There was a by-election for the federal seat of Batman last weekend. During the campaign, commentators mentioned the difference between the north of the electorate, which is more traditional Labor territory, and the south of the electorate, which is becoming more ‘green’. I laughed out loud when I heard that this divide was called ‘The Great Wall of Quinoa”* I immediately thought of Switzerland where the difference between French Speaking Swiss and German Speaking Swiss is known as the “Rösti Graben” (Rösti is a kind of grated potato pizza, so the name means ‘Rösti ditch!’). My mind went to all those places where food becomes the issue over which different groups divide, or by which different groups identify themselves.
When we were young, a Canadian family visited our Church. We had a parish dinner at our house, where they cooked. They made Pizza and put some very stinky cheese on top. All of the kids went around saying ‘Poooo! That cheese smells like vomit!” Our parents were mortified.
But the same was true over the influx of people into the UK from the Indian sub-continent. I remember the complaints on the television about the smell of the curries and how it permeated their houses! I began to wonder about how food becomes the focus of such divisions. Here is my take on it.
While reading some anthropology, I have learned to be sensitive to the idea that the boundary of our bodies is a very significant one. We carefully guard what we ‘admit’ to our ‘internal self.’ Physically, we guard against becoming sick by keeping a close watch over what ‘gets in’. But the power of the food metaphor is that its meaning is transferred from the physical meaning one to the psychological meaning. In rejecting some one else’s food choices, we are not only saying ‘I do not know if your food will make me sick’, but also ‘I don’t know if you will make me sick! (in my inner life.)’
There is the key. Food becomes the metaphor for the question of ‘to admit or not to admit another’.
In the electorate of Batman, those in the north are saying “You ‘greenies’ in the south with your new fangled food choices! We are working class. We are meat and three veg. people. We are mistrustful of you! “
This was, of course, one of the first issues that the Church had to face, and it has become a characteristic of Christians ever since. The Gentiles were thought of as being ‘unclean’ in such a way as even to prevent Jews from eating with them or eating their food which, of course, was non-kosher’.
Paul’s theology drove a chariot straight through all this, by saying ‘There is no longer the category of Jew and Gentile! The division now lies between those who are ‘in Christ’ and those who are not. Everyone who is ‘in Christ’ belongs to the New Creation. This new community was naturally symbolised by the fact that Jews and Gentiles then ate the same food together. This is just more radical than we can really imagine, but there it is!
In the Church today we say ‘We are the body of Christ, for we all share in the one bread.’ The members of the Church are not individuals, who need to guard against one another, but members of the same body. The food is distributed among all the ‘organs’ and the blood flows from one part to the other without any barriers. In the church we have no ‘Rösti Graben’ or ‘Great wall of Quinoa’!
Were it so! Such unity requires more being and acting together than many congregations will accept, so that we do not become one body, but an aggregation of individuals. We give expression to this reality, again with food, by the frequency with which individual cups are used in Church, or the frequency with which people will ‘dip’ their bread into the chalice, rather than run the risk of sharing something dangerous with another member of the same body. Such loss of intimacy is also expressed when, on Maundy Thursday ‘hand washing’ replaces ‘foot washing’ in some places.
I think that the symbol of one cup, one body, touching another’s feet, is a powerful antidote to the fear of ‘the other’ that is growing in the world these days.
*For those not ‘in the know’ Quinoa is a grain that is becoming very popular among the young and ‘hip’.