DERBY, CEM 1991, 47PP


In 1988 at the height of the power of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, the Education Reform Act was introduced into parliament. The debates, mainly in the House of Lords and in the press reporting which followed, used the metaphors of disgusting food to attack a world religions approach to religious education. This booklet analyses this rhetoric, tracing it back to a desire to preserve an elite social class interest.


The time has come, in this final chapter, to contrast the world from which the fears of mishmash spring with another world. When Jesus said, ‘This is my blood of the new covenant shed for many for the forgiveness of sins. Drink ye all of it,’ his disciples all drank from a common cup. Has not God ‘made of one blood all peoples to dwell on the face of the earth?’ (Acts 17:26 A V.) Those who have a fear of mishmash are deeply respectful of the faith of others. Each faith is to preserve its purity, its integrity. Each religion is a kind of separate classification. I am holy, says the anti-mishmash argument, and you are holy, but the ground between us is unholy and we will contaminate each other through a harmful mingling of blood if we should meet. The other approach, the one which we shall now explore, takes the opposite point of view. In myself, it suggests, I am not particularly holy, and perhaps in yourself you are not wonderfully holy, but the ground between us is holy. The boundary which separates shall become the holy ground, the common ground, the mutuality of response and responsibility which makes us truly human. Holiness is discovered through encounter.

Just as food and diet had occupied a central position in Israel, so they became controversial between Christians and Jews. ‘Food’, wrote Paul, ‘will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.’ (I Cor. 8:8.) ‘The kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.’ (Romans 14: 17.) There had been a conflict between Peter and Paul, because Peter was eating at table with gentile Christians, but when conservative Jewish Christians came to Antioch ‘he drew back and separated himself.’ (Gal. 2:12.) As always, distinctions between food become a sort of culinary culture, and express and reinforce distinctions between races and religions.

This is never seen more clearly than in the vision of Peter recorded in Acts chapter 10. Cornelius, a man of another race and another religion, had seen a vision in which he was instructed to send for Peter who would counsel him. While the messengers were coming, Peter was praying. His prayers were interrupted by his hunger. The desire for food which interrupted his spirituality soon led him into a rebirth of spirituality. He ‘fell into a trance and saw the heaven opened, and something descending, like a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air.’ (Acts 10:10ff.) The sheet was indeed full of a horrifying mishmash, in which the purity of Peter's faith was threatened with dilution, things held carefully apart were now trivialised into a mere relativity, a veritable mixing bowl approach to God's commandments was about to be thrust down his throat. When the heavenly voice invited him to eat this hotchpotch, Peter shrank back like a modern legislator confronted by an agreed syllabus, piously protesting ‘No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.’ (v.14.) But the voice said, ‘What God has cleansed, you must not call common.’

From now on, holiness was not to be found in observing distinctions, but in overcoming them. There is no doubt that this disregard for purity of separation goes back to Jesus himself. The second half of Mark chapter 2 is a collection of a number of sayings of Jesus related to this theme. Each saying is set into a brief narrative framework, and all the material relates to the earliest Galilean ministry. He broke the laws of purity by eating with those who were ritually unclean and socially unacceptable (Mk. 2:15t). His disciples did not observe the customary fasts (Mk. 2:18t). He broke down the borders which divided sacred time from the secular (Mk. 2:23ft). In all of this he was perfectly well aware that he was introducing a radical break with the world of the old sacred classifications. The brand new material could not be used to patch up the old garment. The new wine would only split the old wine bottles (Mk. 2:21t). It is equally remarkable that he broke down the borders of the natural family by replacing the ties of blood and kinship with a universal fellowship of all those who responded to God. ‘Who are my mother and my brothers? . . . Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.’ (Mk. 3:33ff.) It is consistent with this that he rejects a blessing upon the source of his infantile nourishment. 'A woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that you sucked.’" He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.’ (Luke 11:27ff.) This rejection of the emotional intensity of infantile food has both literal and metaphorical associations, and it is again highly significant that the food metaphor is replaced by a universal principle. Boundaries of tribe, nation and race are, in principle, shattered (compare Luke 4:25-27).

In considering the background of Peter’s mishmash dream in the light of the teaching and ministry of Jesus, the most significant passage is the debate about the food and eating laws found in Mark chapter 7 (compare Matthew chapter 15). Jesus and his disciples were I criticised for their laxity by those who were keen to emphasise the purity of the system of classifications. In reply, Jesus offered a new view of religious identity, one which is not threatened by contagion or contamination from the outside but one which is sustained by the intentions of the heart as these affect actions in relations between people. ‘Do you not I see that whatever goes into someone from outside cannot defile them, since it enters not the heart but the stomach, and so passes on?’ Thus he declared all foods clean. And he said ‘What comes out is what defiles someone. For from within, out of someone’s heart, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile you.’ (Mk.15:18-23) It is interesting that John the Baptist, who ate locusts, seems to have been completely without any sense of food disgust, and in Matthew’s version of the saying about what brings defilement, Jesus specifically refers to the mouth. ‘Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles you.’ (Matt. 15: 17f.) It was out of this radical disregard for boundaries, this setting aside of divinely ordained distinctions, that the new humanity, the ecclesial community emerged.

To understand this better in the context of our present discussion, we need to return to Mary Douglas. That which is out of place can frustrate the system of purity and can thus be regarded as dirt. That which is out of place can also challenge prevailing conceptions and can thus be a source of renewal and transfiguration. When things move out of their restricted places, there may be a blissful fusion of opposites, a transcending of the old contrary things in a new order. Both these tendencies are found in religion: the tendency to separate and the tendency to unite (Douglas, op. cit., ch.10). Salt is dirty when thrown on the floor or over the clothes, but when used wisely in cooking it adds life and flavour. Jack Goody remarks, ‘Since differences in cuisine parallel class distinctions, egalitarian and revolutionary regimes tend, at least in the initial phases, to do away with the division between the haute and the basse cuisine.’ (Goody, op. cit., p.147.) It is thus significant that the early Christian movement focused around a common meal, which was symbolic of the new kingdom, the new humanity. This new people has ‘put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free person, but Christ is all, and in all.’ (Col. 3:10f.)

It might be objected that the context of our present discussion is a proposed separation of school children religion by religion and, within religious education syllabuses, of one religion from another. Does the New Testament teaching about the new humanity justify us in disregarding distinctions between religions? This is not the place to enter into a full discussion of a Christian theology towards the religions of the world, but it can be pointed out in passing that religious distinctions were clearly transcended in the Pauline theology of the new people. The distinction between circumcision and uncircumcision was a religious distinction. Circumcision was the fundamental sign of the covenant between God and Israel. The distinction between Jew and Greek was not only a cultural but very evidently a religious distinction. There is a real danger that Christians today, experiencing identity threat through immature conceptions of Christian faith, will think of themselves as a new tribe, distinguishing themselves from other tribes, other world religious cultures, just as some of the first century Jews distinguished between themselves and the Gentiles.

Throughout the Bible there is a struggle between Israel for the Israelites and Israel as a light to enlighten the Gentiles, between God as the Lord of Israel and God as the Lord of all peoples. So it is with Christianity: there is a tribalising option which emphasises religious distinction and there is a universalising option which emphasises the Kingdom of God. What Jesus inaugurated was not a new religion but a new humanity. It is this insight which inspires the description of the new ecclesial community in which the old racial and religious distinctions have been broken down. ‘For he is our peace, who has made us both [i.e. Jews and Gentiles] one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two . . .’ (Eph. 2:14f.) This principle flows not only from the common eucharistic meal, but from the common baptism as well. ‘For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Gal. 3:27f.) The closing expression ‘all one in Christ Jesus' should not be interpreted along the lines of totalistic identity, by exclusion, but rather through inclusion,’ along the lines of an identity of wholeness. This is made clearer by the words which immediately follow. ‘And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.’ (Gal. 3:29.) Does this mean that all Christians have now become tribalised into the physical descent of Abraham and are thus literally Jews? Rather, Paul is using the expression ‘Abraham’s offspring’ metaphorically or spiritually, since both Christians and Jews are ‘heirs according to promise’. The promise is the universal promise to all people. We see then that the new humanity in Christ Jesus looks for the metaphorical or the spiritual in all literal, religious traditions, and does not become engrossed in the distinctions between Christianity and Judaism. I am not saying that discussion of these contemporary distinctions is not a legitimate part of inter-faith dialogue now. I do maintain, however, that the biblical vision transcends both Israel and Christianity considered as tribes or races, as ideological blocks, and prefigures a new, world-wide community. This insight is found in the Torah and the Prophets as well as in the New Testament.

We can finish this part of our discussion by reminding ourselves of the words of Saint Paul to the Colossian Christians. Concluding his discussion about the new humanity, he says ‘Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink. . . If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, "Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch," (referring to things which all perish as they are used) according to human precepts and doctrines? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion. . .’ (Col. 2:16-23,) The thousands of teachers, parents, school governors, ministers and priests who have been fostering the new humanity by building up understanding between religious communities and developing bonds of love through education, but have been made nervous by the mishmash and hotchpotch accusations, should take comfort from these words.


For other writing about religious education see link Utopian Whispers.  For comment on the 1988 Reform Act see The Act Unpacked