Sharing as a Central Practice in the Economy of God
(Author's note: This article extends some earlier work that Shannon Jung has done in formulating a Biblical--theological foundation for understanding eating as a spiritual and moral practice. Food for Life: The Spirituality and Ethics of Eating (Fortress 2004) claims that God had two purposes in creating food: to contribute to delight, and for sharing. In a more recent book Jung examined those Christian spiritual practices associated with food which culminate in the Eucharist. That book, Sharing Food: Christian Practices for Enjoyment (Fortress 2006), has a section on sharing and hospitality much of which is excerpted here with a new introduction.)
 While it doesn't seem to make much sense in our contemporary economy which is based on exchange, God's economy is based on sharing, on grace. God freely gives us many of the things we find enjoyable: sun, water, air, friends, family, our bodies, the ability to enjoy food and the ability to share with others. We respond to those gifts by giving to God's creatures, ourselves and the whole created order.
 An ethics of economic life in our daily decisions is shaped by this experience. (Some would call grace a doctrine, but a doctrine is the sedimented form of an experience.) Thus we are called as Christians to live out God's grace in delighting or enjoying our lives and also sharing those lives with others. We do that through taking care of our bodies; by watching what we eat; we exercise as a way of honoring our bodies; we say grace; and we both fast and feast to the glory of God. How we live our daily lives is, for many Christians, directed by the set of practices which we have already listed.
 We also make important economic decisions when we are engaged in shopping for food and also preparing food (cooking). If you can, imagine that you are voting as you push your shopping cart down the grocery aisles. You are! What you put in your cart signals a care about your body and/or your family; it indicates whether you are mindful of how the food was produced and under what conditions it was grown. Many people are finding that shopping in farmers markets and CSAs gives them a chance to get to know the growers and also that it produces a tastier, healthier meal. What we buy and how we prepare it are a way of forming ourselves into gracious, sharing people.
Sharing a Central Practice
 Sharing food is perhaps the primary socializing and civilizing activity of human beings. Eating is far more than merely taking on fuel, as it is for a frog snagging a fly or a cow munching grain. Time Magazine in its special issue on "Overcoming Obesity"  reports that "To a human, the ritual of eating…is one of the most primal of shared activities. We eat together when we celebrate…. We solve our problems over the family dinner table, conduct our business over the executive lunch table, entertain guests over cake and cookies at the coffee table." "Interaction over food is the single most important feature of socializing," says Sidney Mintz, professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. "The food becomes the carriage that conveys feelings back and forth." 
 Beyond this, however, sharing food is a central custom among all ethnic groups. It is also a central component of regional identity. Foods define who we are as a particular people. We still cook cheese grits in our house, and thereby retain our Southern roots. Patti introduced the family to Mexican cuisine from her California years; that has become a favorite with us as well. Italian cuisine; Jewish; Norwegian; Cantonese - each reminds us of particular events and peoples. For those with more specific ethnic identities, this is even more the case. The Italians, for example, say that it is around the table that friends understand best the warmth of being together.
 Many commentators, myself included, are upset because eating together (sharing food) seems to be in decline in the U.S. and also elsewhere around the world, particularly in affluent nations. What is the source of our concern? Why is sharing that important? Why the upset about eating together being in decline?
Centrality of Sharing Food
 Do you remember when you were encouraged (probably by your mother) to share your toys or your candy? Why was that? I believe that even at that age and stage you and I were being socialized to interact with others in ways that are central to our well-being. Indeed, my much stronger claim is that an absolutely central, non-voluntary, foundational part of our human nature is that we are related to others. Indeed, if we attend to our physical econature, we see, as Abram pointed out, that we are at the core of our being interdependent with all kinds of others - human, plant, mineral, animal, and cosmic. Aristotle and Aquinas and Mead and Cooley and all sorts of classical thinkers have said that, of course. Never, however, has that been so evident as it is in our world where Al-Qaeda terrorists half a world away sneeze and the country goes on orange alert, or the quality of the soybean harvest in Brazil is watched closely by farmers in Nebraska.
 The ways in which we share our very identity and bodily presence with others is much more primal than global interdependence might suggest. Indeed, we could not even be human at all without such sharing with others. Added to that, consider the fact that eating itself is a daily routine, something we anticipate and usually enjoy. Besides, eating is a prime requisite of life. These two primal activities - food and sharing - are linked. Family connections, business negotiations, celebrations, and meeting newcomers all are enhanced when these relationships are undertaken with a good meal. Thus, their very primordiality leads to their association.
 We who are alarmed at the decline of eating together by families see the ability to share food at home as a foundation of interpersonal, social, and public life. Eating together is one antidote to individualism; sharing is a school of sociability. Thus, not to share at home constitutes a loss of our mutuality. Over time this leads to an inability to share and contributes to an inability to be mutually accountable. To the extent that is true, there is also a weakening of our voluntary association with others - such as the Jaycees, the church, or political parties. There is a spiraling down of our capacity to relate to others. Interpersonal sharing leads to third sector association and is also the foundation of hospitality to strangers.
 Alternately, eating together can spiral up and enable people to share in ever widening circles of openness. We become more capable of mutual accountability in this way. We are formed in being open to diverse opinions and people when we share food. In the Christian community we are under mandate to love neighbors as ourselves in an ever expansive inclusiveness. Given the formative power of sharing, not to eat together carries a loss in the ability to share on a personal level, participate in voluntary associations, and be engaged in civic life. Eating together - at home, at church, at a political rally - builds our ability to associate with others.
 To this point I have said little that is explicitly Christian about sharing. Indeed, Christians believe that sharing is a central practice. But it seems clear that sharing is close to the core of being truly human, whatever one's beliefs. A strong case can be made on purely secular grounds that sharing is a practice that is integral to human nature and well-being. For reasons both social and biological, sharing is vital to human health. This does not depend on particular beliefs. 
 Sharing is Natural. First, it is natural to share because God created human beings to be in relationship with God, with other men and women, and with the rest of the created order. Douglas John Hall asserts that one cannot ask about the character of human beings in isolation. Indeed, "[t]his being has its being - no, receives its being - as it stands in relationship with God and with its own kind and with 'otherkind' (i.e., non- or extra-human creatures)."  Consider also the statement of Daniel Migliore that "In the act of creation, God already manifests the self-communicating, other-affirming, community-forming love that defines God's eternal triune reality and that is decisively disclosed in the ministry and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ" [and through the work of the Holy Spirit.]
 Sharing produces joy. Christians consider sharing to be a joy, secondly, because relating to others enters into our very constitution. In the same way that there are distinct persons in the Trinity, no one of whom can be understood apart from the other, we human beings are defined by our relating to and sharing with others. Monika Hellwig makes evident the meaning of this claim about humankind being created in the image of the triune, inter-communicating God. Men and women have a need, a drive, a hunger to share that - if unfulfilled - renders them incomplete. In short, we need to share. It is our joy to share.
 Hellwig suggests that there is no human growth into wholeness, without "learning to move out of the limelight, to acknowledge others as persons, to find satisfaction in giving and serving and spending oneself for others." In short, we cannot be whole beings without sharing. This may be difficult for those whose lives fall into contemporary patterns. With the ease and convenience of meeting physical needs, today's affluent people have "little experience of the inevitability of sharing, because more is bought and more always seems to be there to be bought." But genuine wholeness requires sharing with other people, sharing oneself, sharing possessions, sharing food.
 Wholeness entails sharing. In short, wholeness or salvation involves sharing. This may sound simple, but there are clear prerequisites that must precede (or conditions that must underlie) genuine sharing. Children, for example, may need to receive and to learn to trust before they can share. The church has a significant role to play in this aspect of Christian formation. There are other prerequisites, I suspect, and they deserve investigation.
 Genuine sharing is akin to the giving of gifts or serving others; it is not just the performance of acts. Instead, attitude counts. One's attitude in sharing is part of the act of sharing itself. We must be able to share, to let go, to be dependent - precisely those things that a moneyed people find that they have been insulating themselves against. We have learned how not to share and we are losing that ability.
 Fortunately, we can re-learn sharing. That will necessitate starting where we are, of course - with diminished capacity. However, we can begin everyday by learning to share food, a very simple but daily and profound experience. We begin by practicing and we maintain skill by practicing; that is what this book is about. It takes some sharing in order to divide up the tasks of preparing meals, to get everyone together, to coordinate the gathering of the food, to say grace, to eat at the same time, and to share the experiences of the day along with the food. It is, quite simply, a way of checking in, of sharing oneself along with the food. It is striking to me that this checking in is an important thing to do virtually everyday; if I fail to check in every day with my wife or teenager, I begin to lose involvement in their lives. Furthermore, it is usually a way of planning the future, of learning what the others will be doing as well as have been doing. It also contributes to reflection; sharing with and conversing with others helps refine my thinking and also makes my thinking objective to me. As sharing builds up, I am prepared to face myself by sharing with others and becoming able to receive (even criticism) from them. I am willing to trust that that criticism is constructive. Having learned that, I may be willing to risk sharing constructive criticism and even affirmation. They may be willing to affirm me as well.
 As you perceive, this process is gradual. It may begin by simply being an action with the hope that a change in attitude will accompany the act. But as sharing proceeds, the action may in fact lead to a changing attitude. We may find that we enjoy sharing; indeed, that we find fulfillment there. This is a building process, but one that I am persuaded will lead to greater enjoyment.
 Two questions arise: 1. Is it necessary to share food? Are there not other things that one could share that would lead to the development of this skill? I believe the answer to this is yes, but… Yes, but it is hard to imagine sharing without food being involved, without eating together. Can you relate to someone else without eating with them? Yes, you could, but why would you want to? Sharing food is the simplest way, the most natural way to begin the act of building up a relationship where deeper sharing becomes possible. It is an activity that we engage in three or more times a day. It may be the practice of sharing that is most available and most effective (and most enjoyable!).
 2. The last issue here is: Why family and friends? Why limit the sharing of food to family and friends as we have been doing to this point in the chapter? My reason for beginning with sharing and limiting the use of that term to our interaction with family and friends is because I think that sharing with family and friends is where we learn how to share. The home and friendships are schools of virtue where we learn the practices necessary for life abundant. Sharing is such a practice. Let me note here that we will look more explicitly at the practical question of how we learn to share at the same time that we consider how to learn hospitality. Now we turn to a consideration of sharing with others beyond our family and friends - or hospitality.
 It may seem at least unusual to reserve the term "hospitality" to strangers, to sharing with those whom we don't know -- even those who are marginal. Sharing with enemies may be beyond our imagination. However, for Christians, the practice of hospitality is a tradition that goes far, far beyond the contemporary usage of the word in reference primarily to the way we receive family and friends. As Henri Nouwen put it, hospitality conjures up the image of "tea parties, bland conversation, and a general atmosphere of coziness… [But] if there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality." In many ways, thanks to such authors as Thomas Ogletree and Christine Pohl (and of course Nouwen himself), the concept is being restored to its original bite and edginess. For the Hebrews, failure to welcome the stranger and sojourner could lead to disastrous, life-threatening consequences for them. Seeing themselves as strangers and sojourners, moreover, made this mandate to care for the vulnerable and those at risk in their midst a foundational part of their identity as the people of God. As a slave people, a people at risk, they understood that hospitality was a matter of life and death, not coziness or light banter. In their harsh climate, not to welcome the nomad was to treat the other completely contrary to how God had treated them. (See Leviticus 19:34.) Their response of gratitude to God was to treat others hospitably, just as God had treated them.
 Moreover, it is quite clear that Jesus practiced this exact kind of hospitality, even to his death. No one was excluded from Jesus' banquet. Jesus himself often depended on the hospitality of others, and even -- it might be claimed -- saw the receiving of hospitality as a gift that matches the giving of hospitality. He acted both as host and guest. Surely his practice of eating with every kind of person, including his closest friends the disciples, Samaritan women, tax collectors, and the disreputable stands as a witness to the centrality of hospitality to the Gospel .
 In fact, the early church saw the practice of offering hospitality to strangers as a distinctive mark. They were people of The Way. As Christine Pohl puts it, "Early Christian writers claimed that transcending social and ethnic differences by sharing meals, homes, and worship with persons of different backgrounds was a proof of the truth of the Christian faith." Often this hospitality was extended to other Christians as we know from the epistles of Paul.
 Hospitality was understood to encompass physical, social, and spiritual dimensions of human experience. Besides being a recognition of physical needs, hospitality encompassed spiritual and social ones as well. "In almost every case," Pohl writes, "hospitality involved shared meals; historically, table fellowship was an important way of recognizing the equal value and dignity of persons."
 Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, and many other major Christian thinkers have seen hospitality as a ministry to Christ himself. So when persecuted believers were received hospitably, Luther claimed that "God Himself is in our home, is being fed at our table…" Calvin taught that no act was "more pleasing or acceptable to God" than receiving religious refugees into believers' homes. This was a "sacred" form of hospitality for Calvin; he encouraged believers to see in strangers the image of God and our common flesh. Similarly, John Wesley resisted all attempts to weaken or explain away Matthew 25:31-46, the mandate to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit those in prison as though those people were Christ himself.
 Certainly hospitality is akin to sharing with family and friends. Perhaps we would do well to indicate its central differentiating features, however.
 Hospitality is welcoming. We know very well the difference between being welcomed warmly and not being welcomed or being welcomed only lukewarmly. We know the value of hospitality to family and friends. The distinctive practice of Christian hospitality was to extend the circle of those welcomed to include the poor and marginalized. The close relations fostered by table fellowship and conversation were expanded to strangers. Just as family and friends flourish in the context of a warm welcome and a hospitable meal, so also do those at church, or the homeless, the disabled, or the displaced. So do strangers and enemies.
 Hospitality involves the recognition of the dignity and value of others. One of Christine Pohl's central points in her remarkable book is that hospitality recognizes the others. This recognition makes all the difference between feeling like someone and the widespread sense among the poor and marginalized that they are "no body." Hospitality recognizes the other and conveys a dignity.
 When the boys and I worked at the Dorothy Day House in Moorhead, Minnesota, it was important for us not just to bring or prepare the food. We needed to involve the "guests" in the preparation and also to eat with and visit with the guests as we ate. To have remained withdrawn would be to practice a hospitality of the distanced - which is almost an oxymoron; this was no doubt the most difficult part of the experience because we didn't know what to expect. Most important we didn't know whether the guests would accept us. We were in the position of being vulnerable just as they were. This is an important position for the affluent to experience. Actually we are in this position all the time (in far less vulnerable and material ways, to be sure) and it is helpful to know that and to live in light of our own interdependencies.
 Churches may need to find ways to interact with those they "serve" or to whom they make donations. If they do not, they may thereby be depriving themselves of what they could learn from others who are different. They may be short-circuiting their own formation by ignoring the whole persons whom they are to love as themselves.
 Perhaps it is this dignity and recognition that enables people to live a reputable, respectful life. Partly attitude, partly action, recognition means meeting the other as a person whose dynamics are as complicated and whose life is as complex as one's own. This suggests a humility and compassion that is born out of an alertness to the ways in which we have been graced and how little our position depends on our own doing. This may also foster a forgiveness of enemies.
 Hospitality usually involves eating. You saw that coming, of course. But even Pohl recognizes that "the practice of hospitality almost always includes eating a meal together." In part, this is an expression of our basic equality and the fact that we are people who have the same basic needs; we share a common humanity, so that the differences of rich and poor, black and white, young and old, brown and yellow, male and female are not wiped out but placed in a wider context of need and humanity and joy of relating.
 It is also true that many people in our world are hungry. To be sure, we are confronted with the hungry and homeless in our cities and towns; it is helpful for us to see in them the wider face of world hunger. Eating with and feeding people is urgent for those without adequate food. As my friend, Ed Loring, who works at the Open Door in Atlanta likes to say, "Justice is important, but supper is essential." The fact of world hunger at home and abroad is on the agenda of every Christian church, as it should be. Besides the command to "Feed the hungry," the need to eat reminds us of the communal nature of the lives we share with all other species, including our own.
 Many claim that insuring that all people are adequately fed, clothed, and sheltered should be on the top of the agenda of every nation as well as every church. Practicing hospitality is a matter of justice as well as of love.
 Hospitality is essential to human well-being. We all need hospitality; we need to receive it and we need to give it. The claim that only by sharing can we experience wholeness applies to hospitality as well. Jesus asked his disciples, "And if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" (Matthew 5: 46, 47) Luke adds: "But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked." (Lk. 6: 35) The church has drawn the quite logical conclusion that we are to share with all people.
 Being in relationship with God and with others is integral to human wholeness. Being able to be hospitable with others is our grateful response to the hospitality of God. "Hospitality becomes for the Christian community a way of being the sacrament of God's love in the world."
 There is also in hospitality a "complex dance between recognizing our own need, ministering to those in need, and recognizing their ministry to us." Hospitality is done not simply out of duty. We are empowered by offering hospitality to others; we realize that we are enriched by those others as well. We recognize our own need and that helps us realize that respect is not abrogated by homelessness or need. We see that we have needs which are disguised by our material abundance. The perspective that hospitality offers on material possessions and simplicity of life style is also a freedom from over-identifying our worth with our status of any kind. Eating together is a concrete symbol of this. It expresses the basic worth of each person, and reveals to us that we exist in relationship with others and God. We may have become so individualistic in our thinking that we fail to appreciate community-creating activities, i.e., activities that build community. We may not understand how important community is for giving us life. Perhaps hospitality is such a practice; that is, we can appreciate its value for our well-being by noting that it creates community and that hospitality is best sustained by communities. Those communities allow us to blossom and grow and witness to the world. They might even give us a glimpse of what the Kingdom might look like.
 Hospitality is making room for others; as we welcome others into our rooms, we find that community begins to develop. We have more, we receive more, we share more, and rather than being diminished, we build up community. Being in relation with others is where we live more deeply than what we own or who we are. Being in life together with God and the world is our home. Hospitality is finally a life-giving practice; it helps create communities where both host and guest are recognized and affirmed. In breaking bread together, we begin to experience God's energy.
 Hospitality to strangers is certainly not an abstract theological topic. Instead, it bridges our theology with our everyday life world, where sharing with family and friends comes more easily than sharing with strangers. Sharing and hospitality are, of course, siblings. The actual practice of hospitality, rather than mere discussions about hospitality, gives life and vitality to faith. Abstract discussions of hospitality may serve to disguise the performative nature of the concept. It might even be said that they violate the spirit of the word, and certainly they violate the practice. Talking about hospitality without practicing it may mean that we don't know what we are talking about! Confronting our own prejudices and fears about being hospitable raises significant faith questions for us. Can we genuinely share our eating with strangers? Are we willing to share, trusting that there will be enough for all? Can we trust that others will be hospitable to us?
 We have left the realm of talking about hospitality at this point in the chapter. We take up the task of learning to be hospitable. As every tennis player or pianist knows, we become proficient at a particular skill by practicing it regularly, and by learning from those who are already masters. Hospitality is such a skill and a practice, but it goes beyond those since hospitality is an action suffused with attitude. It is a practice that has roots in so many other areas of life, in our character and our commitments, that its growth also causes many other areas of our lives to grow and flourish. We learn to be hospitable to others, to strangers and to our friends and relatives. At a certain point maybe even to ourselves.
 Hospitality is a way of being in the world, an orientation to others and to life itself. It is a means of grace, a way both of receiving God's grace and being in tune with the gracious life of the world. It is a way of passing on God's grace and being graced in return. It is a welcoming and sustaining way of life.
 We can begin to learn such grace, such welcoming, slowly. First, we might think about sharing and hospitality. The following questions and activities are designed to help us think about and then get a feel for hospitality:
 1. Sharing and hospitality are old, old concepts with an important presence in every culture in some form. When company comes, whether it is strangers, family or friends, why do people welcome each other with food and drink? How are hospitality traditions alike and how are they different? What are their origins? Personally, what makes you feel welcome and why? What role does food play in the experience? Do people ever use food or beverages to communicate a word that is far more intimate than the act of sharing?
2. One classic New Testament story about hospitality is that of the Good Samaritan found in Luke 10: 29-37. Enact the story of the Good Samaritan. Discuss the role of the Samaritan and the victim. How does each feel? What was their motivation? What did you learn from this story when you thought beneath the surface?
 3. Hospitality. Think about a time in your life when you received hospitality. Did receiving such hospitality make any difference in your life? How did it feel? Did it make a difference in your community's life?
 Can you recall a time when you gave hospitality to others? Say, on a mission trip or when your youth group worked at the rescue mission or shelter in your town? What sort of feelings did you have before that experience? During the experience? How do you look back on it?
 Do you feel like God was involved in either the experience of receiving hospitality or giving it? Were you aware that you were sharing hospitality rather than just receiving or giving hospitality
 Further questions for thought:
Do you think that Monika Hellwig is right when she claims that human beings have a need to share with others? Why or
Do you think that human beings, especially adults, have a need to receive from others?
Do you think that, as a people, we are losing the ability to share?
If you think sharing is essential to our humanity and that we are losing that ability, what does that portend?
How do giving and receiving relate to our faith in God?
Vol.163, No. 23, June 7, 2004, pp. 57-113
Jeffrey Kluger, "Why We Eat: For Social Reasons," Ibid., p. 71
Quoted in Ibid.
Frances Moore and Anna Lappe suggest that food has become a link to who we are. "Embedded in family life and in cultural and religious ritual, food has always been our most direct, intimate tie to a nurturing earth as well as a primary means of bonding with each other. Food has helped us know where we are and who we are." "The Delicious Revolution," in World Ark, Spring 2002, an excerpt from Hope's Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet, (New York: Putnam, 2002), p. 3.
See my "Autonomy as Justice: Spatiality as the Revelation of Otherness," Journal of Religious Ethics 14:1 (Spring 1986), 157-183, and "Spatiality, Relativism, and Authority," The Journal of the AmericanAcademy of Religion L: 2 (June 1982), 215-235.
Nearly half of all American families eat dinner together fewer than three times a week or not at all. See
Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979, 1998), Chapter 8.
See Sallie McFague, Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), p. 55.
Indeed, Christians would claim this characteristic of life was built into the world at creation, and that it does not require special revelation to recognize it.
Douglas John Hall, The Steward: A Biblical Symbol Comes of Age. rev. ed. with a foreword by Roland E. Vallet (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, and New York: Friendship Press, 1990), p. 26.
Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 85.
There is a balance here. One sometimes needs and likes to be alone, to think, to gather oneself, to be able to enter into a time of togetherness. Aloneness may enhance even the quality of togetherness, of course. I have exaggerated the value of sociability because I think it is threatened.
Hellwig, The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World, p. 9. In some ways, this is the central claim of that book since it is linked to her Christological beliefs.
Ibid,, p. 12.
Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. (New York, Image Books, 1975, p. 66.
Pohl, p. 5.
Ibid., p. 6.
For "A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity," see Amy G. Oden, ed. And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook… (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001). Her introductions to the readings should not be overlooked.
See Pohl, pp. 61-84.
Ibid., p. 12.
Murphy Davis, Ed's partner at the Open Door, writes that "Without supper, without love, without table companionship, justice can become a program that we do to other people." Hospitality (the newsletter of the Open Door)January 1988, p. 8.
David Kirk, "Hospitality: Essence of Eastern Christian Lifestyle," Diakonia 16/2 (1981), p. 112, quoted in Pohl, p. 34.
Pohl, p. 119.
© January 2007
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 7, Issue 1