It might seem odd that the question of whether Christians should join in iftar meals with their Muslim neighbours is a pressing one for the Church in the UK. But following the hosting of a Grand Iftar, to mark the end of the Muslim season of Ramadan, at Southwark Cathedral, reaction appears to have been strongly divided, and it is clearly a contentious issue.
The word ‘iftar’ simply means ‘meal’ or ‘feast’, and has with it implications of a social meal, eaten together in the community. At that level the issue is relatively uncontentious. But the iftar is a particular meal, ending the fasting during the daytime all through Ramadan—and Christians who live in Muslim countries by and large have no problem with joining in with this social occasion, as it is just part of the local culture. (They also point out that, paradoxically, Muslims probably eat more during Ramadan than at other times, because of the large breakfast taken in the morning, and the iftar feast at the end of the day!)
But in the UK, the Ramadan fast has a different status. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam (along with confession of faith, ‘There is no god but Allah, and Muhammed is his prophet’, prayer, giving alms, and pilgrimage to Mecca), and the iftar meal usually happens just before evening prayers. In a non-Muslim culture, the iftar will have an important function in identifying and encourage cohesion for the Muslim community. But it is isn’t possible (as some have argued) to simply say that the iftar is a religious meal. Islam does not separate the ‘religious’ from the ‘social’, and has a totalising world view, making exclusive claims over the whole of life. (Mainstream Christianity had a similar approach prior to the modern era; the division of life into the sacred and secular is primarily an Enlightenment construction.) So the status of the iftar meal is complex, particularly in Western cultures where Muslims are a minority group. One of the issue for Southwark Cathedral was building trust and cohesion between Muslim and non-Muslim communities a year on from the attack on London Bridge by three Muslim men.
Arguments in response to the Southward Cathedral event have mostly been about social or cultural issues, but what are the theological resources we might draw on to reflect on this issue? I think there are three resource to draw on: Jesus’ own practice of table fellowship; Jesus’ teaching on eating; and Paul’s extended discussion in 1 Corinthians.
Jesus’ table fellowship with undesirable and marginal people is reasonable well-known, and according to the gospels was a distinctive aspect of his life and ministry. The criticism of Jesus by those concerned with ritual purity is recorded in all three gospels, in Matt 9.10–13, Mark 2.15–17 and Luke 5.29–31. There are several things to note about these incidents which are often passed over or misunderstood.
First, the criticism is not by nasty religious bigots of Jesus as a laissez-faire liberal. Jesus actually commends the Pharisees in their concern and teaching; what he dislikes is their hypocrisy in not themselves putting it into practice (Matt 23.3). And Matthew, with his concern to express the gospel in Jewish terms, actually records Jesus teaching that we must be even more concerned about righteousness (Matt 5.20)
Secondly, whilst Jesus attends meals at the houses of those whom the Pharisees might shun, he never actually invites them himself, and never hosts a meal for them. The only time we see Jesus acting as host for guests at a meal is in the last supper, where those who attend are clearly committed disciples (with the possible exception of Judas). Here, Jesus makes practical provision for his guests and explains the meaning of the Passover celebration, as a good host would do.
That throws light on the other important aspect of Jesus’ table fellowship. If he has been invited (or in the case of Zacchaeus has rather forced himself to be invited) it is because the host wants to hear his message. This becomes clear in Jesus’ teaching given in response to the criticism: he has come to call sinners, and how can he do this without spending time with them? It is fascinating at this point to note the differences between the accounts of Matthew and Mark compared with that of Luke, who is most clearly writing to a non-Jewish audience. Where the others record Jesus as explaining that he came to ‘call sinner’, Luke makes the nature of that call explicit: ‘I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5.32).
We can see, then, that Jesus does not simply disregard the religious and theological significance of table fellowship, and does not simply drive a coach and horses through existing practice. Rather, he is pushing the boundaries of existing practice in order to preach the gospel and call people to repentance in the light of the kingdom, using table fellowship as an anticipation of the righteousness that will result.
Rick Warren explains his own past attendance at iftar meals as an example of good neighbourliness, following the example of Jesus:
It’s called being polite and a good neighbor. For years, we have invited Muslim friends to attend our Easter and Christmas services and they have graciously attended year after year. Some have even celebrated our family’s personal Christmas service in our home. So when they have a potluck when their month of fasting ends, we go to their party. It’s a Jesus thing. The Pharisees criticized him as “the friend of sinners” because Jesus ate dinner with people they disapproved of. By the way, one of my dear friends is a Jewish Rabbi and my family has celebrated Passover at his home, and he attends our Christmas and Easter services. I wish more Christians would reach out in love like Jesus.
But read in context, Jesus’ practice is more complex, and more theologically loaded, than that.
The second resource is Jesus’ teaching about eating with others. When Jesus sends out the Twelve to preach the kingdom of God in Luke 9.1–6, he tells them to take no provision with them, so that they will have to rely on the hospitality of those to whom they go for their food and water. Essentially, they are doing a trade: you offer us food and lodging and we will offer your healing, deliverance and the good news of the kingdom. But in the second, parallel episode in Luke 10.1–12 when he sends out the 72, he gives more detailed instructions and spells out the implications of this strategy. ‘You must eat and drink what is set before you’ (Luke 10.7). It is clear from what Jesus then says about Chorazin and Bethsaida that the 72 are ministering in the largely gentile region to the north of Lake Galilee, and it implies that anyone concerned about Jewish food laws is going to have to learn to be a little flexible.
This flexibility is implied in Jesus’ teaching elsewhere. I recently preached on Matt 5.43–48, and in the centre of this teaching about relating to those who are unlike us and those who dislike us, Jesus challenges the natural human tendency to stick with ‘our own kind’. But the language he uses is that of ‘brothers’ (and, by implications, ‘sisters’). This could be understood to refer to family and kindred groupings, but kindred language also applies in the NT to fellow-Jews; Paul uses this language in Romans 16 to talk about his indebtedness to fellow Jews who have worked with him in his apostolic ministry. The implications of Jesus’ teaching here begins to undermine the idea of Jewish (and so Christian) social self-containment. You can see how challenging this is when you look at the history of inter-religious relationships. A few years ago I visited Thessaloniki, and when the city was part of the Ottoman Empire you could see very clear the quarters of the city which were Jewish, Muslim and Christian—there were very clear boundaries between the communities, who wore distinct styles of clothing and used distinct architectural styles in their buildings. Jesus’ appeal in Matt 5 to the universal identity of humanity created in the image of God raises a large question-mark over such parallel existences. Furthermore, Rodney Stark highlights that a good deal of the rapid growth of the early church came from exogamous marriage, that is, Christian women marrying non-Christian men.
Against this, we need to remember that the relevance of Jewish food laws remained an issue for the early church for some years. This is evidence by the issues debate in the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, but also by the way that the gospel writers seize on Jesus’ teaching to apply it to the question of food in Mark 7.19—Mark’s editorial comment making it clear how important this one, small statement was.
The third resource is Paul’s teaching about food offered to idols in 1 Cor 8–10. This is pertinent, since Christians and Jews in the first century were living in a world where the religious and the social were blended together just as they are for Muslims today. To be part of a trade guild and practice your craft, you needed to pray to the ‘sponsoring’ God of the guild, and the economic consequences of refusing to compromise your Christian faith is an important background to the language of economic control of the worship of the beast in Rev 13.17.
This intermix of religious and social life extended to the markets. It was possibly to buy meat that had not been offered to idols, but this was much more expensive than meat that had been used in temple offerings, and so was not a practical option for those who were poor—and it is clear from the discussion in chapter 11 that there was a wide mix of economic status within the community.
Paul’s argument begins with the central confession of Jewish faith, the Shema from Deut 6.4, but revised to incorporate Jesus into the unique identity of the one God.
So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so–called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Cor 8.4–6)
There is only one God, and this one God is both the God and Father of Jesus, and the Lord Jesus himself. (This is the most important text in the NT demonstrating early worship of Jesus as incorporated into the identity of God.) What does this then mean for the ethical problem of idol-meat?
Surprisingly, this belief cuts both ways. On the one hand, if Jesus is Lord, then idols are themselves nothing, following the tradition of the critique of idolatry in the Old Testament. We have nothing to fear, and nothing to worry about—and we are therefore free to eat whatever food we like, without any anxiety. On the other hand, if Jesus is Lord, we should not be compromising our faith by doing something that might look (either to us or to others) as though we are selling short on our belief in the uniqueness of God as revealed to us in Jesus.
So, for Paul, the discussion moves away from ontology (the ‘objective’ status) of the food we are eating, and moves towards the sociology of the community. What does our eating this food communicate? What does it say about us, both to our brothers and sisters within the community of faith, and to those on the outside? Will it help to build up the faith of believers, and will it support the proclamation of Jesus as Lord?
This, it seems to me, gets to the nub of the controversy about the Grand Iftar held at Southwark Cathedral. I was very interested to notice that Rick Warren, when talking about his own participation in the iftar, prefaced that by explaining how distinctive he understood his Christian faith to be, and that by joining in this community meal he was in no sense compromising his faith.
What did the Southwark Grand Iftar communicate? Those who organised it were clear in their intention—that this should communicate a willingness to build social bridges, and not perpetuate unnecessary division. That is laudable, even necessary—but for some, the suspicion of compromise on the question of interfaith relations has ben fuelled by other occasions when the boundaries have been blurred, for example when Giles Goddard hosted a Muslim service in his Anglican church, which necessitated the covering up of Christian images. In such a context, the message of the Grand Iftar is less clear than it would otherwise be.
And in a social context where police guidance to combat Islamophobia (if such a thing can exist) bears an uncanny resemblance to a Shariah ban on any criticism of Islam as a religion or the Qur’an as a book, then the message gets even more mixed. Add to this other iftas where there is a significant buy-in to Muslim culture, and the problem is compounded. It would also help for the Church of England to be clear that, alongside community building, it does also believe in seeing Muslims come to Christian faith in some way or another.
The proof of the pudding is less in the eating and more in the communication—in one direction or the other. Although done with laudable intent, it appears on this occasion the impact has been less than helpful.
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