The Myth of Extending the Table

July 16, 2013 — 38 Comments

A couple nights ago, I received a call in the early evening from a prominent speaker and writer here in the Portland area. He was having a dinner party and wondered if I was free to come and join him and his other guests. He said that most of the people at the party were, like him, from the area and he thought that having me, a Southerner now living in the Pacific Northwest, would add a different voice to the conversation. Though somewhat unsure about what he meant by that, I rearranged my plans for the evening and drove across town to his house.

When I arrived, it was immediately clear that I was late. Everyone else was already seated at the table and finishing up the salad course. Still, I was welcomed and introduced as guest of the host. I looked around the table and noticed that there wasn’t an empty place setting. All the seats were occupied. Slightly embarrassed, the host quickly had people rearrange their chairs and make some room as he retrieved a folding chair from his garage.

I sat down, a little bit lower due to the height of the cool, metal chair, and began to eat the salad placed before me. The shorter chair meant that the surface of the table came up to my mid-chest. I felt a little ridiculous sitting a full head lower than everyone else, like a child invited to sit with the grown-ups. The party staff cleared everyone else’s empty dishes. I shoveled the greens into my mouth, trying to catch up. In between bites, I tried to politely answer the other guests’ questions about my upbringing in Georgia.

They were most interested in why I don’t talk like Rhett Butler or Larry the Cable Guy. They seemed surprised and a little disappointed that I sounded so much like them. I explained that I’d spent a lot of time in the theater and had adopted an “actor’s neutral” accent for the purposes of auditioning for plays, and that it just kind of stuck.

Each of them seemed to have some indirect connection to the South. One woman told me that her sister married a man from Birmingham, Alabama and she’d visited there once. A man told me that growing up, his neighbor was Southern. The gentleman sitting next to me leaned over at one point and told me that when he was younger, he’d often dreamed of moving to “Dixie.”

When the main course was served, the staff placed bowls of steaming hot shrimp scampi in front of us. I’m allergic to shrimp. Deathly allergic. I caught the attention of one of the servers and asked of there was anything else that didn’t have shrimp in it. Unfortunately there was not. I contented myself with a few rolls. I don’t think anyone noticed or, if they did, no one said anything. So, there I sat in my little chair, watching everyone else have their fill.

As the dinner carried on, I tried to understand just why, exactly, I’d been invited to this dinner. The host hadn’t given me any more details other than he wanted my perspective present. “My perspective on what?” I wondered. Much of the conversation seemed unstructured.

After the dessert course, as everyone was preparing to leave, the host came up to me and thanked me for coming on such short notice. He said he really appreciated having me at the dinner and that he feels like his guests learned a lot from me. I asked him if he could explain that a little further. He said that it was just good for them to be around the table with someone not like them, to have a different perspective at the table, and that he was sure that I gave everyone a lot to think about. As I left, somewhat perplexed by the whole thing, he asked me if I’d be willing to come to another dinner party sometime. I said I’d think about it and then I drove home.

downton-abbey-dinner-table

Have you ever had an experience like that? No? Me neither. That dinner party didn’t really happen. However, you’ve probably created situations like that without realizing it. This happens all the time when (mostly white, male, evangelical) Christians talk about “extending the table” to include “minority perspective.” The notion of extending the table is a myth and here’s why:

1. The “pull up another chair” mentality simply doesn’t work. In our mind’s eye, “the table” is an unlimited, malleable resource that can be pulled stretched to accommodate any number of voices. The reality is that’s not true. There is a tipping point after which additional voices only serve to dilute, not enhance, conversation and decision making. The table is often a small one out of necessity and to keep adding chairs only magnifies the differences between those who were seated first and those who were later invited. This is not the Lord’s banquet table we’re talking about. It’s a table of your own making. We shouldn’t get those two things confused. Even if it is possible to pull up another chair, it is often like that metal folding chair. It is obvious that the latecomer is an afterthought, squeezed in at the side and seated a head lower than everyone else. Justice and equality at the table goes beyond pulling up more chairs.

2. When filling the seats at the proverbial table, minority voices are often only invited after the idea/cause/concern/event/church/organization has been roughed out by a small group of homogenous insiders. The assumption is that “they” want to be invited into “your” idea and give you “their” take on things. You still retain ownership and control the trajectory of whatever the thing is, are merely opening it up for some light shaping by “them.” Even the thought language used here betrays hegemonic tendencies.

So, what to do?

First, expand your circle of relationships to include voices that aren’t like your own. That’s right, before doing anything at “the table,” you need to make new friends. It’s all very “first grade” isn’t it? My daughter recently asked my wife and I how she could make more friends. Our advice: Be a good friend. You don’t make more friends by pining away, hoping that people will invite you into relationship. You go and be a friend.

Second, workshop ideas with your new friends. If you really want there to be a different make up of people “at the table,” that begins during the dreaming part of the process. Dream with people who look differently than you, don’t merely try and “on board” them to your dreams and ideas.

Finally, be willing to give up your seat for your new friends. If you are invited into the early stages of an idea or event and there are already a lot of people at the table who look and think like you do, send in someone else, one of your new friends, perhaps. This is the hardest part for me. I’m at a place in life where I am on the cusp of some big opportunities. The temptation is to lean into those opportunities to write, speak, and plan, and really make a name for myself. Sometimes, though, the better decision is for me to nominate someone else in my stead, someone who can be a different voice. I don’t really know what that looks like yet, but I’m willing to give up my seat at the table. Are you?

(Thanks to Christena Cleveland and Drew Hart for their feedback on the draft of this post. Their thoughts, critiques, and challenges continue to shape my thinking and my practice. I’m honored to be at the table with them.)

Anderson Campbell

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  • http://www.wineandmarble.com/ Hännah

    I really love this. I’ve been thinking on this very thing for the past week, actually. Would love to hear more from you on this.

    • http://www.thecrookedmouth.com Anderson Campbell

      Thanks Hännah. Can you narrow down “more” a bit?

      • http://www.wineandmarble.com/ Hännah

        What do you think of…say big names/media outlets in the Christian world giving their platforms to minorities/outliers/marginalized people to talk? E.g., RHE and her ask-a series? What if a Christian publisher suddenly decided to seek out and start publishing the marginalized voices for the sake of publishing marginalized voices?

        • http://www.wineandmarble.com/ Hännah

          [if this is better via email, you have my address now]

        • http://www.thecrookedmouth.com Anderson Campbell

          This is a great question. It is hit-and-miss all at the same time. Certainly, using platform is a way of amplifying underrepresented voices, but I would still contend that needs to be done in the context of relationship. I love Rachel’s “Ask a …” series (I have student in my World Religions class read several of those posts and the comment threads). In some cases, Rachel has an existing relationship with the guest contributor, in other cases she does not. I would hope that, whatever the case, the fruit borne of that exercise is an ongoing relationship with Rachel, that it doesn’t end with one post.

          Similarly, the scenario you post about Christian publishers reaching out to marginalized voices ‘for the sake of publishing marginalized voices’ hinges upon relationship. The way you word that brings to mind a marketing-driven, demographically-concerned institution. However, there may be a publisher who genuinely wants to give platform to minority voices that traditionally have a hard time breaking into the evangelical Christian book publishing market. But where does it go from there?

          I can’t emphasize relationship enough. The thrust of my thinking here is the importance of building relationships with people who are different than you *prior* to any other action that seeks to leverage that relationship (like having someone guest post on your blog or write for your publishing company). Let those opportunities come out of the relationships that develop, instead of trying to backfill opportunities with minority voices (to drive blog readership or book sales).

          Invest in people, put in the hard work of knowing them, reap the personal joys that come from having diversity of friendships. Relationship is a better motivator than numbers, or even a conviction of “justice” or “equality.” People want to be valued for who they are before they are assessed for what they can bring to the table.

  • http://avanomaly.blogspot.com/ Jamie

    Yes, yes. Brilliant! This has been on my heart and mind for several months. A conviction that has driven me to listen to voices not like my own. You articulate the need so deftly.

    • http://www.thecrookedmouth.com Anderson Campbell

      Thanks @BagsEnd04:disqus. So glad you found it helpful.

  • Drew H

    Andy, thank you for getting right to the heart of the issue which is often neglected in conversations about including underrepresented people at the table. I have continually told leaders in the dominant culture that black leaders are not excited about being someone’s afterthought while being there only for diversity sake around a preset agenda that isn’t shaped by our input, wisdom, and experience. Sorry, but no thank you! And until we are willing to be honest and transparent about the power dynamics at play (which you have been here) then we will go nowhere. So, again, thank you so much for this. It is exciting to see a white male within the missional dialog take these concerns seriously. If this is the concrete direction other leaders are moving as well, then there is hope after all!

    • http://www.thecrookedmouth.com Anderson Campbell

      Drew, I’ve got much love for you! You honor me, friend.

  • http://geoffreyholsclaw.net/blog/ geoffh

    Andy,

    Thanks for this post. Beyond loving it, I hope to actually learn from it and impliment a new way of living.

    • http://www.thecrookedmouth.com Anderson Campbell

      Thanks Geoff. I look forward to seeing how this is implemented in your new way of living!

  • http://restorativetheology.blogspot.com/ Brian R. Gumm

    Great post! – Just last night I was reading Stanley Hauerwas & Romand Coles’ book, Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, and they talk about how the metaphor of “the table” is itself rather misleading. They argue there is no “‘stable’ table” at which to gather. They were talking about epistemological foundations, but also how that relates to real life together in the public/political sense. The table is always wobbly and ad hoc, so best to do what you’ve suggested here: Be attentive to context, cultures, and power dynamics by being intentional about becoming good friends with those who aren’t like you. They argue that Christianity and radical democracy both need this virtue of friendship and attentiveness to difference (in this chapter, they’re appealing to the work of John Howard Yoder…).

    Thanks for posting this!

    • http://www.thecrookedmouth.com Anderson Campbell

      That’s spot on. The ‘stable table’ is also a myth. It is created anew each time parties gather together for a common purpose. In that respect, it is even more important that all the stakeholders be present from the beginning. The table cannot be expanded, quite literally, after it has been formed.

  • Melissa Fain

    This post came on the same day the Disciples of Christ denomination voted to extend their table to LGBT (and others.) In the best way possible, this was a slap in the face. This was a, hold on a moment and realize what you are really doing, moment.

    I think you expressed, better than I could myself, why the DoC made an easy choice instead of a right choice. Perhaps the right choice will come with time.

    • http://www.wineandmarble.com/ Hännah

      I think extending the communion table to LGBTQ believers is much better than having one over for your Bible study to meet as if they’re a zoo specimen.

    • http://www.thecrookedmouth.com Anderson Campbell

      Thank you, Melissa. Too often, we mistake the easy choice for the right choice. Both have a way of making us feel good, but only the easy choice never requires anything from us.

  • Michael Jimenez

    Great post. It reminded me of the culture shock of marrying into a Mexican family and adjusting to their table manners. In most cases, they waited before everyone who is expected to be there before they started eating (& I mean EVERYONE). Moreover, they usually served the guests first and gave them the best seat at the table. Usually my mother-in-law would cook and eat while everyone enjoyed conversation in mixed Spanish/English.
    My background is from a mixed marriage (Mom-mostly Austrian/Irish, American & Dad-from Costa Rica) so we did the family dinner thing, but my immediate family is REALLY PRIVATE. That is why at times dinner at the in-laws is still a little strange to me (but good strange because authentic Mexican food is sooo delicious).
    Funny thing I go to a Spanish speaking church, where both families attend (I’m a PK) and this same hospitality is there when we have functions. Anyway, Andy’s post just reminded me how table conversations can be a place for letting down our guard and really experiencing the diversity of food, friends, family, strangers, etc. My in-laws openness often conflicted with the privacy that I am so used to.

    • http://www.thecrookedmouth.com Anderson Campbell

      I’m glad you posted this here, Michael! The image of waiting for everyone to arrive before eating is a powerful one. That is, essentially, the thrust of this whole post. One of the obstacles to diversity and inclusion at the table is the inability to exercise patience, especially when hungry. But let’s back up even further. Let’s plan the menu, so to speak, with *all* our guests in mind.

  • Luke Sumner

    Andy,

    Well said my friend. Thank you.

    I think an article I was reading today goes along with this. It was talking about how White, Western Christians tend to call White, Western theology just “theology,” while calling all other theologies from elsewhere in the world “contextual theologies.” (you can read it here: http://www.bmsworldmission.org/engagecatalyst/mission-catalyst-how-far-is-too-far/the-never-ending-need-western-christians-warn-the).

    It is just like with events, like you were talking about. We often set up an event, invite a diversity of speakers, and think nothing of it, because how we set up an event is just the “way” it is done. Same with theology. Same with may things. We have a “default,” which we see as “how things are just done,” even though many others do not share these same “defaults.” Sharing a table means that we can never see how we view our faith, God, the bible, or anything else as “default.”

    As a white male, this is still hard for me, in spite of how much I try to recognize my own privilege and fight the systems of oppression and injustice around me. But I know that as long as how I view everything is just “the way it is done,” I will learn nothing at the table.

  • Jason Klanderud

    This is excellent! Whenever I am invited to sit at the table I always assume the position of the ignorant minority who is obligated to offer his 2 cents on the issue. In all actuality I probably could have produced the teams original concept myself, but this is just where I am on the ethnic food chain. Thank you for being willing to talk about this subject, you are rare and insight like yours is much needed…keep in mind that there is a table where the rest of us have been meeting for a very long time…

    • http://www.thecrookedmouth.com Anderson Campbell

      Jason, I’m honored by your comment. I am very aware of other tables and am humbled each time I’m invited to them. Thank you for reading and sharing.

  • Terry Clees

    The voice of the other…I’m guilty to just giving it lip service at times. Thanks for the post and the eternal visual of you sitting in a little chair

    • http://www.thecrookedmouth.com Anderson Campbell

      Terry, you know as well as I do that nearly every chair I sit in makes me look little.

  • jtheory

    Well said. Thank you.

  • http://chrismorton.info Chris Morton

    I actually used to host a party like this. I spent a year in Atlanta cultivating relationships with non-Christians, which eventually grew into a weekly dinner party. I went out of my way to invite a few choice friends from church.

    It was always a disaster. They didn’t know how to have a conversation without always talking about their church experiences or using Christianese. Eventually, I had to choose between not inviting them, or having a dinner party for Christians.

    I’m not ready to give up on extending the table. After all, that’s how the tax collector Matthew introduced Jesus to his friends. But we have to make room in our heart, and in our language, for people who aren’t on the inside.

    Have you guys had any luck teaching hospitality at Theopholis?

    Chris
    chrismorton.info

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  • chris lenshyn

    Sounds like us good ol’ fashion Christians need to develop a healthy understanding of a ‘theology of guest.’ Thanks for your words on this!

    • http://www.thecrookedmouth.com Anderson Campbell

      Yes. And then to move beyond ‘guest’ to ‘brother and sister.’

      • chris lenshyn

        Amen, Brother. ;)

  • http://www.marydemuth.com/ Mary DeMuth

    Such a great post, and a winsome way to say it through story form. Brilliant!

    • http://www.thecrookedmouth.com Anderson Campbell

      Thanks Mary. Honored to have you read and weigh in. After all, you’ve already written Everything. :)

      • http://www.marydemuth.com/ Mary DeMuth

        LOL!! Yeah, I did.

  • Amy Bovaird

    Hi Andy,
    Interesting post. Was pulled into your dinner scene (because I’m usually the different one because I am vision-impaired!). I could relate in lots of ways. =). I have lived overseas and had a wonderful multicultural congregation in which to worship. Always blessed that way. Back in the US, I was trying to teach inclusiveness in my Asian Studies course. I could relate to your post on lots of levels. Thanks for making me think through your message. http://amybovaird.com