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02 December 2016

When the ‘phoney’ met the ‘stiff’

Andy Tilsley is senior leader at Christ Church London

Is there a more awkward photo this week than that of Mitt Romney and Donald Trump

After rancorous exchanges during the presidential election campaign, the pair met for dinner on Tuesday evening – scallops and frogs' legs, no less - for an apparently "enlightening" and "engaging" conversation. Romney – who'd previously described the President Elect as a phony and fraud – looks more like he's eaten a live toad. Trump had previously called Romney a stiff, a fool and a catastrophe. 

Yet it struck me how the image is somehow a picture of the kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate. The first recruits to his new world order were opposites in the extreme. Simon was a Zealot – part of a patriotic group of Jews that were longing for a violent overthrow of Roman rule. Matthew was a tax collector, Rome's puppet, enjoying the high-life, funding the empire, leeching off Israel. I wonder what the pair talked about when they first sat down for dinner? I imagine Jesus got them rooming together.

Then there's the fishermen. There's a fascinating nuance in Matthew's gospel (4:18-21). Peter and Andrew were likely throwing their nets from the shore. That typically meant they couldn't afford a boat. Put simply, they were poor. Contrastingly, James and John were in a boat with their father, and also had some hired men (Mark 1). Not only were they Peter and Andrew's business competitors, they were part of a far more lucrative operation. Rich and poor: a kingdom of opposites. 

Too many of our communities, workplaces, churches and friendship groups look exactly the same. We're drawn to people who are just like us: who talk the same, think the same, vote the same. It's been evident in 2016 more than ever. The European Referendum wasn't just a stand-off between 'leavers' and 'remainers' – each side tarnished the other as either racist or elitist. I've rarely known anything more toxic. The same happened in the US as Republicans and Democrats crossed swords. We just can't help dividing the world into "them" and "us" - all-too-easily huddling together with those who see life just as we do.

Jesus set a different standard. He created a community where Zealots and tax collectors could be friends. He not only fraternised with the poor, those in need and those who were unwanted, but also the rich, the wealthy, the influential: he regularly dined with tax collectors after all – the bankers of his day. 

Truth be told, a goldfish can never work out how dirty its water might be. We all need those who outside our bowl to offer a different perspective – the proverbial child that can point out the Emperor is really wearing no clothes. That's a risky business. We don't like it when people point out our faults, the flaws in our thinking – but we'll never clean our water without it. 

More than at any time in a generation we need people who aren't like each other to come together for respectful, reasonable, friendly dialogue: on politics, faith, climate change, the refugee and migrant crises, education, the health service, insert your own controversial issue here.

"The supreme religious challenge is to see God's image in one who is not in our image." So said Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I'm not so sure that's just a religious challenge. It's a challenge for all of us. Those who vote, think and believe differently have perspectives that are valuable, insightful and important – without whom we'll never clean our tank. More than that, if we never socialise with those who are different from us, we'll never learn how to love. Love isn't that remarkable if we never let it be challenged. 

So if you've got space round the dining table this Advent season, invite Zealots and tax collectors, shepherds and wise men. And why not serve politics and religion for dessert? Even if it's more awkward than when the 'phoney' met the 'stiff', you're following in the greatest of footsteps – and you are exercising the ministry of reconciliation. 

Image: CC Chelsea Francis