I attended a conference a few years ago that was devoted to exploring the virtues of interfaith dialogue. I looked forward to that event because, at that time, I was the senior minister in a midsize church in Southern California that shared space with a growing synagogue for nearly fifteen years. Actually we shared more than space, we shared pulpits, worship services and interfaith weddings. The Rabbi was a good friend and my closest colleague. I taught classes to his confirmation class every year and he did the same with our own confirmation classes. When major Jewish holidays fell on Sunday, our nearly 350 member church went to the Jewish celebrations and felt honored. We had recently invited a small Muslim community to share space with us and we were running into some serious communication problems. I was also receiving threatening mail from angry Christians. I thought maybe I would learn something from the conference.
The four keynote speakers were made up of a conservative Jewish scholar, a well respected Muslim scholar, a Buddhist author and a traditionalist Christian. There were workshops on everything from the Wicca tradition to Gnosticism. All and all, it was an interesting gathering. On the final day, the four keynoters formed a panel and the moderator opened it up to questions from the large audience. For the most, part the questions were polite and generally about some little interesting fact about that particular tradition. Finally with some frustration, I stood up, moved to the microphone and asked the question that has been burning in my heart for a long time.
After telling all four contributors how much I appreciated their comments I asked: “If the four of you all went out to lunch today and sat together breaking bread, would you be able to look at the person next to you or across from you, without thinking somewhere in the back of your mind, ‘this poor soul has really got it wrong… or is confused…or needs help or is just plain wrong? ‘” “Can you really look at each other as equal children of God?”
There were over 600 people in the room and there was virtually dead silence. The moderator kept looking for someone to provide a comment and only the Buddhist made eye contact with him. He finally asked directly if anyone wanted to answer the question. Two looked away and another shook his head. Then the smiling Buddhist said: “You know that is a good question.” Another very uncomfortable minute or two passed and the moderator finally said: “I guess it is time to break for lunch.”
Later, I realized how ironic it was, as we ambled off to our respective lunch gatherings, that so much of what we have reconstructed about Jesus was about the table commensality as a way of practicing radical egalitarianism, as John Dominic Crossan referred to it . I tried to imagine the Jesus of my faith, having lunch with the unique kind people who seemed to gather around him. Did he worry about their religious affiliations? Did he care if they had it right? Did he believe his religion was the only way to connect with the Ultimate Reality? When he said, “Do not judge another” did he mean don’t judge except for their religion?
Or did he look directly into the hearts and souls of others without religious, tribal, ethnic, or gender concerns or thoughts? Was he able to transcend all of those things that tend to separate us into divisive groups that so often turn into violent differences?
We live in a violent world and it seems to be getting more so every day. Frankly it is time to admit that religion offers more opportunities than any other reason for one group or individual to inflict violence upon another. It has been that way historically and it seems to still be that way. And, although we would like to blame it on the fundamentalist, especially the Muslim fundamentalist today, one need only read some of the angry email I receive from other Christians to know that anger and violence still reigns in our churches and among Christians who do not agree with our positions.
It is truly a sad irony that the one who was killed in part because he taught a radical egalitarianism, when he invited so many of those who had been shamed in their society, simply for being different, to a banquet of compassion. We will really never know what was going on in the minds and hearts of those people or even in Jesus. But I suspect that lines that had caused conflict in the past disappeared as his tablemates realized that they were no longer being judged or condemned. I am certain that some of them even experienced the Realm of God in those encounters.
Maybe it is time for us to “break for lunch.”