There’s a simple, eloquent community song written by parish priest and musician Father Kevin Bates SM that begins with a sacred invitation: “Come and sit at my table. Though you have no money, come! Come and sit at my table and make yourself at home.” It goes on to ask, “Are you lonely or fearful? Do you ever lose your way? …If you’re tired or hungry, if you have no song to sing…then come and sit at my table and make yourself at home.”
I’ve used that “Table Song” often. Its unconditional message of welcome brings diverse people closer together. And closer to their own hearts. That’s unsurprising. We have a universal need to belong. We grow though, and grow safer, only when we can actively extend this vital “belonging” to others. I would say, without exception.
The universal Golden Rule endorses the centrality of this. In all faiths there’s a version of “Look out for your neighbours. Keep them safe by behaving towards them as you yourself wish to be treated.” This is the essence of self-respect as well as human dignity.
Bringing people together, often around the physical and emotional comfort of food, was the primary spiritual practice of Jesus, or so Franciscan writer Richard Rohr suggests. He writes, “Jesus’ most consistent social action was eating in new ways and with new people, encountering those who were oppressed or excluded from the system [my italics]. A great number of Jesus’ healings and exorcisms take place while he’s entering or leaving a house for a meal. In the process he redefines power and the kingdom of God. Jesus shows us that spiritual power is primarily exercised outside the structure of temple and synagogue.”
In the days since Christchurch, when fifty people lost their lives simply for being Muslim, there’ve been real efforts in the wider community to draw closer to those who follow the path of Islam. Social teachings with an explicit emphasis on hospitality – including to the “stranger” – are central in that faith. Professor Mona Siddiqui, author of Divine Welcome: The Ethics of Hospitality in Islam and Christianity, has written: “Islam holds hospitality as a virtue that lies at the very basis of the Islamic ethical system, a concept rooted in the pre-Islamic Bedouin virtues of welcome and generosity in the harsh desert environment…The Prophet is reported to have said, ‘There is no good in the one who is not hospitable.’” https://www.abc.net.au/religion/divine-welcome-the-ethics-of-hospitality-in-islam-and-christiani/10096406
But maybe the greatest barrier to genuine hospitality to others is an avoidance of “hospitality” within our own selves. A willingness to “own” our individual complexity is fundamental to maturity. That’s what allows us to be self-responsible rather than self-deluded. It lets us take honest and honourable responsibility for our actions – and especially for any harm we may wittingly or unwittingly have caused. It also saves us from ceaselessly finding someone else to blame – or vilify.
“Confession” once involved identifying your wrong-doing, doing some kind of penance and resolving not to make that same mistake again. But was that fairly routine process adequately maturing, never mind transforming? We change our behaviours only when we are ready to see our part in them and that we could do better. This can happen only when we also recognise our ego defences – not from a place of self-abasement but by caring sufficiently how we are affecting others. This, in turn, is dependent upon claiming what we might call universal soul strengths, most particularly compassion, self-forgiveness, humility – and also joy. A desire for others’ happiness and wellbeing is fundamental also.
The horror of large-scale dramas is evident for all to see. But harm can also be subtle, indirect, closeted – and still excoriating. I wrote about this extensively in my book, The Universal Heart, not least because it’s so easy to deny. Yet if others tell us that they are hurt by what we have said, done, thought, it helps neither them nor us if we fall into a self-pitying heap or blame others (“What about…?”). That’s the conduct of a child whose ego is emerging and fragile. A safe society depends on adults being adults. Diminished individual moral responsibility perpetuates community harm.It also slams shut doors that may lead to greater harmony and inclusion.
In Australia almost all marginalised groups people are diminished by stereotyping, name-calling, the refusal to see individuals as complex and singular, and the appalling, false attribution of behaviours, attitudes, even feelings that are regarded as somehow “inferior” to those supposedly held by the “mainstream”. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders of their many nations, Muslims, African-Australians, Asians, are, in 2019, routinely, casually “othered”. It seems heartening then to note that in an outstanding post-Christchurch episode of “The Drum” on ABC TV, an all-female, all-Muslim panel consistently referenced the struggle for dignity and voice by Indigenous people in this, their own country.
Self-awareness and self-responsibility are the crucial liberating elements here. On the public stage, the Prime Minister did make efforts post-Christchurch to “sit at tables” with Muslims. But he is also aggressively denying Coalition responsibility for their virulent anti-Muslim, anti-refugee rhetoric since John Howard’s “Children Overboard” lies of October 2001, and his party’s divisive, vote-seeking efforts since. Challenged on “The Project” by leading academic and commentator, Waleed Aly, Morrison seemed to have forgotten the years of exploiting not-so-soft racism and anti-refugee rhetoric and policies to appeal to the worst in the voting public. (Never mind – though we do mind – the Turnbull Government’s dismissal and misrepresentation of the Uluru Statement of the Heart. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/oct/26/indigenous-voice-proposal-not-desirable-says-turnbull)
My point is simple. If those currently in power in Canberra are incapable of seeing how stereotyping of racially marginalised groups destroys vital social cohesion and belonging – and taking unconditional responsibility for it – then we are not. Whether it is the insane “justifying” of further humiliation and suffering to asylum seekers and refugees, or the scandals of Indigenous incarceration, diminished life expectancy and youth suicide, or indeed, the increasing stains of homelessness and domestic violence and women’s deaths, it’s clear a determined, policy-driven denial of human rights for all cannot linger without dire consequences.
After al-Noor, some conversations have shifted. But how far? Many thousands in our communities live without a full sense of “belonging”. They live with fear. Time again then, surely, to check how we individually hear those ancient, universal calls to sacred inclusion. And how we collectively practise them.
Rev Dr Stephanie Dowrick is a writer, social activist and Interfaith minister who works with people of many cultures and faiths. Her many books include Seeking the Sacred: Transforming Our View of Ourselves and One Another. You can find her on Twitter and also on her public Facebook page.