by Sue Wilson csj
The woman beside me on the train seemed stressed, fidgeting back and forth in the seat. As we engaged in conversation, Claire told me that she was returning to Montreal after six years in Toronto. Then a little later, she told me why she was returning to Montreal: she had lost her job and was unable to find another full-time position.
As the conversation continued, it was clear that she had lost much more than a job. Almost all of her friends in Toronto were people she met through her job and, after she was laid off, she lost touch with them. When her employment insurance ran out, she applied for Ontario Works, a process that she said left her feeling worthless. Eventually, she became depressed and was admitted to the psychiatric wing of a hospital. When she left the hospital, she felt all alone. She decided to go home to live with her parents while she tried to re-establish herself.
Later that evening, as I watched the Leader’s Debate in preparation for the election, I found myself thinking about Claire. How would she be affected by the policy choices that each party is promoting? Politics can seem abstract and irrelevant unless we focus on how particular people are affected by particular policies. Who benefits? Who is hurt?
Of course, it’s not just Claire about whom we need to be concerned; it’s not even just about other Canadians who, for a variety of reasons, may be marginalized from the basic resources and opportunities that are so necessary for our social inclusion. There are people in many different parts of the world who will be affected by the government that we put in place in May, depending upon whether that government accepts our international responsibilities to help ensure that the Millennium Development Goals are reached. What’s more, it’s not even just about other people. There are species and bio-regions that are already becoming overwhelmed by the effects of climate change. Will it be a government that acknowledges the need to act quickly and responsibly to address climate change for the good of all in earth community?
Too often, politicians encourage us to base our electoral decision-making on what is good for us alone. That may be why issues such as poverty, social inclusion and climate change have been all but absent from this federal election campaign.
However, the Christian scriptures would have us operate from a very different foundation. It’s a foundation that can be explored through the image of table fellowship, an image that urges us to act in ways that will create a very different kind of society.
John Dominic Crossan notes that there are many stories in the Christian scriptures that focus on people coming together to share a meal.1 The table fellowship meals of Jesus are a particular kind of meal in which everyone is welcome to participate and no one pays attention to social distinction. This is what made the meals so startling. The idea that all social classes would eat together at the same table was shocking in that cultural context. It was a meal that incorporated a particular vision of life.
Jesus, who is revealed to be one-with God, one-with all of the people he encounters, and one-with the earth that opens him to so many insights, is awakening people to the reality of their own oneness with God and each other. The healing miracles and the forgiveness of sins are two powerful ways of revealing our oneness with God. Clearly, God is working in those who are healed and made whole. But table fellowship takes us further, moving our awareness of oneness into action. Material goods are shared at the fellowship table; there are no barriers separating the rich from the poor, the women from the men, the unhealthy from the healthy. All are one. This is what made table fellowship a vehicle for transformation, challenging both structures of consciousness as well as the structures that helped to shape the social systems of the day.
Holy Week’s Last Supper, then, can be understood as the culmination of this practice of table fellowship. Crossan points to the symbolism that operates in the key verbs that describe the Last Supper: took, blessed, broke and gave. The first two verbs, took and blessed, especially blessed, would have been understood to belong to the role of the master of the household; the other two verbs, broke and gave, especially gave, would be seen as actions belonging to the servant. By doing all of these actions himself, Jesus is uniting the role of master and servant in a way that eliminates any distinctions between the two. The force of the message is all the stronger because it follows the story of the footwashing, in which Jesus, the master, takes on the role of the servant.
Barriers and boundaries are removed. This is the transformative work that is found at the deepest core of the Christian story, and it puts the work of justice at the core of our faith.
Beatrice Bruteau adds to these insights.2 At the Last Supper, Jesus offers himself as the way into this life of oneness. His practice of table fellowship reveals that he is identified with the people who are socially and economically excluded, an identification that flows from the more basic rooting of his identity in God. But, in this Last Supper, the oneness reaches new depths as he offers his body and blood to all. It draws us into a vision in which his life in God is intermingled with our own, and our lives are intermingled one with the other.
I would take this a step further by suggesting that the bread and wine, fruits of the earth, put the earth at the center of this intermingling. We are carried into a new way of being in relationship with God, each other and with all of earth. Instead of finding our identity in that which separates us from each other, we find it in becoming one-with God and each other in earth community.
For Bruteau, Holy Thursday is about revolution. “It begins with a mystical experience [of oneness] which is developed, through thinking and feeling, into a social program with economic and political dimensions […] Instead of being outside you, and separate from you, I am within you.” This is the mystical truth that needs to be embodied in the functioning of our social, political and economic systems if we are to live the Reign of God.
And this takes me back to Claire and the upcoming federal election. Too often, we in the Christian church make no connection between our election decision-making and the values that are embedded in our most sacred stories, the Holy Week narratives. Indeed, some of us will moan: What does Holy week have to do with the elections?!
The response is found in the meaning of the Holy Week events, in particular the Holy Thursday revolution: Our awakening to the intermingling of our lives with God, each other and earth is meant to have a life-altering impact. We are meant to choose and to act in ways that bring this gospel vision of oneness to life. And the federal election is an opportunity for us to act collectively in a way that can have a real impact on the structuring of our society.
The election campaign invites us to dialogue with each other and with those who would like to represent us in parliament. As Christians, we are invited to evaluate the party platforms, asking which ones can move us a little closer to living our oneness.
It may seem like a nebulous question but it’s not. Let me offer just a few concrete examples of how the oneness that is celebrated during the Christian Holy week might direct our decision-making process during the federal election.
Our oneness is lived as we begin to address critical issues such as the growing gap between rich and poor. Many NGOs have argued that the growing gap between rich and poor requires a federal plan with a comprehensive approach, addressing such factors as investments in social security, affordable housing, a national child care program, employment insurance, job-training and job creation strategies as well as income security measures. You can see where the different parties stand on these issues by going to websites such as Citizens for Public Justice (www.cpj.ca) where they have a summary of the platforms of the various parties as they relate to the issue of poverty. Likewise Campaign 2000 (www.kairoscanada.org. You can also find an analysis of where the different parties stand on the issue at www.pembina.org.
Our choices and actions for oneness require us to know and understand the systems of which we are a part, to know if our social and economic systems are moving us toward oneness or pulling us further apart. It takes some effort to find where the political parties stand on the critical issues, and to work with others to urge these parties to commit to actions that embody compassion and justice. But when we do so, we are living the transformation that is at the heart of the gospels; we are living the ‘vision of our intermingling’ that we celebrate so profoundly this Holy Thursday.
1. John Dominic Crossan, Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992).
2. Beatrice Butreau, The Holy Thursday Revolution (New York: Orbis Books, 2005).
Federation of Sisters of St. Joseph of Canada—Office for Systemic Justice
485 Windermere Road, P.O. Box 487, London, ON N6A 4X3; Fax (519) 432-8557
Joan Atkinson csj Tel (519) 432-3781 Ext 422 E-mail jatkinson @ csj.london.on.ca
Sue Wilson csj Tel (519) 432-3781 Ext. 402 E-mail swilson @ csj.london.on.ca