Who Is Excluded From Your Table?

by Mike Cosper

I got trolled this week. It was an unpleasant experience, seeing my picture in the feed of a hate-monger, along with a series of insults about my masculinity, sexuality, and – no joke – my dad. I made the mistake of engaging, which only exacerbated the nastiness. Lesson learned. It made me think about my friends Karen Swallow Prior and Russ Moore, who get this sort of abuse all the time and have learned to live with it. For me, it was mostly laughable. But it was also depressing to be drawn that closely into something so hateful and dark. I had this wincing, grossed out feeling like I imagine Leia Organa did when Jabba the Hutt yanked on her chains.
 
It’s a reminder that the internet is a nasty place – something that is news to no one – and that if you stick your neck out with your opinions, someone is bound to take a swing at it with an ax. I live with the unfortunate ability to offend people on the right and the left in both religion and politics, and so this sort of thing comes with the territory. Though I will say, I have spent more time blocking so-called conservatives (and Russian Trump-bots) than liberals. It’s not that I resound more with the liberals. I think they just care less what I have to say and do less trolling.  
 
But it was an interesting time to experience a good trolling since the rest of the world was talking about civility. I’m referring, of course, to Sarah Huckabee Sanders getting kicked out of a small restaurant called The Red Hen in rural Virginia. And it’s not the only case. Several members of the Trump administration, as well as people like Mitch McConnell, are being harassed when they show their face in public. I imagine this drama is just beginning to unfold.
 
The arguments are interesting. Folks in the corner for the Red Hen’s decision are essentially saying that the administration’s practices are so vile – often citing their policy of separating families at the border – that it has become necessary to make your voice heard by refusing to associate and refusing to serve administration members. (Probably the strongest argument came from Michelle Goldberg here.) Some conservatives have also supported the decision not because of their distaste for Sanders, but for a libertarian view of the “right to free association.”
 
It opens up a dangerous question though: If we don’t serve Sanders because we don’t like her or Trump, who else do we get to deny service to? Can we deny service to Cecile Richards because we don’t like Planned Parenthood? Can we deny service to Christians who’ve publicly come out against gay marriage? Can we deny service to Larry David because we didn’t like the last season of Curb Your Enthusiasm? The response will inevitably be to say, “there are lines here, cases in which denial of service is absurd”, but who gets to draw the lines?
 
There will also be unintended political consequences. Refusing to serve Sanders will galvanize those who see the left as a bastion of intolerance, and it will turn Sanders into a victim-hero. And while I think Sanders’ ability to keep a straight face while navigating the ocean of BS she has to spew, defend, and flip-flop through is heroic, I think this effort will make her appear heroic for the wrong reasons.
 
So, what’s the lowly restaurant owner to do? Moreover, what’s the Christian restaurant owner to do?
 
As I asked myself that question this week, I thought about Robert Capon’s book The Man Who Met God in a Bar. In it, Marvin Goodman meets a fry cook named Jerry in an airport bar. Jerry, we come to find out, is a modern-day Jesus, living in Cleveland and getting ready to start his public ministry. The book is okay… I’m a Capon fan, and there are moments of brilliance where Capon does what he does best: surprise you with new conceptions of God’s grace. But I don’t know that the book is a must-read.

All that aside, I thought about the book because I thought about Jerry the fry cook. Who would Jerry refuse to serve? Who would Jerry kick out of his restaurant?
 
When you consider the kinds of cultural villains Jesus associated with – Samaritans, Roman Centurions, tax collectors, prostitutes – it gets difficult to imagine him kicking anyone out. Maybe I’m naïve here. I’m sure some of you think I am. But put yourself in the shoes of Jerry the fry cook and imagine someone whose views you find repugnant walking in the door? What does love demand? What does the gospel compel?
 
I’m not suggesting it demands silence. I think one of the better examples of this came months back, when the cast of Hamilton, upon being made aware that Mike Pence was in the audience, chose to put on a great show and, at the end of the night – having served their guest – made an appeal on behalf of immigrants. Pence himself said he wasn’t offended by it. I wonder what might have happened if the Red Hen had chosen to serve Sanders the best meal they could prepare, comped her an app or two, and at the end of the night, quietly asked her to appeal to her boss on behalf of families separated at the border. Don’t get me wrong… I don’t imagine this would have changed anything. But it sure would have made it harder on Sanders’ conscience to villainize her opponents.
 
Maybe part of my thinking here is because of how special I think the table is. It’s a near-magical place to me, where we experience the bounty of God’s creation and form bonds with one another. To deny someone access to your table is a profound act. I just have a hard time imagining Jesus doing it.
 
All of this is good fodder for thinking, and I’m sure that many faithful Christians would draw lines in different places. I’m not certain I’m right here, but for now, that’s how my conscience has drawn the lines.
 
It’s my hope that Christians will at least take the time to wrestle with these questions, rather than simply accept party lines and the opinions of talking heads. We are at our best when we use our own imaginations and consciences, negotiating the tensions of our times and the call of the gospel to make our way through the world. It’s folks who do that hard work who get me excited about making the Cultivated podcast. This coming season will be filled with guests who are doing that kind of thinking in all kinds of spaces – politics, the arts, the church, and the streets of the world.