God's Table: Playing Musical Chairs and Losing

By George Rizor

I’m a pastor for a Christian denomination where communion is one of only two sacraments observed.  It’s pretty important to us.

Recently with the debate over homosexuality in the church, including membership, ordination, same-sex marriage, etc., communion has frequently defined the analogy for the debate.  It often appears in the form of ‘how do we be inclusive and welcoming of all people to the table?’

As our society has made strides in social and legal equality for those LGBTQ persons who have been historically disenfranchised, the church has lagged behind and struggled with not only a debate of basic, fundamental rights for the LGBTQ community, but also has had to deal with religious, scriptural and ecclesial questions.  It’s not just ‘is it right?’, but ‘is it right in the eyes of God and in our faith tradition?’

In our denomination, I have heard a question related to LGBTQ equality in the Christian Church expressed using the table analogy.  That question distills to something like this: ‘If we embrace the liberal perspective and make room at the table for LGBTQ persons, are we pushing away from the table the more conservative folks, who in many instances have tolerated the change at the table as we made room for those who had been disenfranchised?’

An interesting question, but one that has some assumptions and presumptions that must be addressed to honestly answer the question of including in the faith process versus excluding (and pushing some away from) the faith process.

It has to do with an economics concept: that of Nash equilibria (John Nash, the real-life subject of the movie, “A BRILLIANT MIND,” and Nobel-winning economist) and zero-sum versus non-zero sum games (or economies or life, for that matter).  Zero-sum and non-zero sum, even if you’ve never heard of them, are very important to our fundamental understanding of the nature of God and omnipotence.  A zero sum game like Monopoly assumes that if one person wins another must loose.  There are a finite set of resources and players compete for them.  A zero sum game must end in a win-lose manner.  A non-zero sum game like The Prisoner's Dilemma assumes that there are not limited resources and that players can play the game, collaborate and orchestrate a win-win ending.

I'd like to suggest - again not addressing the issues that have been debated regarding liberal/conservative and why we've had to 'make room at the table' —our society and culture tends to be 'zero sum' and to perceive life as having a fixed, finite set of resources for which we must compete. And therefore, if someone 'gets' another person must 'lose.'  Our national economies and our personal economies are generally built on zero-sum assumptions.  Negotiations, competitions for jobs, personal economic transactions, etc. all speak to a notion that we have to do better than the next person, because if we are to win, it will be at their expense and vice-versa.

Now—we run into a real puzzle when we ascribe zero-sum thinking to faith journey.  Basically, if we adhere to a conventional and scriptural understanding of God as infinite and omnipotent, it is not possible to 'push someone away from the table.'  God's table can accommodate everyone.  That means that making room for someone at the table or pushing someone away from the table must encompass two aspects that have to be examined: first, what is the nature of God's table, through Jesus Christ, exemplified by Jesus' example and teaching?  Are there limitations?  Most important, is the table in any way exclusive?  Is there anyone who cannot be accommodated at the table?  Does God set a table where mutual exclusivity can exist?  Is it possible that if one person/group/identity is permitted at the table, another person/group/identity must be denied?  Can mutual exclusivity be applied to any two persons/groups/identities within God’s creation?

Can we—in any way—assess the breadth, depth and elasticity of God’s ability to accommodate all the diverse components of creation?  Even if we were able to discern whom God, through Jesus Christ would accept/reject, is that our purview?  Basically, how do we decide if God’s love is zero-sum, or even can approximate zero-sum, with some being permitted ‘at the table’ meaning that others cannot be present?

A completely separate issue is the second aspect: If we decide, ‘yes, God’s table will accommodate some and not others,’ who fits which category?  That’s where most of the equality/inequailty debate in the church today has centered.  But the reality is: are we trying to retrofit belonging to a belonging template that doesn’t exist?  Have we rushed so haphazardly to decide who is worthy and who is not worthy that we have ignored the fact that such debate seems to limit God and to set our human, finite, limited understanding as the model for God’s table?

Is zero-sum and mutual exclusivity a function of our societal and cultural existence that has slopped over into our definition of God’s nature and how God conducts ‘business’ with humankind?  And if that’s true, is it legitimate and defensible?  Our understanding of the nature of God needs to be addressed and understood before we begin contemplation of someone being pushed away from God as a result of human perceptions and actions.

Maybe, just maybe, God’s table is larger than our ability to imagine and more accommodating than we can possibly conceive.  Here’s hoping . . .