Guess who's coming to dinner with President Obama? Congressional Republicans.
On March 6, Obama hosted a dinner party for 11 Republican Senators. Among the invited guests to a meal at the Jefferson Hotel, just a few blocks from the White House: Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, John McCain of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina put the guest list together.
Obama is using hospitality as a way of breaking partisan gridlock on new taxes and spending cuts, and I hope that such outreach is successful. A generation ago, most elected leaders had homes in the Washington area, and their wrangling on Capitol Hill was softened by the fact that they lived in the same neighborhoods and socialized together. But now, with so many representatives residing in their home districts and coming to town only to debate and legislate, there is little incentive to be civil.
Politicians can easily demonize each other in Congress, but it is harder to be cruel to someone who is sitting across the dinner table. "Senator McCain, please pass the salt." "Here you go, Mr. President." Discussions of immigration reform and gun control are naturally going to be more thoughtful and nuanced when people are eating and drinking together.
Churches that do a good job with Christian hospitality know the power of a shared meal. Saddleback Church in California has put up a building called The Refinery, with several restaurants and snack bars, as well as a skate park, volleyball court, and waterfall where kids can splash around. The Refinery and its surroundings give people a place to sit, eat and develop relationships.
At such a church, people of different backgrounds are invited to sit and have conversation over a meal or a drink. The focus is on friendship and the development of relationships, which help people to learn about each other and develop bonds -- in spite of their differences. "Through hospitality we discover the ways we are both alike and different," says Christine Pohl, author of "Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition."
"When we welcome other people into our lives," she says, "we create space in which each person's gifts and insights can be shared."
Now I'm not naïve. I know that shared meals are not going to be a quick fix for all of the divisions that we face in America today. We cannot get all of our elected leaders around one big banquet table, nor is it guaranteed that a dinner discussion is going to translate into policy changes.
But reconciliation can happen between people, one meal at a time, and those table conversations can ripple throughout the world. Wasn't that what Jesus was trying to do when he invited himself to the home of Zacchaeus, a hated tax collector and notorious sinner? Changes began even before Jesus reached his house, when Zacchaeus said, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much" (Luke 19:8).
The friendships that develop around tables can lead to reconciliation. In 2008, the hot topic in California was Proposition 8, which eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry. Today, the case is before the Supreme Court. Rick Warren of Saddleback took a stand in favor of the proposition, consistent with his traditional evangelical views on marriage. But later he apologized to his gay friends for his comments, and said on television that he has never been and never will be an "anti-gay or anti-gay marriage activist."
An issue that looks black-and-white on paper can appear very different when it affects a friend on the other side of the table. Hospitality is powerful because it builds relationships, and such relationships can help to unite our fractured society.
I hope this will happen at the dinner at the Jefferson Hotel, and at an upcoming Republican Policy Lunch, which the president has been invited to attend. In biblical times and today, the best path to reconciliation is through the stomach.