About noon, Peter went up to the roof to pray, and while he was praying, he got hungry. When he fell into a trance, Peter saw a sheet being lowered from the sky before him, and bouncing around in this parachute-like sheet were animals —clean and unclean, reptiles, birds, four-footed critters. The voice said, “Kill and eat,” and Peter said, “I would never eat what is unclean!” This happened three times so there was no mistake. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15).
Despite this sheet with its slithering, clucking menagerie, despite the elephant in the room, Bible scholars are quick to point out this story is not really about animals. It’s not even about food. See this episode fits between two scenes making it the middle panel in a three-part story.
In the first scene, the day before, a Gentile named Cornelius experienced a vision at three o’clock in the afternoon. The angel of the LORD came to him saying, “Cornelius, your prayers have been heard. Send your staff to find Peter who is staying at the the home of Simon the tanner.” This is frightening. It’s scary enough to have an angel of the LORD show up and give orders, but Peter is Jewish, and Cornelius is not, and does this angel know what he is asking?
But this is the book of Acts, and Acts is the second part of the Gospel of Luke, and in Luke and Acts when angels show up and give directions, the people follow them. So Cornelius dispatches his emissaries while Peter is on the roof marveling at the zoo-in-a-sheet.
After the voice announced that Peter is not in charge of determining what is clean or unclean, two things happened. One, Peter is perplexed by this vision. Two, the team sent by Cornelius knocks on the door and Peter has to decide whether to let these Gentile men come into the house, and sit at Simon’s table, and sleep in Simon’s guest room. They want Peter to go meet Cornelius the next day. He points out that this is unlawful, but the vision from God is changing his mind.
More than animals, more than food, this story is the Gospel breaking a boundary between two opposing communities. Notice the conversion on both sides: Peter gets accepted by this Gentile household, Cornelius gets baptized by Peter’s crew of Jewish Christians. They’re all staying together in Cornelius’s home —eating at his table —and you know he was not keeping kosher— drinking his wine. This is what peacemaking looks like.
Before we get all wooed by this multi-cultural bridge-building, we’ve got to see, this sitting down together came at a price. Peter is Jewish; being Jewish is central to his identity as a person. It is not the case that God popped in one afternoon, lowered this sheet, and said, “You don’t have to keep kosher anymore. Those laws are so silly!” No! That is not what happened. Peter does not renounce his religious identity; he does not kill and eat as the voice commanded. He is still Jewish, but try telling that to Paul!
Later in the New Testament, there’s controversy over whether Gentiles must first become Jewish in order to become Christian. In middle of this, Paul charges Peter with hypocrisy. Paul writes this in his letter to the Galatians: “When [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he stood self-condemned. Until certain people came from James, [Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles” (Galatians 2:11).
Sometimes in the name of peacemaking, it becomes tempting to suggest that our differences don’t really matter. Sometimes white people say things like “I don’t see race —all people look the same to me,” which nobody believes. Sometimes at the ecumenical clergy meeting, we feel the common impulse to avoid conflict. We all worship the same God; that’s what matters. Let’s not get into those subjects where we know we disagree; we’re just trying to have lunch.
The truth is our differences matter. People come to this church not in spite of the fact that we hold different political and social perspectives; people come to this church because of our diversity. And yet, it’s hard to know what to do when we encounter the bright lines that define and divide us. Really get into politics or religion with somebody sitting near you, you will probably hear yourself say: “Wait a minute, you believe what now?” These are peacemaking words; it sure doesn’t feel very peaceful to say them.
Those Bible scholars are right to insist that the story from Acts is not really about animals; it’s not really about food. (But you know it is little bit about animals and it is about eating.) One place we notice the dividing lines is when it comes to our human relationship with animals. We have separate categories for animals, and we’d like to keep them separate, thank you.
Some animals are pets, and we are a people who love our pets. I remember taking a class with a man from Nigeria. Something that surprised him about America was how people here put clothes on their dogs. At the time, I laughed with him. Now go on and ask me how many sweaters we have for Hildegard.
Next, some animals are wild. Behold the majestic elephants and the sewer rats. From the muskrat, to the mountain lion, to the manatee, wild animals are all a little dangerous and more-than-a-little fascinating.
Finally, some animals are the ones we eat. Now certainly a pig can be both adorable and delicious, but we would never eat a kitten. Or a bald eagle! With a few exceptions—like deer, perhaps— we prefer to keep each of these categories distinct. Pets are not food. Wild animals don’t snuggle on the couch.
Now whether we’re talking about the differences between Jews and Gentiles in the Bible, or between Republicans and Democrats, or between categories of animals, once we can see the bright lines, we can decide what to do with them. This is why empathy is meaningful.
Empathy is not the work of fully understanding exactly what another person is going through. Empathy is saying, “I don’t know how you must be feeling right now, but I sure want to.” When you empathize with someone you’re saying to that person, “Look you’re over there and I’m over here, but I’m imagining what this is like for you, and I’m not leaving.”
Recently, I became aware of the work of Temple Grandin, an animal scientist who has given her career to working right on the lines between animals and people. Grandin is also a person with autism and an advocate for those on the spectrum. Professionally, her concern is how human beings treat animals. Her approach is to empathize with the animals which she can do brilliantly because of her scientific background and her autism.1https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_Grandin
In her work, she is clear about where the lines are. I know technically human beings are animals, but in our lived reality, animals are not people. Livestock are not pets. Grandin sees the lines, goes right up and stands on them, then asks: How can people treat their pets with greater understanding? How can people treat livestock more compassionately? Because she has positioned herself on the line, this question deftly turns into, How can people kill livestock more compassionately?
As you can imagine, Grandin’s work is controversial among those who advocate for animal rights. Her critics argue that the practice of factory farming in the United States is unethical. Grandin is working to improve factory farms, to help animals walk to slaughter feeling more calm and less distressed. But do these minor improvements really get to the heart of the problem? Her critics note that she gets paid by the meat industries as a consultant, so who’s side is she on anyway?2 http://dailypitchfork.org/?p=536
Grandin maintains that it is possible to raise livestock to kill and eat in a way that is not cruel. Even though a cow will one day become a hamburger, there’s still value in giving the cow a good life. She speaks highly of people she has gotten to know who have instituted her reforms and are working to farm ethically and compassionately. The people matter too, she argues.
Grandin remembers standing in a cattle stockyard. She writes this: “All these animals were going to their death in a system I had designed. I started to cry, then a flash of insight came into my mind. None of the cattle at this slaughter plant would have been born if people had not bred and raised them.”3Grandin, Temple and Catherine Johnson. Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York. 2009. Quotation from the Afterword.
Wherever you find yourself on this issue, something I appreciate about Grandin’s work is her commitment to see the dividing line, go up to it, then listen thoughtfully — to the critics, to the farmers and industry reps, to the pigs and cows themselves. This is what Cornelius did when he welcomed Peter and what Peter did when he welcomed Cornelius. It is never without risk. Stand on that line and your best allies will question your allegiance; your opponents will be slow to trust you, but this line is where the Gospel leads.
There’s just no other power like the power of going up to the edge, sitting down at the table, and having lunch with someone from the other side. Even if they are Southern Baptist and you are UCC. Even if they are a vegan and your steak is medium with pink in the middle. Even if they can’t stand coffee and you can’t live without it.
As a church, we practice eating together in here so we’ll know how to eat with each other out there. By having lunch, we take on the double work of honoring someone else’s preferences and limitations while stretching open our own. This is the work of peacemaking. It does not erase the lines between us, but see there’s a table on the line. Here we’ll see how eating together changes the world; it might even change us. Thank God.