For my money, one of the most resonant metaphors for the kingdom, or reign, of God in all of Scripture is that of the banquet table. Jesus makes reference to it more than once, and each time the implication is that we may be surprised, perhaps even dismayed, at who is seated around the table. He says that people will come from the north, south, east, and west and take their places at the banquet table in the reign of God, whereas the self-righteous will be shut out (Luke 13:28–29). On another occasion he tells the chief priests and elders that the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the reign of God ahead of them (Matt 21:31).
If we want to take seriously what Jesus meant when he talked about the reign of God, we need to imagine that banquet table filled with not just our friends and loved ones, not just the good people of the world, but our enemies as well. People we would never choose on our own to sit beside.
Alabama native Kate Campbell has a song that captures this idea in a brilliant and heart-wrenching way. Kate is a sort of Southern literary figure, if you will. Her literature takes the form of songs, but she would fit right with William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy and others of the Southern tradition in literature. She has taken it upon herself in many cases both to defend and indict her heritage, and she certainly does on the song I’m thinking of.
“Montgomery to Mobile” starts off with the imagery of a bus station—a Greyhound station with the smell of burnt oil and diesel fuel, and cigarettes and coffee from vending machines, and people waiting around to board their bus. It’s lovely, vivid imagery, but as you are listening to that first verse, you have no idea what you’re getting yourself in for.
But then she gets to the chorus. She sings:
You can take the window seat
and I’ll sit right beside you.
We’ll see if the view has changed.
We both know on this road
so many things can blind you
when you let fear get in the way.
Some might find it funny still:
George and Rosa on a bus ride
from Montgomery to Mobile.
(Being from Alabama, Campbell has no problem making still and Mobile rhyme.)
George and Rosa. Those aren’t just names she picked out of a hat. They are Governor George Wallace and Rosa Parks. On a bus. Together.
The lines, “You can take the window seat / and I’ll sit right beside you,” tell us that we are headed for a moment much like the Communion scene at the end of the movie Places in the Heart. That scene depicts what the creeds call the communion of the saints, where old enemies sit together, and victims and perpetrators share the bread and wine. It comes at the end of a long struggle in which numerous people are damaged, some even killed. We see a group of people from a small Southern town gathered together at what seems to be a normal Communion service in what’s probably a Baptist or Methodist church. As the camera pans around the sanctuary, however, one sees characters who hate one another, who are enemies, seated together. One sees people who have been murdered sitting next to their killers, passing the elements of the Lord’s Supper to one another. It’s a lot like George and Rosa seated together on their bus ride to Mobile.
It’s a beautiful, haunting idea to which we give far too little credence in our time. We are so used to hyper-partisanship and polarization in our political and social spheres that we forget reconciliation is even possible. I have been guilty of this—of thinking it’s impossible to change somebody’s mind. Perhaps you have too. That reminds me of another song, “Mind,” by Talking Heads, in which David Byrne declares:
Time won’t change you,
money won’t change you.…
Drugs won’t change you,
religion won’t change you,
yet he keeps insisting, “I need something to change your mind.”
What is it that will change us, I wonder? Maybe he’s right; religion can’t change you, but an encounter with the living God can.
In the religious tradition to which I belong, one encounters God most fully in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. One of the earliest interpretations of what happened on the cross of Jesus comes from the pen of the Apostle Paul, who says, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to [God]self” (2 Cor 4:19, NLT). That encounter is what can change you: the encounter we have with the reconciling God.
Most often it is a three-way encounter, because we need to be reconciled not only to God but also to one another. The murderer and murder victim in Places need to be reconciled, and they find that reconciliation over the symbolically broken body and shed blood of Jesus. George and Rosa need to be reconciled, and they find their reconciliation seated together on a bus, a powerful symbol of the great gulf that separated them in life.
“Montgomery to Mobile” is both a lament over time and opportunities wasted, and a rejoicing that redemption is possible, that lost time can be redeemed. If you believe in eternity, in whatever form you imagine it might take, you have to believe in the possibility that people can be changed, that our enemies will learn to see things from our perspective and vice versa. It is not enough for one party to be changed to meet the expectations of the other; both must be changed to conform to the expectations and will of God.
George Wallace and Rosa Parks ride the Greyhound bus together from Montgomery to Mobile, wondering if the view has changed after all these years. It makes me wonder in turn, will we be able to look back fifty or sixty years from now at our current landscape of interpersonal and social conflict and say, “Wow, the view has changed”? If so, it will not be because the landscape itself is different, but because the people observing it have been changed by their three-way encounter with their enemies and the God of reconciliation.
Campbell closes her song with the lines, "If we plow this field together, / surely we can rise above.” All I can say is that if George and Rosa can make their journey together, perhaps there is hope for all of us.