A big table and the paradox of tolerance

There’s a popular meme that circulates on social media from time to time; one of those sort of epigrams for our age — “when you have more than you need, build a bigger table, not a higher fence” — it’s always struck me as an interesting quote as someone whose denomination talks of my role in administering the sacraments as involving “fencing the table,” and it strikes me too that much commentary around the direction of Eternity News playing out on social media is grappling with whether Eternity should be a big table, or whether it should erect some fences.

I have massive sympathy for what Eternity News is trying to achieve in its opinion section, and while it pains me to see the culture wars fought out in a publication I love, and one that I’ve invested time, energy, and words into contributing to and promoting over the years, and to have been part of the war of words, I do believe Eternity’s vision to provide a forum for conversations for those who’ll share eternity together is good and necessary, and that it requires a diversity of political and theological positions to be gathered around one table.

This week Eternity ran a pro-Israel Folau/ACL campaign piece by David Pellowe, and then, for balance, ran a piece critical of that campaign. I do fear John Sandeman’s approach of pursuing ‘balance’ in the opinion section by posing opposing views rather than views that seek to discern the truth (ie classic news/feature writing) ends up fuelling the division rather than bridging the gap — especially because of how the Caldron Pool reacted to the two part series in this piece by Mark Powell (that seems to have no sense of the existence of the Pellowe piece). There’s also an irony here in that Mark Powell, in a 2019 interview with the then Bible Society CEO, asked a question that implied correct views on the Trinity should be a deal breaker for their platform, but he and his mates are quite keen to promote Israel Folau’s orthodoxy.

The Caldron Pool piece was, predictably, shared by the union of figures I’d named in my now deleted article. They don’t like that Eternity will feature voices critical of their political theology and practice. Curiously, the editor of Caldron Pool, who’ll write pieces against cancel culture, will, without irony, seek legal advice and complain to church courts if anyone has the temerity to criticise his publication in public. The Caldron Pool is not a ‘broad table’ — it has, clearly, different aims to Eternity, though its unclear who they believe will share the eternal table with them. One might ask at what point their accusations of ‘wolflike’ behaviour for those ‘woke pastors’ and woke platforms represent an act of discernment that these people fall outside the kingdom?

The table is such a profound and powerful Christian image; for many Christian traditions the table is the centre of the church gathering — around communion, the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharistic meal (depending on one’s theology or tradition). At the table we Bible believing Christians do the work Paul calls us to in 1 Corinthians 11 of ‘discerning the body.’ Now, part of this is surely to do with how one understands the presence of Jesus in the sacrament, but, in the context of 1 Corinthians 12, and the bad table manners Paul is correcting in 1 Corinthians 11, this act of discernment includes recognising that our union with Christ and the church, by the one Spirit, draws together people from all corners of society to this one ‘gathering’ (what ‘the church’ is) as one body.

Jesus spent lots of time at the table in the Gospels; sometimes these were tables managed by religious leaders who were out to get him, often he ate with sinners and tax collectors; some of the most beautiful moments are when he brings the judgmental religious people to the table with those people searching for the kingdom who were on the margins of society to reveal something of the character of God and his love for the outsider. Jesus didn’t stop eating with the people who were out to get him — right up until the Last Supper he’s eating at a table in the presence of his enemies. In that meal, as he gave us the model for our meals together that Paul draws on in 1 Corinthians, Jesus speaks about the eternal table; the heavenly banquet, such that his act of hospitality as he breaks bread and pours out the wine is not just a picture of his coming death, but of eternity.

In Luke’s account, Jesus talks about the nature of his kingdom — that the table won’t run in his kingdom like it does in the kingdom of the Gentiles, where rulers lord it over others and the seats at the table are allocated in some sort of status game (that’s the Corinthian problem), instead, he says he is at the table as “one who serves” and greatness, or indeed “the kingdom” is defined differently for those who Jesus says will “eat and drink at my table in my kingdom.”

Earlier in Luke, Jesus also talked about how people in this kingdom should participate in other tables — not as fence builders or power grabbers, but as guests. Guests who do not seek the places of honour, or to have their status boosted and their voices heard by all at the table, but as those who sit in the lowly places, he says “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” and then pivots to providing hospitality advice for when we run tables around the same ethic. He says don’t just invite the powerful; the high status — those who’ll make you look good and give you a boost in the world. That’s the gentile power-game. Instead make space for “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”

This advice should guide how those of us who’ll spend Eternity together might use our tables — whether those are literal, in our churches and homes – or metaphorical, our digital places of hospitality and dialogue. It’s not that such spaces should exclude the powerful necessarily, Jesus eats with Pharisees and religious leaders, as well as sinners and tax collectors, it’s just that we Christians should recognise the dynamics here (and our own tendency to act more like Pharisees and religious leaders than sinners, tax collectors, or “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” When Eternity is at its best it is sharing stories — making space at the table — for the outsiders in our church communities; when it is at its worst it has religious leaders like me sparring with others in the opinion section. My own contributions have ranged from lofty heights — working beside marginalised voices in the broader church, to the lows — writing a piece so inflammatory it was pulled after an outpouring of anger, and some legal posturing.

While I, and other church leaders, often bear a responsibility to administer a table as we lead our communities in the sacraments, and while this might mean ‘discerning the body’ and ‘fencing the table’ from some we believe fall outside the kingdom based on our doctrine and practice, Eternity is a deliberately broad table, crossing denominational and local boundaries. Those of us who run narrower tables — in denominations, or local tables — in local churches — need such ‘broad tables’ to remind us that the kingdom of God and the body of Christ exist outside our particular tribes and communities. Eternity invites us to sit at the table, discern the body, and enter conversation and perhaps even communion with those saints we will join with for Eternity. We need voices from outside our local bubbles or theological grids to offer gentle critique, encouragement, and opportunities to listen to other ideas as we humbly remember that all our human institutions are the product of humans who are simultaneously justified and sinful (at least for Protestants that’s part of the package). Institutions like Eternity, and their big table, remind us of our union with Christ unites us with loads of people who think and live differently to us (and might encourage us to practice hospitality when it comes to how the tables in our churches or homes operate).

After my controversial anti-culture war piece (that became a culture war piece) — one that ended with a call for peace-making across very real divides, David Pellowe, host of the Good Sauce, convener of the Church and State Summit, and now, it seems, Eternity columnist, who I’d specifically named in my piece, reached out across the divide and invited me to break bread with him, and subsequently, he invited me onto his YouTube program, Pellowe Talk, where I sat at the table (or desk) in his studio and we had a conversation. I’m reasonably convinced that David Pellowe thinks we’ll be spending Eternity together, even if his most recent piece describes positions I hold — positions on core, orthodox Christian doctrine (like the Trinity being foundational) as making me a “progressive believer.” If that’s progressive, count me in. David’s hospitality and this act of peacemaking helped both of us ‘discern the body’ in such a way that while I still believe his politics, and those shared by others on the Christian Right are dangerous to both the church and society, I would not ‘fence the table’ if he attended our church gathering, nor would I keep him from my dining table; I’m not, by extension, concerned that Eternity makes space for him at the table of public discourse. I do recognise that it creates a genuine expression of ‘the paradox of tolerance.’

In a nutshell, this paradox, coined by Karl Popper, says that for a tolerant society — or table — to operate, it has to be intolerant of intolerance. Or, as my friend Cameron puts it “you can’t invite people to the table if their express goal is to set the table on fire.” The trick here is that even if fellows like Pellowe, and other new Eternity columnists are committed to a ‘broad table’ — and even if Eternity itself is — at some point a broad table becomes unsafe, and not just for the ‘leftists’ or whoever the target of intolerance is.

Quite a few of my Eternity columnist stablemates have been in conversation over the rightward lurch in the opinion section, concerned about this new direction, in part because it seems to us that some of these new writers are not interested in tolerance, or pluralism (and indeed, many from the Christian Right turned to language of boycotts and cancellation when Eternity ran pieces critical of the hard right), the catch is, some of the gentler voices in the Eternity stable are also grappling with the goodness or wisdom of sharing a table with the intolerant. Meanwhile, John Sandeman, Eternity’s editor has been doing the rounds of conservative Christian media outlets (including Pellowe’s show, and Jonathan Cole’s The Political Animals) to cast his vision for a broad table as an invitational act of peacemaking (in part managing the fallout from my piece, and one of his own), and to court the addition of gentler conservative contributions.

I am not inclined to boycott Eternity, or its opinion section, because of these new voices being included. I love Eternity, and I find John’s vision compelling — but this is, perhaps, a product of my privilege and my place at the table.

I don’t want the answer to be fencing the table from conservative religious leaders with significant status, but, at the same time, it is true that sometimes particularly aggressive sheep can bite like wolves and be a danger to the flock, and just as my role in our church community — with other elders and leaders in our church — is to shepherd the flock in the way of the good shepherd, Eternity, as a “Christian institution,” even a broad table, has some pastoral responsibility here too. One that might look like a firmer editorial hand, or clearer parameters around acceptable voice or tone that defines the sort of conversation one might be invited to enter at the table; some agreed upon Eternity table manners. I was the first to admit that my pulled article was ill-mannered (that, rather than ‘untruth’ was why it was pulled). Eternity did not ‘cancel me’ or my piece, though some people I wrote about did — and are continuing to push for my cancellation in other spheres I operate in, in response to the piece. John and I made the call in consultation, and John’s hand was forced into that consultation because I publicly apologised for the tone of my piece and distanced myself from that tone, while Eternity was still expected to host it. I’m seeking to learn from that experience as a contributor, but I wonder if there is space for Eternity to apply some learnings from that piece and the fallout across the board, beyond just that it’s hard to be a place where iron sharpens iron. Sometimes sharp iron, and flecks of iron thrown off in the process can do real damage to people.

My concern about the current editorial direction of Eternity is not only that seeking loud mouth institutional voices (like mine) to engage in traffic driving ‘iron-sharpens-iron’ tit-for-tats in the opinion section, and the comments on Eternity’s Facebook page drowns out the experience of the lost, the last, and the least — the sinner and tax collector, or “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” — those we should be hosting at our tables, but also that some recent articles are inhospitable to those we should be including.

Want to find a community of ‘sinners and tax collectors’ or the downtrodden and oppressed, who need Jesus in our modern western world — there are plenty of candidates, from members of the LGBTIQA+ community, to those whose experiences sit outside the ‘male, middle class, and white’ norm of Australian institutions (like the church), including women (whose voices were drowned out in Eternity’s own stories on International Women’s Day by a boisterous boys club push-and-shove).

The catch is that for many in those communities — if you pay attention to the comments on social media, these new voices introduced to the comments section are pictures of intolerance and exclusion of their own voices and experience, not only by virtue of arguments, but because of trauma responses because religious institutions, and their tables, have not always been shaped by the way of Jesus.

Some of these more recent opinion pieces have an intolerant tone — not a tone that is hospitable to “the other,” but that is dangerous to those who’ve been hurt by wolves or biting sheep in the past. Even if these writers are fellow guests; fellow sheep; fellow members of the body — such words, and the way they are spoken, can produce an atmosphere of condemnation, or produce traumatic responses in the vulnerable or hurting, or can lead to others feeling unwelcome not only at Eternity’s table, but at God’s eternal table. Some, believe this new tone — and also the words being said — have made Eternity a less hospitable table. This is not the case for bull-headed people like me who are prepared to go charging into any conversation without fear for my own safety. This lack of hospitality is not something I tend to feel in the ‘Christian bubble’ as a religious leader with status, education, and a degree of wealth, status, and security. It’s precisely people like me who should be challenged by the words of Jesus about his table — and how Christian spaces operate, and precisely those others — who feel a sense of inhospitality — who Jesus called his kingdom to be hospitable to. It’s this change that others who have been part of the Eternity stable but are feeling uncomfortable are reacting to. Eternity has become a hospitable place for religious leaders to play power and status games, and an inhospitable place for those who are, or have been, outsiders and victims in those games.

I’d love to see their vision of a big heavenly table involve a broadening of the voices (including perspectives, practices and experiences) they platform, and correspondingly, some of us prominent blokes with institutional power dialling down our participation in culture war bunfights to make space for that — for the richness of the body of Christ to be on display we must decrease so they might increase.

I’d love to see the ethics of that heavenly table shape the tone of voice Eternity allows at its table, not just the broad spectrum of political views invited to speak.

The paradox of tolerance is real, it is impossible to run a broad table when some of your guests are telling others they aren’t welcome, and while this might go both ways, the way of Jesus is clear — the religious leaders who believed they were the righteous ones, who had power and status, and were used to running the table — they were able to stick around so long as they were listening to the Lord of hosts, through his chosen king, even when he spoke pointedly to condemn them, and the lost, the last, and the least — those were the people who have priority at the tables of the kingdom. It’s possible that creating safe tables for those others — whether through calling for change in existing institutions (like churches and publications), or starting new ones is the work of the kingdom here; and it’s possible that such pressure might be applied by refusing to share a table with those trying to burn down your table, or who want to build big fences.

The challenge for committed pluralists like me is to take up invitations to be a guest at hostile tables, to provide hospitality through the tables I serve at, especially to those we’re called to love and serve by Jesus

1 thought on “A big table and the paradox of tolerance”

  1. Pingback: Revisiting “Generous Pluralism” (unpacking a little of my ‘political theology’) — Part 1 | St. Eutychus

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