GEORGE BROWNING. We are the company we keep – A theology of eating

Prime Minister, Scott Morrison has announced he is to go to Washington to have dinner with President Trump. In the past such an invitation would be considered a great honour, especially as few other world leaders receive similar invitations. But these are not ordinary times. What does accepting this invitation mean for Scott Morrison and for Australia?

Sending an invitation to eat with another is a sign of desired and reciprocated personal respect, a symbol of commitment to common values and cause. Having eaten with another around a common table, one does not lightly walk away. Is this what Australia and Australians want done on their behalf in relation to the US at this juncture in world affairs?

In most indigenous cultures throughout the world breaking bread with another is an act of personal intimacy. There is a story that Laurence of Arabia was given shelter from the Ottomans by an Arab Bedouin family at enormous risk to themselves. When the danger passed Lawrence asked why they had risked so much; their reply: “we broke bread with you”. This same sense of deep commitment around shared food or the breaking of bread is embedded in the Christian tradition. The breaking or sharing of bread is the most intimate act of Christian intimacy. There is far more to a meal than simply consuming calories.

While the host at a meal is the primary extender of honour, nevertheless the one accepting the invitation returns the same honour. In the Christian meal, Christ is the host, unfortunately some major religious institutions think they are, and limit attendees according to their institutional requirements.

The host at the forthcoming Washington dinner is a man who appears desperate to be honoured. Why else does he constantly send tweets telling the world of his greatness, that America under his leadership is great again, that he is superior to most, if not all, past presidents, and that his ‘deals’ can solve all the intractable problems of the world? His discredited and derided ‘deal of the century’ in relation to Israel/Palestine is but one example.

This host is well known for many unfortunate traits. His widely documented untruths run into the thousands. His philandering seems to have become a matter of personal pride rather than a national and international scandal. He appears not to have any sense of global responsibility, of which his withdrawal from the Paris agreement on climate mitigation is but one example. His international interventions have made the world a far more dangerous place. A long record of racist comments make it clear he does not favour an inclusive multicultural, multifaith America

The host is a man who has been shown to lead a shambolic administration and worse, an administration that has celebrated nepotism at its heart.

To accept a personal invitation to dinner with this host is either to deny these realities, to shut one’s eyes and ears to them, or rather naively to believe one can walk away from the dinner without some of this baggage sticking to one’s clothing. All human beings become the company they keep. By accepting this invitation Morrison is drawing Australia and Australians into this company. Are we Australians so desperate to curry favour with the US that we have no standards, no values of our own?

Australia has followed the US into a series of disastrous wars from Vietnam to the present. The price paid by Australian veterans and their families quite apart from the chaos heaped upon the people of Iraq etc, has been catastrophic and needlessly burdensome.

If following this dinner Mr Morrison should make any commitment that, if asked, Australia would join a conflict against Iran, I would call on the Australian people to rise up in the greatest show of civil disobedience this country has ever seen. The two competing titans of the Middle East are Saudi Arabia and Iran. For the US to have sided with Saudi Arabia, without any rebuke of its wilful atrocities at home and its sponsoring of terrorism abroad including 9/11, is to cast all sense and caution to the wind and to indicate the US demands one standard from those it considers its enemies and quite another from those it wishes to cultivate for economic reasons. Not to acknowledge that ISIS and its failed caliphate is rooted in Saudi Arabia based Wahhabism and to insist that Iran is the sole conveyer of terrorism is not simply misleading, it shows that the US can still make the terribly mistaken and catastrophic incursions that it made in Iraq.

Further, to join the closeted company of a host, is to join the company of those whose company the host prefers. President Trump has made it clear that he admires ‘strong men’, others may prefer to use the word ‘tyrants’. In the UK his preference is for Boris Johnston and Nigel Farage, his admiration for Putin is well known as his love affair with Kim Jong-un. His lack of respect for women leaders including Theresa May, Angela Merkel, and Jacinda Arden is also well known.

I strongly commend Norman Wirzba’s book,Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. He is a distinguished professor of Christian Theology at Duke University.Throughout the book, Wirzba presents eating as a way of enacting fidelity between persons, between people and fellow creatures, and between people and Earth. In Food and Faith, he demonstrates thateating is of profound economic, moral, and spiritual significance.

In the West our eating habits are diminishing our forward directory as sentient, relational beings. Our eating is often hurried. It is too frequently alone. It is mostly wrapped in plastic and completely disconnected from its source in the natural environment. These are symptoms of a cultural malaise not disconnected from the mental health and loneliness epidemic with which we are confronted, and which is far less apparent amongst those whose lives are lived more simply.

There can be little doubt that Scott Morrison feels chuffed and honoured to have received his Washington invitation. However because of the implied intimacy involved and the moral and strategic significance that will almost certainly flow from it, it would be wise to be more circumspect and cautious.

Bishop Browning is a retired Anglican Bishop of Canberra

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4 Responses to GEORGE BROWNING. We are the company we keep – A theology of eating

  1. John Salisbury says:

    Amazing that evangelical Christians such as our Prime Minister are so enamoured with the 45th President.People we look up to need to have some morals and principles, something obviously absent from the present occupant of the Oval Office

  2. Paul Reed says:

    A strong leader would decline the invitation, and articulate clearly the reasons why. As Austraia’s representative, Morrison cannot be seen to align himself with such a repugnant individual.

  3. Jim KABLE says:

    Bravo, Bishop Browning! I have participated in meals in places near and far when what was offered/accepted/reciprocated was not merely the food on the table. Links far beyond were implicit – and occasionally explicit connections were drawn – we are now friends – this sharing of “bread” or of “rice” establishes a kind of sibling-hood stretching well into possible/probable futures. And though not a diplomat or political representative – in intercultural settings I quite freely admit that it was clear to me that I represented all Australians – and conducted myself accordingly. I recall one instance where in a karaoke bar my host suddenly leant forward and grasped the breasts of the young woman serving its our drinks. Not on, mate, I said – apologising and immediately standing up – the chap stumbling out and away in his taxi – me – the guest (the Australian and clearly a “foreigner” – facing the bill) But that was not the end of the matter because he was known as a senior teacher at a school soon to have an intake for the first time, going co-ed of senior girls. Unfortunately for him – and there were many reasons to feel sympathy for his widowed condition – his position was shortly thereafter terminated. There were ethical people at the top willing to take a decent stand. What will Scott Morrison be exposed to – well, we already know the calibre of his host in Washington DC. Why would he not on behalf of our country diplomatically return the invitation. And not go! Oh, ethics, whither hast thou fled?

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