It’s not human nature for us to look outside the fence of our own lives and to see clearly “the other.”
This year I’ve learned the term “the other” is recognized as anyone outside our own culture or our own world of experience. It is, in short, those who are different from us. Not better, mind you, just different. Conversely, I should suppose someone I might label “the other” looks at me the same way.
But there’s another added value to the concept of “the other” that indicates those we call “the other” are also those we don’t let into our circle. We control who gets in and who stays out. We have the power to ignore them so no matter what they do we’re still the gatekeepers.
It’s true when we’re kids that there are “innies” and there are “outies.” So “the other” is a grown-up phrase suggesting maybe we haven’t grown up all that much as we might think.
We gather at the table of our Lord and thus we come under the reminder that no one holds the upper hand there. At this table, there are no “innies” any more than there are “outies.” At the table of Christ’s love, we’re all “innies.”
Even Jesus had a twinge of Jewish provincialism in him when he told the outsider who wanted full access to the right of healing. He told her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
The use of children referred to the children of Israel while the reference to a dog was the typical Jewish slur about anyone outside Jewish faith. Undeterred, she begged him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
When Jesus faced the Syrophoenician woman who refused to be insulted by Jesus and claimed the crumbs as her own (Mark 7:24-30), it illustrated how intense the struggles were in the early church as it learned to open wide the doors of the church to non-Jews.
Jesus and his earliest followers were all Jewish and it’s not hard to read between the lines of the New Testament to see what appeared to be Jewish resistance to becoming an ecumenical church open equally to everyone.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s honest line about Sunday morning being the most segregated day of the week was inspired by the New Testament’s struggle with this issue. It was true back then and it’s true today. We’ve always struggled about this, and today our church must confront its own “isms” that keep us from fully loving everyone who comes through these doors to worship.
Roger Paynter tells the story of a girl he knew who discovered the difficulty of what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus in regard to “the other.” Shannon Johnson was a senior at Vanguard High School, a prestigious college prep school in Waco, Texas. She was also the daughter of the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Waco. She was the valedictorian and head cheerleader of her school. She was beautiful, exceptionally bright and a very sensitive, caring 18-year-old trying her best to live out her faith.
In the spring of her senior year, the Waco Tribune-Herald ran a story about the Cotillion, a dance with a tradition that stretched back to the days of an old slave system where blacks were slaves who worked the cotton fields of the white landowners of central Texas. The Cotillion was obviously for the children of the white social elites of central Texas.
Remember, this is not an old story from those unchallenged days prior to the civil rights movement. This is a story from recent history, just a decade and a half ago. Quite simply, the Cotillion had survived the social gains of the civil rights movement because it was a private social institution outside the reach of federal laws and no one had challenged its continued existence.
This tradition meant that Michelle Russell, one of Shannon’s best friends at Vanguard, would not be invited because Michelle was black. The more Shannon thought about it, the more disturbed and angry she became about this ancient injustice.
So she arranged a meeting with the Cotillion board to ask them to change their long-held policy. What made that so difficult was that four of the 12 members of the board were also prominent members of First Presbyterian Church, the church her father pastored.
They turned her down, refusing to change a policy that went back to the old confederate days of Waco’s Cotton Pageant, a garish festival celebrating the gathering of the cotton crop harvested by black slaves. But Shannon refused to be placated by their simple refusal and organized a boycott of the Cotillion Dance, the main event of the season.
Almost the entire senior class at Vanguard High School refused to go and their action made the front-page headlines of the Waco paper. Because of the action spurred by this courageous young girl, within a few days, under the public pressure and censure of the community, the board was forced to alter their historic policy.
Late one night a few days after everything died down, her father went into her room to say good night. And while he was there, he told her how proud he was of her standing up for her convictions. And in reply she said, “Daddy, this is so hard. I never knew this would be so hard. If I had known, I’m not sure I would have done it. But I think this is what it means to be baptized.”
Making the connection between our baptism and our lived-out commitments may not be your first reaction to Jesus’ welcoming inclusion at the Table of Remembrance, but I believe it’s what we are about as followers of Jesus.
In God’s wide world of absolute acceptance, the bread, the wine, even the crumbs under the table are signs of the great generosity of God, who welcomes us to this table and to the family of God’s children.
Keith Herron is senior pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo. He holds degrees from Baylor University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. He and his wife, Wanda, have a son and daughter, Ben and Alex.