I had been struggling to figure out why I was not satisfied with the debate over whether or not Sarah Sanders being asked to leave a restaurant because of the owner’s disagreement with the Trump administration’s policies violated civility. And then, in a Twitter conversation, someone pointed out that who eats with whom was “literally the paradigmatic ethical enforcement of the New Testament.”
Which led me to ask: Who would Jesus eat with?
It also led me to imagine an alternate history for the events at the Red Hen in Lexington, Va., in which, rather than asking Ms. Sanders to leave, the restaurant owner asked to sit down with her instead. What kind of conversation would they have had? Maybe Ms. Sanders would have heard about why some of the restaurant staff, who are gay, felt threatened by the administration’s policies, or heard stories about some immigrant families.
The way Jesus used table fellowship in the Gospels was morally transformative—but by inclusion, not by exclusion.
The way Jesus used table fellowship in the Gospels was morally transformative—but by inclusion, not by exclusion. He ate with tax collectors and sinners, whom the Pharisees turned away from their tables, making these meals signs of hope “not only regarding God’s kingdom but also regarding the kinds of persons who might participate in it.” Rather than demanding change as the price of admission to the meal, Jesus used the meal to enact the change that marks the kingdom of God he came to announce.
Of course, the scenes in the Gospel cannot be directly applied to a restaurant in Virginia, and Jesus’ practice at table was not an act of protest in the way the scene I imagined with Ms. Sanders would be. But Jesus’ meals with sinners were socially transgressive prophetic acts. When he ate with tax collectors, Jesus was sharing the table with collaborators of an oppressive occupying regime, who were suspected of being corrupt themselves. He engaged with people who were marginalized because of their complicity with governing evil, and some of them changed greatly.
If civility serves as a kind of guardrail, pushing us to look for better methods of protest and witness, it may be very valuable.
In the aftermath of the events at the Red Hen and several other instances of administration officials leaving restaurants after encounters with protesters, Rep. Maxine Waters has issued a call to “push back” on cabinet officials in public, telling them they are not welcome anywhere. President Trump has responded with characteristic incivility himself, impugning her intelligence and telling her to “be careful” what she wishes for. The Washington Post editorialized with a call for civility, recommending that administration officials should be allowed to eat in peace. Many others argued that some impoliteness is necessary given the extraordinary circumstances in the United States.
If civility is used to call for passivity in the face of injustice, then it becomes part of the problem. But if civility serves as a kind of guardrail, pushing us to look for better methods of protest and witness, it may be very valuable. By initial accounts*, before it hit social media, the encounter between the owner and Ms. Sanders proceeded respectfully on both sides. The restaurant owner asked to speak to Ms. Sanders privately and told her she would like her to leave, which Ms. Sanders agreed to do. What it needed was not more civility, but a more radical and more courageous transgression of social norms—perhaps something along the lines of what Diana Butler Bass imagined.
"If you want to eat here, we will feed you. We will treat you with dignity. We will offer you hospitality. But know this: any money you spend here will be immediately given to a refugee fund. Do know that every person here will never vote for your boss. . .— Diana Butler Bass (@dianabutlerbass) June 26, 2018
Imagine how an encounter like this would have played out. It would be much harder to exploit for political outrage or point-scoring, but it would have communicated the owner’s point even more clearly.
Jesus’ willingness to eat with tax collectors was not an endorsement of their profession, any more than his counsel to “render to Caesar” was an endorsement of the Roman Empire. That advice about imperial taxes, remember, ended with “and repay to God what belongs to God.” His radical hospitality proclaimed that God lays claim to all of us, the press secretary and the immigrant child together. If we want to bear witness to Christ who is present in our marginalized and excluded brothers and sisters, we need to go beyond civil disagreement and even beyond denunciation.
We need to look for opportunities for the kind of encounters in which we can call each other to repentance and conversion. We need to help each other recognize who is already being excluded from our community. We need to hope for and work for the moment when we can all sit at table together.
* Update, June 27: Several days after the events at the Red Hen, Gov. Mike Huckabee, Ms. Sanders’ father, told a radio host that the owner had followed the Sanders party across the street after they left the restaurant and organized a group that protested them, even though Ms. Sanders and her husband were no longer with the party. Media coverage has repeated Gov. Huckabee’s story, but has not yet verified this version of events from anyone who was personally present.
Update, July 6: Further investigation of Gov. Huckabee's claims suggest that they were significantly exaggerated.