By Barbara Glasson
It is important in our discovery of interfaith engagement to remember that we begin with a shared story and this is no better illustrated than in the story of bread. For the Abrahamic traditions – ‘The People of the Book’ – there is a special shared history that comes from the rich stories of the Hebrew Bible.
The significance of unleavened bread is directly associated with the Passover meal, eaten in haste prior to the Exodus. And it is customary to accompany the Sabbath meal with two loaves of braided bread, challah, said to commemorate the double portion of manna the Israelites collected in the wilderness prior to the Sabbath (Ex 16:4-5).
All four Gospels contain accounts in which Jesus feeds multitudes with a few fishes and loaves of bread. After feeding them, Jesus instructs the crowd to work not for the ‘food that perishes’, but rather for the ‘food that endures for eternal life’ (John 6:27). Then he tells them: ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ (John 6:35). And bread is at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer and the Eucharist.
The roti is the staple bread of the South Asian region. It’s bread in its simplest form, nothing more than a mix of wholemeal flour, a little salt, and water, kneaded and stretched into flat pancakes and cooked on a fiercely hot and blackened iron pan called a tawa until it blisters and cracks. Rotis carry the role of accompaniment, cutlery and plate in one.
So, the simple roti reminds us that at the heart of our interfaith engagement is shared humanity, our need for sustenance and the desire for generosity. If God provides us with food then we have responsibilities to honour the gift, both in our rituals and sacrifices but also in our daily living. In all faiths there is an imperative to share food and to acknowledge that it is a divine gift to us. And in all faiths there is a call to generosity of spirit and to being mindful of the poor, the widowed and the hungry.
From the food offered freely at the Sikh Gurdwara as a langar meal*, to the collections of food made at church foodbanks, the imperative for this generosity with food and hospitality runs across the world of interfaith engagement. It continues to be the easiest way to make common cause with people of varying religions and cultures.
The humble roti reminds us that the basis for all dialogue is a straightforward engagement with our shared identity as human beings, and that the Christian injunction to love our neighbour is an imperative to engage with people who are different from ourselves. The command to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us, is a sacrificial journey. One in which we are called to make ourselves vulnerable in the encounter with ‘the other’. This can be both a delightful and a troubling journey.
Finally, the roti brings to mind that the Christian faith has its origins in the discourse of religious and cultural tensions. When Jesus broke bread, he was breaking both religious and cultural etiquette by taking the role of a woman at the Passover meal. And when Peter saw the great net of forbidden food coming down from heaven, he risked his self-identity as well as his gastronomic well-being at the house of Cornelius. Likewise, when Paul stood with the people of Athens before the shrine ‘to an unknown god’, he was stepping across the barriers of religious certainties to engage with the discourse of our shared world, thereby risking his personal certitude for the expansion of the Kingdom.
Interfaith dialogue is not something invented in the UK in the light of multiculturalism. It is, and always has been, at the heart of our identity as Christians. Bread and relationship are at the centre of who we are as followers of Jesus. For us, as Christians, the simple roti denotes both our shared humanity with people of other faiths, and our distinctive belief in the incarnational, broken, Eucharistic presence of God in the World in the person of Jesus.
Barbara Glasson is the Team Leader at Touchstone, a church-based community project in the centre of Bradford, West Yorkshire. She is a Methodist minister who says she has had a lot to learn about interfaith engagement in the six years since she moved to Bradford. This article is taken from her resource book Eating Curry for Heaven’s Sake published by Kevin Mayhew. Abridged and used with permission.
* Food distribution as part of the Sikh discipline of faith