Eat Together: A Movement

A parable:

A long time ago, the gods and demons gathered together to discuss to whom they should give their offerings. After some debate, the demons decided to put their offerings in their own mouths. But the gods, being wise, served the offerings to one another.

***

In America and in the world today, there is obviously much disagreement and conflict. When has this ever not been true? The history of the human race is a tragically bloody and murderous record.

Yet, we all acknowledge that it’s become easier to isolate ourselves within our respective ideological bubbles, to never hear voices from outside. Many of us rarely have sustained encounters with people whose life-situations are different from our own. Regardless of one’s political beliefs, it’s clear that there’s a civic emergency in America. Too often, people talk past each other, scream at each other, and can’t really see each other. They see labels, see the bearers of despised ideas, and can’t discern the human beings lying behind them. It seems clear that we need more opportunities for unhampered personal encounters—for people to simply meet each other, talk with one another, and share a meal, on neutral ground. Starting a national “Eat Together” movement would be one way of providing such an opportunity.

The various members of a community, from all walks of life, would gather for a shared and totally free meal on a weekday night (perhaps Wednesday or Thursday). That’s it—no agenda. Just food and people. The organizers would not attempt to convert anyone or give political lectures, while, at the same time, the participation of volunteers from all religious and secular organizations would be much desired in organizing and providing these meals. While additionally fulfilling the function of a soup kitchen, Eat Together would actively seek the participation of everyone, from every conceivable background. Its volunteers would not try to reform or convert others to any cause. They would simply serve.

But those who are eating can and should talk about whatever they want. They shouldn’t feel pressured to start a political dialogue, or avoid politics, or talk about any specific topic, or eschew any specific topic. They should simply be together, and interact organically. Words like “dialogue” or “conversation” shouldn’t even be used in promoting the event. The basic message—“Eat Together”—will be the movement’s entire mission statement.

To give credit where credit is due, the practices of one particular community inspired this initiative. In India, the Sikhs have long held open meals with no proselytizing agenda. Tourists to the Golden Temple in Amritsar in The Punjab are likely familiar with this custom: Sikh communities operate a communal kitchen called a langar, offering free vegetarian meals, acceptable to members of all the major religions of India and to those of no religion. While many Sikhs are not vegetarian themselves, they want to offer food that caters to the dietary needs of Hindus and Buddhists and which fulfills the Halal obligations of Muslims.

The Eat Together Movement should observe the same practice in America, in order to bring as many people together as possible. By not serving meat, the movement more easily accommodates Halal and Kosher diets, not to mention explicitly vegetarian religious groups and individuals. Again, this is not to proselytize for vegetarianism or any other cause, but simply to make the meals as widely acceptable as possible. (It shouldn’t be too difficult to provide vegan and gluten-free versions of the meal, as well.)

In addition to the non-proselytizing nature of the movement and the vegetarian menu, there is another important point. People who participate in the event should not try to sit with those they already know, but simply occupy the next available set of seats, sitting next to whoever happened to arrive before them. They can’t self-sequester into religious or ethnic groups within the dining hall. That would abnegate the movement’s purpose. It’s possible that families and single people could eat in different sections, but it would be crucial to deftly assure that all seating arrangements facilitate interactions with people who aren’t in one’s own group.

Eat Together meals could be held anywhere, in any facility sufficient to accommodate a group of the expected size (a gym, a school, etc.). Letting a different religious group or organization offer its own facilities on alternating weeks might be a viable method, as long as they strictly adhere to the “no proselytizing at meals” discipline. A volunteer committee comprised of representatives from different religious congregations and secular organizations would be highly helpful and likely necessary in setting up the meals.

Also, if one were to organize Eat Together meals in a large city, it would be well to ensure that the venue does not fall entirely within the bounds of a neighborhood defined predominantly by one ethnicity or religious group. Meals should be held close to borders and dividing lines, to bring in as many people from the opposite sides of those lines as possible.

Again, the meals will be free, relying on volunteers and on voluntary donations. However, donations won’t be aggressively solicited. Rather, on the way out, people who’ve appreciated the meal, and want to show their support for the movement, can drop money into a collection box.

Breaking bread with another person is one of the most fundamental and natural steps towards establishing friendship; this seems to be a cultural universal. Traditions of communal feasting and hospitality towards strangers exist across the world, in virtually every society. Further, sharing food together is the most natural expression of human unity, an affirmation both of diversity and of the oneness underlying that diversity. If we could create a new tradition like this in America—or even internationally—it would be a major step towards relating to each other in a less fraught manner.   The Eat Together Movement could help us to see one another, respect one another, and ultimately know one another.

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The Cubs and America: Safe at Home at Last

by Sam Buntz

The tension was a relief… I’m talking about the World Series, Game 7.

I’m not sure why I felt so invested in the Cubs’ performance. They’re not “my” team, and I hadn’t followed them during the regular season, though I wished them well in a casual way.  Joe Maddon is from the area where I grew up—Northeastern Pennsylvania’s coal region—so I was hoping that the Cubs would get their shot.  It’s gladdening to see someone from a low-key area manage to achieve notable things on the world stage.  First, Poconos resident Fetullah Gulen gets accused of fomenting a coup by the Turkish government, and then Hazleton native Maddon achieves the unthinkable.  Nice.  Not a bad year for NEPA…

Yet, while watching Game 7, I found myself involuntarily retracting into a posture of anxiety—not quite a fetal position, but rather the indrawn curl you assume when attempting to quiet a stomachache, huddled up against the arm of my couch.

Now, my emotions obviously couldn’t be compared to those of a devoted octogenarian Cubs fan, gasping the final triumphant breath of his earthly incarnation, as he watches Kris Bryant nail that last throw to first—Bryant smiling helplessly as he whips the ball to Rizzo. Of course, I have no clue what that kind of devotion (comparable to St. Francis of Assisi in its willingness to endure the darkest stretches of poverty and chastisement) feels like. I can’t imagine: the long-tended ember, courting extinguishment for so many decades, yet maintained with cussed resolution, suddenly flaring up within the breast…

Personal qualifications aside, I still felt the tension… Lester’s wild pitch… the sudden shelling of the previously invincible Chapman… Rajai Davis’s home run… the seventeen minute rain delay… The fearful vibe subsumed me, and the bloody, half-gnawed fingernails of Cubs and Indians fans were, for the final few innings, my own.

Yet, as I said at the beginning, this tension came as a strange relief. I was under the pure spell of American Baseball magic, swept blessedly out of the fever and fret that have so characterized 2016. Baseball, this autumn, was not just my own, but The Republic’s choice method of escape.

From the redwood forests to the gulfstream waters, people were tuning out of the NFL, and tuning into the MLB post-season. Now, this can be dismissed or over-analyzed into something sinister by critical theorists. I can imagine a cultural observer staring at the blazingly white faces in the stands at Progressive Field and Wrigley, and noting that Caucasian America seems to be letting off the steam generated by its prolonged Trumpist freak-out, indulging in a bit of nostalgia for the “good old days”—the crack of the bat, the peanuts and hot dogs, the women in the kitchen, the black and brown people safely disempowered, the red-faced Indians’ logo perfectly acceptable. It would be wildly easy to launch such a critique. On a website like Salon, it’s surely the default mode of interpretation. And there’s probably a little truth to it, when applied to some of the bad guys out there. But, speaking for myself, and most Americans, it’s—no pun intended—off base.

The main reason is this: baseball doesn’t feel like something old, actually. Or, it does and it doesn’t. It feels like it’s existed forever, and things that seem eternal don’t simultaneously seem old. For example, I’ve never looked at the sun and thought it appeared a bit ragged and shot-in-the-ass today, a little corny and out-of-date. The same goes for baseball—it’s timeless.

So, during the World Series, the sport wasn’t merely functioning as a nostalgia trip, returning us to the pleasures of an earlier and supposedly simpler time via a heroic contest between two storied, down-on-their-luck franchises. It was primarily a method of escaping from time, from the messy world of presidential elections, of “telegrams and anger” as E.M. Forster put it (though Forster’s telegrams have been duly replaced by tweets.) As rage swirls around us in dangerously widening spirals, it makes sense that Americans should seek liberation from the uncertainties and random outrages of history. Besides, as far as ugly nostalgia for a whiter America goes, baseball isn’t an example—without a generous immigration policy, a huge percentage of the players on the field wouldn’t be there, for starters.

There’s something special and transcendent about the very shape of the field. A rectangular field or court is a straightforward, rigid thing, a reflection of the metaphorical “grid” on which we all compete for survival.   But a diamond—while admittedly still rhomboid and therefore a cousin of the rectangle—suggests a different way. There’s something leisurely and free about the shape of the game, about the way it’s coordinated in time and space. The slowness of baseball, while oft derided, is also part of its appeal. Not too much slowness—but a sweet light trot. You de-pressurize, you zone-in instead of out. When things get hairy, the tension isn’t the tension of mortgages and job applications. It’s a pleasurable kind of tension. You hang out with the game. It just happens.

As George Carlin pointed out in a famous routine, there’s something nice about the fact that baseball’s goal is coming home. He said, “In football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy, in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use the shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing his aerial assault with a sustained ground attack, which punches holes in the forward wall of the enemies’ defensive line. In baseball, the object is to go home, and to be safe. I hope I’ll be safe at home, safe at home…”

That’s how America felt, for a few minutes on November 2nd, just before 1 a.m.—safe at home.

Except for the Indians’ fans, obviously.