When You are Not Invited to the Table - Augustine Tanner-Ihm
The Church must be a people that walk with the crucified people of the earth
by Augustine Tanner-Ihm is an African-American activist, writer, speaker who recently trained for the Anglican ministry at Cranmer Hall, St. John’s College, Durham, and now a Doctoral Student in Leadership, Culture, and Practical Theology at Bakke Graduate University.
In many American Christian homes, families throughout the 50 states and territories traditionally leave an extra chair and plate at the dinner table. Strangely these extra knife, fork and spoon were rarely, if ever, used as this extra place at the table was designed for Jesus, himself. This is culturally designed to show honour while also being human-led by the privilege of having daily bread.
This extra place at the table is to show welcome and hospitality to Jesus but also to whoever may show up. At the table, everyone is disarmed and equalized. This is probably why Jesus and the Christian biblical authors use this metaphor many times in the Greek Scriptures.
What happens when you are invited to the table but there is no place for you there? You arrive with your best clothes and a bottle of wine and there is no one greeting you at the door. No one offering you a fresh cuppa. Or even saying your name. Many people would argue that you should be grateful that you even received an invitation at all. You feel rejected, despised, or worst forsaken.
As A Black Queer Christian, this has been my experience at many tables. It is also the experience of many marginalised people who do not fit into the majority narrative. “Sorry, we are Closed” signs from the Church have been unintended and (at times intendedly) communicated to me and people like me. Therefore, I have tried to use the right knife and fork, so to speak. I have tried to rid myself of any hint of blackness. Change the way I think, speak, walk, and dress to be accepted. I tried to date women with utter failure. I went through reparative therapy in a charismatic Anglican church to be right with the church and respectfully, accepted fully by God. I prayed and prayed, and nothing happened. I wanted to be loved and accepted by God and the Church, I was willing to give up everything. After all, isn’t that what the gospel is calling us to do? To be accepted at the table I must rid myself of my blackness and my queerness, right? But to what? To Whiteness and straightness? Aren’t these just as broken as anything other human identities construct?
This month we celebrate the lives of black folk that has made a significant influence in the US and around the world we celebrate LGBTQIA+ History Month. Two communities I am apart of and only recently I have been happy to be a part of. These two communities have historically been asked to eat the crumbs under the table in the cold winter’s night, while others eat at the banquet table. We celebrate communities that could not celebrate themselves. And even today many people find the idea of celebrating these communities divisive. When centuries of generational trauma continue it becomes difficult to align yourself with something or someone that is instilled that is immoral, disgusting and just wrong.
This week I watched Russell T. Davies’ It is a Sin, which was a fictional drama about the Aids epidemic in the 1980s in London. This was eye-opening to many people especially younger queer people in the community. I watched as a character named Roscoe was rejected by the family he loved because of his sexuality and their faith tradition, who even wanted to send him away “back home” to Africa. I watched as Christians and the church used a virus that disproportionately affects gay men to preach hate and sometimes violence. It was difficult to watch how the church treated the same gender loving relationships, particularly as someone who desires to be ordained. I recently read an article from 1982 entitled: “I would shoot my mum if she had AIDS, says Vicar”. And another about “AIDS’s is the Wrath of God” from another Vicar. The last article I read was even worse: “GAS GAYS SAYS TORY: Answer to Aids”.
I wasn’t born until 1990, therefore I have no lived experience from the 1980s of how the queer community was treated. However, I had two family members die of Aids and was scared to tell people because of the stigma of the virus. Therefore, I respect and honour so many older queer people who are still around and especially those who are still involved in the Church. This must have been extremely difficult to have as part of their lived experience, and indeed somewhat still part of their present, as it relates to their relationships and gender identity.
Growing up in the American Midwest we played a game called, “Smear the Queer”.
The game started when the object is thrown into the air. Players may either snatch the object out of the air or wait until it lands. If the object lands, the person closest to it MUST pick it up. Once a player is in possession of the object, they try not to get tackled. Once tackled, the object is thrown into the air (or at a particular person) and the game starts over again. Play usually ends when everyone is tired or when someone gets hurt. This game was played in my youth group and was a clear understanding that being queer was outside our welcome. The queer was a person that it was okay to hurt through voice or fist.
While listening to stories of the Windrush people being rejected from church services and called savages by the very people that had the conviction of the imago dei . Many Black folks I know have nothing but disdain for the Church of England. Even some Black clergy believe it to be “Babylon” (the place where evil flourishes outside of God’s will) or worst believe its leadership are mere imperial masters dressed in cassocks with Union Flags underneath. This felt very true when my dear brother and partner in the Gospel of Jesus, Father Jarel Robinson -Brown was bullied by many people around the UK. There was a call for unity but as we know from the Hebrew scriptures there is not unity with injustice. The Anglican expression of Christianity, in which I love and devoted all of my 20’s to full-time unpaid work, let down many Black Anglicans that have entrusted them with their gifts, talents and lives. For, my White Anglicans and Episcopalians in our great Anglican Communion, you must remember Unity and reconciliation follow justice, not the other way around! And people of this Anglican Jesus movement, we must allow and accept the prophets of the church. Prophets are rarely ever loved and are often rejected. But we know through the Scriptures that prophets sent by God to speak to God’s people were there for righteousness not for their own glory. It is always a path of sacrifice over glory for any prophet: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church”.
The invitation to the table is a transformative one. Jesus invited you as you are but does not want you to stay that way. He desires you to become more holy through love and worship of him. That is what sanctification is all about. But that does not mean we ought to reject others. Rejection is receiving the crumbs under the table. Rejection is giving your son a rock instead of bread when he is hungry (Matt 7:9). Rejection is being invited to the table only to realise you are not invited but what the person wants you to be is invited. That is not what being a part of this Jesus Movement that Bishop Michael Curry of The Episcopal Church is speaking about. Being a part of the Jesus Movement is not staying silent because staying silence in oppression means you remain controlled, and not controlled by the spirit but the flesh. Dean Kelly Brown Douglas speaks of the church that is not yet there. This church that is aspirational.
We are trying to be a church, but we are not there yet. This aspirational venture of trying to be church flows to its invitation of the other. The other is the one who is being crucified. And we are a part of that daily crucifixion of the Queer and Black folk among us. Each day they come to serve but the church continues to crucify them asking “why you are not satisfied with the crumbs, you have been given?”
The Church must be a people that walk with the crucified people of the earth- not act as the arbiters of injustices! The Church cannot be the one that crucifies the helpless but rather needs to be the one to wipe away the human tears of the world’s injustice, foreshadowing for humanity the eschaton. And as Christians, we should only be controlled by the Spirit of God, not man. This actively demonstrates that the invitation that God is asking for the Church to extend to all people is not based on their personhood but on them being sacred children of God.
We must welcome people to the table and do as Jesus tells us in the gospel according to Luke – when welcoming people into the banquet, welcome everyone. Not just the people like you, but the marginalised people in society. Remember Jesus welcomed Judas to the table with open arms. He did not confront him with differences, but rather showed compassion and loved him. Just as we should.
Welcome to the crucified amongst us!