Another Story About Where Difference Needs to Be Negotiated

I had an experience the other week, where someone, who was a strong vegetarian and influenced by eastern religions, took exception to ‘was scandalised’ by the fact that I was going home from being with them to have rabbit stew. Their being offended was put into the context of  the Church’s witness, as if to say that being Christian is incompatible with eating rabbit stew.

On the surface, you might say ‘What? Eating meat was still legal the last time I looked. By far the majority of people do it. This person is wrong to be scandalised by my eating meat.

But the question is not that simple.
My thoughts go to a whole host of cultural practices that might lead to scandal, but of which we are in our culture unaware.

In China, foot binding was considered normal, because small feet were beautiful. It caused lots of pain to women. But in the 19th Century, a 19 inch waist was considered beautiful, and women suffered greatly because of that demand for a particular shape. Just in case you say ‘That was back then’, it is still the case that a large number of the feet problems of women (like corns and bunions) are due to wearing high heels: something which people are doing today, to ever greater dizzying heights of heel.

There are laws outlawing Female Genital Mutilation in the West, and we are scandalised by it when we hear about it in Africa, but we are not scandalised by male circumcision, which was routinely done in the 1950’s.

What one person sees as a ‘cultural difference’ we see as ‘scandalous’. This happens both across cultures and groups, and over time, as we look back on how we were then, and compare it with how we are now.

Is there any way of thinking about this as Christians that can be helpful?

One thing to think about is the idea of being ‘scandalized’. A ‘skandalon’ was like a tank trap that besieged peoples put before their cities to hinder the approach of besieging enemies. The troops would fall into the ‘skandalon’. Some people’s minds are set up that way. They feel  particularly under siege, and so need to know when someone is approaching them whether they are ‘friend’ (one of ‘us’ ) or foe (not one of ‘us’). They set up mental or linguistic ‘tank traps’ so that the people who don’t meet the criteria will fall into them, and so will prove themselves as enemies. Fundamentalists of all varieties of religion and politics do this to one another.  

But then in politics as in the Church, there are going to be some people who want to influence the course of events in ways that are not to our benefit as we see it. These people really are our political enemies. And we do have limits to the amount of difference that we can stand with one another.

The idea of different nations or cultural groups is a recognition that when there is so much difference, we need to live in groups that are sort-of homogeneous in order to  be able to ‘get on’. That happens when the degree of difference is so great that it cannot be negotiated away.

But there is always a zone of interaction between different people and cultures. How do we negotiate in this zone of interaction?

It is of interest that my friend who was ‘scandalised’ said ‘come for a beer’. This is the method that the Church used in its infancy to negotiate the large differences between Jewish Christians and Gentile ones. Peter & Paul could not work together, because their differences were too great, so they acknowledged one another’s true Christianity* and then allocated separate spheres of activity for each. But when it came to the unity of the Church, they sat down together at table. They shared a meal. Table fellowship is a great way to negotiate difference. It presupposes that we are not going to kill one another just yet. It provides room for exchange among people who may be different, yet who are prepared to be open to one another over a meal. The tank traps are taken down for a period. Biblical Scholar, Stephen Fowl says that the interpretation of Scripture ought to be done by groups who meet together over a meal and that no one ought to be allowed to have an opinion about the morality of another’s actions until they have met with them over some meals.  

Just having come from visiting my friends in Germany, we had one such encounter. It was over a very small matter, I admit, but it was an example of how a difference can be negotiated. They have taken up the use of a paschal candle. We were talking about the decorations and I offered to make them some brass nails so that they can add the words ‘By his most holy and glorious wounds we are healed’. They declined, saying ‘We see the nails as signs of punishment, not of healing. We took them out.’ I would still leave them in, but I could see where they were coming from. It made a kind of sense. Were I in that Church, I would like the nails, but I would not say ‘They are doing something non-sensical.’  Over the years, I have learned much about how the Evangelical Church in Germany thinks of itself, and that has helped me and enriched my own thinking. So although the cultural differences are larger than just the question of nails, an ongoing conversation has opened up my world and challenged it too. Dialogue allows for a delineation of the realms of negotiable difference, and the places where a difference means that people have to have separate groups.

But since Jesus, the crucified one was raised, God is always going to be about loving the ‘different one’ and looking for ways of reconciliation. As the hymn goes  ‘Yet cheerful he, to suffering goes, that he his foes from thence might save.’

Being human means that there will be enemies who want to destroy us who need to be resisted.  There are cultural differences whose morality is not easy to work out. Some differences cannot be negotiated, and make for living separately, or having elections to decide who has the power. God is always wanting us to be open with us and one another around the table of the Eucharist because the reconciliation of ‘otherness’ is his nature.

* In Galatians we read how Paul goes up to Jerusalem and lays before the elders there what his Gospel is, and they ‘add nothing to it’ except that Paul is asked to remember the poor in Jerusalem.

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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