The stratification of the shared meal

I’ve been a long-time advocate for the shared meal. The shared experience of eating is thoroughly humanising and equalising. It reminds us that there is a part of us all that is ultimately the same, and helps us to overcome the barriers that differentiate and discriminate. I appreciate the story of the resurrected Jesus breaking bread with two disciples in Emmaus: it is only at that point that they recognise him. I have made my hermeneutical step to suggest that it is in the breaking of bread that we too recognise Christ, and each other. 

I’ve just recently become a little bit sceptical about all this. I have been thinking back over my experiences of eating with other people, of which I have ample material to draw from. Honestly, shared meals don’t always foster domination-free spaces of mutuality and freedom. Often times, meals allow for the unspoken power dynamics of everyday life to float to the surface, making for a space that is more stratified than ever.

I had developed a theory around shared meals that kind of went like this:

(1) The flow of everyday life is determined largely by sets of roles and processes and officially-sanctified hierarchies. Think, for example, of a workplace, where your boss has more power than you do because of the social role she or he is afforded. Your work life is dictated by this dynamic.

(2) There are moments when we can free ourselves from these structured social forms, to meet each other in our common human state. In cultural anthropology, the word for this is communitas. A shared meal is an opportunity for this free, unstructured space. There is a reason why officers don’t eat with privates – because it would undo the social hierarchy that the military relies on to maintain order and discipline. 

I am beginning to see the limitations of shared meals in fostering this utopia of unstructured freedom and equality. In an unstructured environment, where there are few pre-determined rules around how people should speak, sit, sing, congregate or dance, people will usually just do what they are most comfortable with. When left to our own devises and given the choice, we will generally gather around people with whom we have a natural affinity and most likely share the same culture. 

A shared meal is a pretty unstructured environment. When we bring together an array of different people from different class and cultural backgrounds, unless we are consciously trying to do otherwise, like-people will gravitate towards like. I’ve been a part of a lot of meals that are either split down class, cultural or gender lines, or else dominated by a particular class/culture/gender while others take part in a more marginal way.

I think that the utopia of communitas can happen in a mono-culture, where social structure is removed to reveal commonality. In a multi-cultured environment, on the other hand, removing social structure just sends us all into our own cultural groups. 

I am starting to think that in order to create community in diversity, we actually require a level of structure to bind us together. A format that is known by all. Facilitated spaces for conversation. That kind of thing. If we don’t, if there is a dominant group-within-the-group, they will set the rules, and they will be unspoken, and therefore impossible for non-dominant group members to abide by. The unstructured nature of the group creates a microcosm for social stratification. 

I haven’t fully given up on the idea of meeting Christ in the communal breaking of bread. But in multi-cultured groups, I think we actually need some structure in place in order to equalise us and allow Christ to emerge in our midst.