The Table and Betrayal

1_4_Hospitality

There has been bread and salt between us. Saarbayna khubs ‘u milleh.

On one of our earliest nights in Jordan, breaking the Ramadan fast over a large communal platter of rice and chicken, shared bowls of soup and vegetables and yogurt, with a family who fled the war in Syria, we learned one of countless Arabic blessings, saarbayna khubs ‘u milleh – literally, “it has been between us bread and salt.” Or, as I understand it, you sat in my house, we shared a meal, taking rice off the same platter, drinking soup out of the same bowl, our relationship is different now, we are more than acquaintances, we are bound by this.

Our reflections on hospitality these last few weeks can be summed up in this beautiful phrase, saarbayna khubs ‘u milleh. It is the affirmation that hospitality and kindness, especially shown over shared meals and under shared roofs changes our relationships and has the power to change the world. We see this modeled again and again by Jesus sharing his meals, and receiving hospitality from people despised by the greater community, deemed unclean by the religious establishment. When he shared meals with them, he challenged existing boundaries of who is in and who is out, who is pure or impure, and he changed existing relationships. It was not only a political statement or a religious symbol, but an expression of acceptance – you matter, you are beautiful, I love you. You are not a problem to be solved, a convert to be won, or a project to be accomplished; between us has been bread and salt; you are welcome at this table.

***

A few days later we sat under a different roof with a different family, sipping Turkish coffee. “They killed my son,” she told us with tears in her eyes. “My neighbors, who used to come to our house and eat under our roof, they killed my son and burned our house down because we are Sunni.”

“We used to all go to the cafe together, smoke and play backgammon,” another man told us on another day, as the smoke from his cigarette wafted between us. “It didn’t matter if they were Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Christian. We used to joke with each other, we were friends. Now, all that is finished.”

Yet another day with another family a woman shared another side, “The military was not bombing the Alawite neighborhood. When the bombs dropped we all ran to take shelter with our Alawite friends. They would tell us, don’t go back. It’s no use. Stay here with us where you’ll be safe.”

***

These snapshots are too short, too incomplete to understand the lives and stories of these individuals, their families and relationships, let alone the complexity of the conflict and violence and displacement in Syria. But as we sit and face these realities I wonder, how do we get to this point?

I don’t mean this point in history – betrayal is as old as Cain, as they say. I mean, how do we get to the point where we once said saarbayna khubs ‘u milleh and later we are killing each other? How do we travel from befriending to despising our neighbor? And how do we cultivate the possibility of alternative responses amidst violence? How do we create communities which shelter their neighbors and refuse to pick up the gun?

As Becca shared in our first post in this series, we are not our best selves amidst fear. Extreme situations do not make us moral people. Victor Frankl writes of the holocaust, the best of us did not return. As he saw, desperation and fear promote self-preservation, not love. So, we offer the cultivation of hospitality, the extension of kindness, the practice of love of enemy as a way forward in creating possibilities for alternative, peaceful futures, best embodied in shared meals, shared homes, and shared lives. saarbayna khubs ‘u milleh.

And yet, acts of kindness and hospitality do not guarantee sustained relationships. Knowing our neighbors or those in other tribes does not inevitably keep peace. We betray that hospitality, we betray one another. So, what do we do? How do we understand this?

The Table and Betrayal Betrayal

I am mostly at a loss to know what to do with these realities, and I am cautioned by my lack of experience. But in my belief in the power of hospitality I must face the realities of hospitality betrayed, so I turn to the picture of the Last Supper as a starting point.

On the night of the famous supper, note who is still at the table. Yes, we’re used to the disciples by now, but let’s not forget that these young guys come from incredibly diverse situations and perspectives. Zealots and tax collectors and fishermen; those who benefit from the system, those who are oppressed by it, those who want to violently overthrow it, and those trying to keep their head down and survive. It’s beyond the polarized divide of Republicans and Democrats. These are freedom fighters and collaborators, militants and simple farmers. They are still at the table together.

Of course Jesus’ words at this table point his disciples to what will take place on the cross. There is much symbolism in the act of communion, and my Catholic friends will say Christ’s body is present in the Eucharist. Alongside symbolic memory and mystical presence in our solemn ceremonies, something else is at work. In Jesus saying ‘do this’ he is showing us the embodiment of the way – just as he showed us throughout his life  – at a table with sinners and saints, enemies and friends. He wants them to keep doing this – keep coming together, despite their differences, to break bread and drink wine together. This is the way of Jesus in real life.

Even though these young men have come together and stuck together, even while we see the beauty of people crossing lines of political and religious affiliation to do life together, we are faced with the reality of looming betrayal.

Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, and its apparently fated nature provokes many questions that I am not qualified to answer (Peter Rollins’ Fidelity of Betrayal is particularly thought-provoking). I simply want to reflect on the heart-wrenching reality: betrayal of hospitality, of friendship, of love.

Jesus embodies the character of God and a way of life that brings abundance. And he brought together a band of misfits with competing ideologies to show them that another way is possible, a way that starts and continues over bread and wine, or bread and salt. saarbayna khubs ‘u milleh. Even in the face of betrayal, Jesus does not push Judas away, but brings him closer, sharing his bowl with his betrayer. In the face of death, Jesus chooses love.

We know how the story proceeds, but not, I suppose, how it ends. Judas betrays Jesus and is overcome by grief, guilt, shame, self-loathing. “It would have been better for him were he not born.” How many people who have killed or betrayed others have felt that depth of anguish and guilt, and considered taking the road Judas took to suicide?

And yet I wonder, if Judas had not committed suicide before the resurrection, wouldn’t the kind of forgiveness Jesus proclaimed invite Judas back to the table, welcomed and loved? Maybe Judas is not in the lowest circle of hell. Maybe he already experienced that hell in his final hours and is again feasting at the table with Jesus. Maybe.

So what do we do with betrayal? What do we do with risks, and pains, and trials? What do we do when hospitality is not enough?

We embrace the grace that sets us free from our slavery to the fear of death. We reject self-preservation as our prime aim and embrace love – across politics, across religion, across gender and sexuality and culture and race and picket fences – offering meals and beds and kindness. Is safety guaranteed? Certainly not. Are there real risks to hospitality? Absolutely. Will we be betrayed? Possibly. What do we do, then? If Jesus is our guide, we continue to love, and share a meal anyway.

Not a Syrian Problem

When facing the worst violence and destruction in the world, and wading through the complexities of our lives and societies, there are no easy answers. This is no less true when reflecting on the betrayal of hospitality. Our response to these should be infinitely bigger than one blog post. But we wrestle anyway.

Share your own thoughts and reflections on hospitality and betrayal in the comments. And I urge us, in wrestling through this, to remember that this is not a Syrian problem, not an Arab or a Muslim problem. It is a human problem, and our world has seen – throughout history and recent decades – Christians killing Jews, Muslims killing Muslims, Hindus killing Muslims, Buddhists killing Hindus, Jews killing Muslims, and Christians killing Christians. And of course, a question like this brings us into the realms of psychology, sociology, anthropology and culture, theology, philosophy, geo-politics and economics. I invite your reflections in any direction.

While this is a massive question diving into the nature of humans and our relationships without easy answers I feel we must grapple with it. Syria seems far away from most of us, the holocaust long ago, but as we traveled and learned through the Indian subcontinent, Central/Southern/Eastern Europe, and now the Middle East, I have had a growing sense that none of our communities or societies or countries are immune to the descent into chaos and violence we see in other parts of the world, and our own history. Am I alarmist to suggest that it would not take much for our own society to be swallowed in such destruction?

Should it come to pass, who would we be? We assert, again, that who we would be depends on who we are now. What does this look like to you in real life?

 

photo credit: rottnapples via photopin cc


We are increasingly convinced that resisting violence in this world requires a lifestyle of radical hospitality. Our small acts of kindness beyond the borders of family, tribe, nation, religion, ethnicity, race, sexuality, gender, denomination, political affiliation, economic class are not only preparation for resisting more violent situations, but are also themselves the embodiment of love that create a more peaceful world. This September we are sharing a few of our own reflections, and those of our friends, on hospitality.

 

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