When we think of our fast-food culture today table manners don’t really play a huge role. There is less and less emphasis placed on sitting down together as family, neighbors, let alone communities doing meal sharing practices. When was the last time your whole neighborhood shut down the street and had a large block party of food and drink? It just doesn’t happen that much anymore. However, this is a recent casualty of the Civilization Project. For much of its 6,000 year history most people groups have feasts to celebrate, commemorate, and connect.
The reasons for this pan-cultural technology of meal-sharing actually lie within our hunter-gatherer, or primal, past. Eating was an egalitarian event. Everyone partook. We know this from a couple of primary sources. The archeological record demonstrates in physical ways that the same resources were generally eaten by multiple parties across potential social strata, and anthropological studies of current hunter-gatherer tribes note a suspension of tribal roles when it comes to food sharing. In other words: the warrior who kills the game isn’t the only one who eats–everyone does. This practice probably extended to far more than food. Material possessions, land distribution, and even relationships, were communitarian in nature. Quite honestly, there just wasn’t much hoarding happening.
IMMEDIATE RETURN VERSUS DELAYED RETURN
There wasn’t much of this going on–because in many ways there simply wasn’t much to hoard. This was intentional. Band societies (or hunter-gatherers) often have what is called an “immediate-return-economy.” This is a fancy phrase meaning that when people in this kind of culture get hungry they go and hunt for game or forage for mushrooms and plants, etc. When they need a basket to hold something, they weave it out of what is there such as long grasses. Their need is satisfied immediately.
Contrast this to the “delayed-return-economies” of most cultures today. Food is harvested, it takes time to grow. Animals are raised to maturity in order to be useful. Paychecks are earned over time. Possessions are planned, crafted, and then protected. We literally build bigger barns to store up our treasures–if we have done “it” right. Insurance policies safeguard our investments. Security systems guard our intricate systems in order to maximize future potential. Everything is done with an eye to delayed gratification. As you can see these two kinds of economies have two very different ways of viewing the world.
As hunter-gatherer tribes shifted towards agricultural practices they became more sedentary. They stayed in one place and developed it over time. They left behind crucial nomadic ways of being and a majority abandoned immediate return economies. Holding onto resources for ones’ own self and ones’ kith and kin eventually became the name of the game. This meant wealth distribution and functional sharing declined and disappeared. However, this value shift didn’t occur all at-once. People didn’t just put down their foraging ways one day and become professional gardeners. Instead, the archeological record demonstrates “transitional societies.”
We have few histories or records we can point to with these mid-way point societies. However, language functions as a preservative here. English is a part of a family of languages including Germanic, Russian, Persian, Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek (and many many more) that originated from one of these transitional societies. The Proto-Indo-Europeans were a series of tribes that formed somewhere between the Balkans and the Anatolian steppes. They were famous for their horses, their chariots, and most importantly their conquest and assimilation of other older peoples. That is, in part, why their language is so prevalent. The Indo-Europeans spread from their homeland all the way to England and France in the west and Russia in the East and as far south as India. With them they brought their language. And we find many words today are actually derivative from that originating point. This is one of the ways we can piece together what their culture looked like.
There are so many fascinating things to say–but for our purposes its best to focus on their practice of the Feast. As dynastic chieftains gradually replaced the egalitarian hunter-gatherer society there were value shifts, as we said earlier. Winners and losers emerged. In order to modulate negative reactions the ruling class ritualized, and commemorated the sharing of yesteryears. Archeologist and anthropologist Anthony David summarizes: “Foragers generally value immediate sharing and generosity over miserly savings for the future, so the shift to keeping breeding stock was a moral as well as an economic one. It probably offended old morals.” That’s what feasts initially started as. They were remembrances of times, not too long before, in which their was a common table and a common good.
Language helps us piece this puzzle together somewhat. Take the English words guest (meaning a visitor) and host (one being visited). These words actually share a common ancestor in Proto-Indo-European language: ghost. The word ghost is obviously something we still use, and it literally means visitor also, in modern vernacular. However it is understood that in its original usage there wasn’t a strong division between visitor (guest) and the one being visited (host). There was a reciprocal relationship in which both found the common ground of gift and exchange. The singular word, ghost, reinforces this fascinating cultural observation that hospitality and feasting were opportunities in which the feast-thrower was no longer the power-holder, but simply another participant. Additionally, the grunt, or common worker, who was simply attending the feast, now was elevated to equal standing as what we might call the host. They were, in terms of participation in the feast or event being hosted, equals.
During this difficult transition, the importance of feasting came into view. The feast in early agricultural societies was a way of memorializing the older human experience of sharing across gender, power, and all other lines. Ancient feasts just prior to the outright launch of the Civilization Project roughly 8,000 years ago would have acted as a humanizing experience in which the meal contained a kind of magical remembrance of earlier egalitarianism.
As alluded to earlier, The Civilization Project,mostly ditched egalitarian practices such as meal sharing or wealth distribution. The gap between the have’s and the have-nots is abundantly clear. Socio-economic divergence impacts not only where some one might end up for college (or if they will ever even go to school), but also things such as quality of sleep or mental health. Society, as we experience it today at the height of the 6,000 year old project, is a divided one with identity politics and segregation firmly entrenched. Today’s experience differs little from that of the Roman Empire in the first century CE.
Within the Christian New Testament, the ritual called Eucharist (or what we often call “communion” today) was one of the ways that the alternative community of Jesus radically remembered human identity. This meal is, in fact, the peak occurrence of their regular gathering. In the early church it was a literal meal, not only a cup of wine and wafer; it carried the same connotations as the Hebrew Passover had. Jesus himself imbued the meal with fresh force by saying that as often as his followers shared together in this Way, they were actually re-membering him. By savoring this ancient feast, they were both partaking of and becoming the mystical body of Christ. This became, in a manner of speaking, Jesus’ signature move.16 However, it was the church-planter Paul of Tarsus who seems to have really seized the revolutionary import of Eucharist in nourishing community.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul is addressing apparent divisions within the small band of friends and followers of Jesus. They’re at each other’s throats due to breaches in trust. Numerous commentators have noted the moral aspect of the divisions. Apparently idolatry, incest, drunkenness and sleeping with temple prostitutes were all going on within the young community. But most appalling to Paul was the relational behavior that took place during the Eucharist meal. For him this meal had the power to transform, and the church’s failure to see this put everything in jeopardy. His understanding of this meal is that it symbolizes inherent wholeness within the family of faith. Just as we break the bread, he argues, we partake of one loaf. He rebukes the Corinthians for their selfish and inconsiderate conduct during their gatherings:
“When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?”
In Paul’s reckoning the ‘sacred’ meal, or conviviality, is quite simply the sharing practice of an egalitarian society, a distinct echo of ancient immediate-return social gatherings. Notice how in another letter Paul deconstructs the civilized order and institutes his radical egalitarian agenda:
“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Communion re-institutes this ancient rhythm of eating together as egalitarian practice. It is the physical remembrance that we are not separate from one another. By sharing across gender, racial, sexual, religious and political lines we witness a value shift. The meal itself becomes the ritualized practice of unitive consciousness.
What Paul, Jesus before him were emphasizing is a dramatic new sort of social engineering, attempting to build a new culture from the ground-up on the principles of egalitarianism. This Divine Supper Club affirmed each member, regardless of social distinction, as having unique importance and worthy of full participation. This simple, subversive act challenged the dominant order of patriarchy, hierarchy, and the established norms of civilization. As John Dominic Crossan points out:
“[Meal-sharing] did not invite a political revolution but envisaged a social one at the imagination’s most dangerous depths. No importance was given to distinctions of Gentile and Jew, female and male, slave and free, poor and rich. Those distinctions were hardly even attacked in theory, they were simply ignored in practice.”
This is one of the many aspects in which the New Testament “Jesus Movement,” or early Christ-followers, and PRE-CIVILIZATION are explicitly linked. It is one of the many reasons why we here at Evolving Wild, think that Christ, as the one who was and is and is-to-come, is stirring up the echo of a memory. What do you think?