style and not just mind-set…a way of looking and dressing, of eating, living, and relating that announced its contempt for honor and shame, patronage and clientage…[Jesus and his followers] were hippies in a world of Augustan yuppies.
He describes Jesus’ strategy as one of “free healing and common eating.” He suggests that one of Jesus’ primary methods for teaching his vision of the Kingdom of God was through what Crossan calls “open commensality” – that is, through sharing egalitarian meals with his listeners. In the first century, the banquet table was an apt symbol of society in miniature. First century Jewish society was structured with an unassailable hierarchy, and this hierarchy could be seen during meals when women served men at the table and never vice versa, lower classes and slaves never shared a meal with the powerful, and sinners never ate with the pious. The banquet table, then, contained all the same oppressive barriers as society at large. Crossan suggests that Jesus symbolized his message of radical egalitarianism through eating with slave and free, male and female, sinner and pious, sick and healthy. He brought every class of person to his table. Crossan states: “…healing and eating were calculated to force individuals into unmediated physical and spiritual contact with God and…one another.”

Although I think Crossan sometimes makes tenuous assertions based on, at best, historical speculation, I think his overall argument is sound, and I believe he is right on the mark with his suggestion that eating meals was a tool Jesus used in living out the substance of his message. I think a scholarly and historical look at the available evidence points strongly in this direction.

As such, I believe that anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus would recognize the value of sharing meals with one another as a means to tear down barriers, engender openness, symbolize equality, and even to display unconditional love and acceptance for one another. More on that in a bit.

But, like any idea, it is bankrupt unless it is put into practice. In the prologue to his book, Crossan relates a fictionalized discussion that he has with Jesus, looking back on his life’s work:

“I’ve read your book, Dominic, and it’s quite good…”
“…I did describe it quite well, didn’t I, and the method was especially good, wasn’t it?”
“Thank you, Dominic, for not falsifying the message to suit your own incapacity. That at least is something.”
“Is it enough, Jesus?”
“No, Dominic, it is not.”
Although he puts this exchange in the introduction, it really hits home more forcefully after reading the book. It’s fine and good to discuss and debate, but unless you put your words into practice – put your money where your mouth is – it is not enough.

Over the past couple of years or so, as I have begun to study the historical Jesus more and more, and to mix Buddhist philosophy with my Christian faith, I have felt my focus growing increasingly more on others, and increasingly less on myself. Yet, because of my very busy schedule – school, work, children, money, and a slew of other excuses – I have managed to do very little other than simply talk about how I believe people should live. I’ve done a lot of philosophizing, but I’ve otherwise done very little to actually put my philosophy into practice.

No, Scott, it’s not enough.

Well, tonight I took a step toward changing that. I volunteered with an organization that helps homeless men get back on their feet, provides them clothes, food, a place to sleep, and other basic amenities, and aims to get them back into mainstream society. Various churches around town work with this organization, and my church plays host on Sunday nights.

We arrived around 4:30 to begin setting up, and by 6:30 we had cleared out the fellowship hall and set up air mattresses, complete with sheets, blankets, pillows, and towels, and we also had a table where they could get things like soap, shampoo, deodorant, and the like. I was tired and wanted to go on home at that point, like several other people had done, but I knew the most important part of the work was after the men showed up, and it would have seemed like bailing out to leave before they even got there.

Nine men showed up for the evening – white, black, and Latino, old and young – and we sat down around 7:00 to eat dinner with them.

Being an introvert by nature, I was anxious about getting my food and actually going over to one of the tables and sitting down with the people there. The thought certainly ran through my mind that it would be a lot more comfortable to just sit down at a table with a bunch of the people I know from church, and feel content knowing I had at least taken part in setting up the place and contributing to the food that was served.

But I pushed my anxieties aside and sat down at a table with three of the homeless men.

It’s frequently difficult to tell the age of a homeless person, because people who live those sorts of lives, even for a short period of time, age much more quickly than those of us with comfortable beds to sleep in every night. But as a rough estimate, I’d say that two of the men were probably in their forties, and the other was probably around fifty. The older man, Herman, was a large black man who, in nicer clothes, could probably have passed for your average middle-aged suburbanite. The second black man, Cedric, was bearded and looked much more like the typical image of a homeless person, with very bad teeth, some curious scars on his arms (one looked like a healed bullet wound), tattoos, and clothes that were clearly second or third hand. The white man, Alan, also looked pretty bad, with work-roughened hands, missing teeth, and uncombed hair.

As I started eating, I wracked my brain trying to think of how to break the ice. What do you say to a homeless person to strike up a conversation and overcome that awkward silence? “So tell me about yourself.” Well, I’m a homeless recovering alcoholic. How about you? “So, what do you do for a living?” Well, I was in construction, until I got laid off and the bank foreclosed on my house and I lost everything. Thanks for bringing up that very painful memory. “Did you catch that game the other day?” Yeah, on the big screen TV in the den. Right. “Some weather we’re having, eh?” Yeah, it’s awful – you should try sleeping in it.

I couldn’t seem to think of anything to say. Fortunately, there was another guy from the church sitting there, and he made a few remarks, and that helped to get the conversation rolling. There were no trumpets from heaven, no astounding insights given or learned, but we just had a nice meal and discussed everything from barbecue to city planning to college sports. Alan, it turns out, is a painter by trade who has presumably fallen on hard times. He told us about the buildings around town he has worked on in the past, and about how tough the job market is for construction painters. He mentioned a wife and children, although he talked about them as if they were no longer in his life.

I didn’t get much background on Cedric or Herman – other than Herman’s love of barbecue – but all three of them seemed really appreciative to just have someone to talk to who would actually listen, be interested, and interact with them. It seemed to me that they really enjoyed being able to simply sit down, eat a nice meal, shoot the bull, and experience that satisfied comfort that most of us take for granted – that is, a stomach full on good food, a warm place to sit and relax, and someone to talk to.

And as I sat there with them (I ended up staying a lot longer than I had planned), John Dominic Crossan’s ideas of Jesus’ open commensality kept running through my mind. This is what Crossan was talking about. This was the key strategy to Jesus’ entire philosophy – camaraderie, openness, absence of judgment and societal barriers, unconditional acceptance, genuine togetherness, companionable discourse. And what better way to achieve these things than to sit down and eat a good meal together? It’s so simple it’s silly, and yet it’s highly profound. The only time we even discussed anything remotely religious was when we laughed about a mega-church in town that I referred to as Six Flags Over Jesus, and yet I felt, as I sat there eating and talking and listening and interacting, that I was finally putting all my years of discussing, debating, and philosophizing into practice. I was finally putting my money where my mouth was. I was finally doing the work of Jesus, and not just proclaiming pretty ideas.

A lot of people warm a seat in the pew every week inside expensive, ornamental buildings, listening to grandiloquent words, and singing hymns of faith and devotion, but it’s all blithering and meaningless without genuine outreach. For a church, success should not measured by how many rear-ends are warming the pews on Sunday morning, how much cash is dropped piously into the plate, or how many souls have been won to Christ. Instead, success should be measured by how many mouths have been fed, how many souls have been nurtured with love and genuine attentiveness, and how many lives have been enriched with the abundance of compassion, self-worth, empathy, and unconditional acceptance. And the way to start, the way to put this philosophy into practice, is the same way that Jesus himself did it – through open commensality. Sharing a meal, sharing your time, sharing your attention. This is salvation. This is the Kingdom of God.

Instead of a church that posts its Sunday School attendance in the bulletin every week, I want a church that posts how many people volunteered to house the homeless, tend the sick, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. I want to know who strived to spread love, tolerance, and compassion; I want to know who worked for peace and equality; I want to know who fought injustice, judgmental attitudes, and oppression; I want to know who shared the gift of abundant life through living life to the fullest, being all that they could be, and loving wastefully.

Those are the only numbers that matter to me. Anything else is a smokescreen.


Anonymous said...

Two in a row, I can't believe it. Jesus' final words as recorded in Matthew are to "go" not "come". I think some churches are finally starting to understand this concept, but it seems to be an incredibly slow process. Well done Scott.

From the Home of the Baptidome... said...


Kitten Bitch said...

As Raymond Carver said, "Eating is a small, good thing."

Anonymous said...

Thank you. Thank you so much. I google "Open Commensality" b/c it's something I heard in a sociology-based Religion/Spirituality university course I'm in and this was the first item on google. Awesome, and thank you again.

This is the way I envision Jesus and this is the Way that I know.

Cool. I will follow.

El Quimico Moleculares Gigantes said...

You are right on track! As usual! Most church folks have no idea that this IS Christianity in its rawest and most important form. This IS the Christianity your grandfather sought to live out.

Scott said...

Thanks for posting, Anonymous. "Open commensality" is not a phrase that gets googled too often, I wouldn't think, but it's nice to know that when it does, my essay is the first return!

I still struggle with putting this philosophy into practice - the endless excuses, etc. - but it is something I am still definitely committed to.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful, and very true. The work of Jesus is unconditional and indiscriminate. Your post is very inspiring, and even though this is the only one post of yours that I have read thus far, it shows volumes about the true teachings of Jesus and I cannot thank you enough for your desire to help others as Jesus did. We must all strive to be like this, to fight suffering, hunger, poverty, etc., as much as we can, to follow the path that Jesus laid before us. None of us can ever be "God-like", but we can follow His teachings and practice them as best we can, and not just attend church solely to attend church. Jesus is a guide, a leader, the one that has shown us the way. We can only hope to be as good as Him--naturally, we can't. All we can do is to give as much as possible. Jesus gave everything for us. That's how strong his love is, and I'm sure you already know that. I can tell by the passion you put into your work and your writing. But, those who have the capacity to give, even just the smallest amount, are doing God's work. I have favorited your blog--keep it up. I am merely a college student, so I don't have much to give at the moment, but I have countless things to be thankful for, and nothing to be taken for granted. I'm happy to even be able to post this comment.

Scott said...

Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I'm glad what I wrote here was meaningful for you.

It's still very much at the heart of my spirituality, and it has guided many of my decisions over the last few years (I wrote this particular post way back in 2007).

I currently work in an urban hospital that serves primarily poor and lower-middle class patients, and one of the reasons I chose to work there was because of my fervent belief in helping those who need help. The fancy suburban hospitals just weren't for me.