Psalm 23 states “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies.” When I read that line, The Dinner Party (1979) by Judy Chicago is the table I imagine.
The Dinner Party is basically a set table honoring 39 famous women, both historical and mythical. It is an equilateral triangle (to represent equality) and each side has 13 plates (to reference the 13 male attendees at the Last Supper). The plates mostly have vulvic imagery on them, and as you go around the table from the past to the present, they start off flat but become increasingly higher in relief, to symbolize women’s increasing independence. The whole thing is on a floor inscribed with the names of 998 women and one man (the man was mistakenly thought to have been a woman). Finished in 1979, the piece took 6 years and required the work of over 400 people – mostly volunteers.
An icon of feminist art, The Dinner Party has been criticized as much as it has been celebrated. It’s been called a giant production of Judy Chicago’s ego. It’s been criticized for having “too many vaginas.” It’s been criticized as kitschy, over the top, too on the nose, and offensive. It’s also been criticized as racist – the only Black woman to get a place setting is Sojourner Truth, whose plate lacks the vulvic imagery that everyone else has.
According to a dubious Wikipedia source, Chicago got the idea for this artwork after a real dinner party in 1974. “The men at the table were all professors,” she recalled, “and the women all had doctorates but weren’t professors. The women had all the talent, and they sat there silent while the men held forth. I started thinking that women have never had a Last Supper, but they have had dinner parties.”
“You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies” (Matthew 23:5).
Am I sitting at the table alone? Are there other place settings? Are my enemies far off, looking at me like those kids from Oliver Twist, staring at me mournfully as I dine? Am I gloating? Ignoring them? Should I be asking them to join me? Am I afraid? Do I feel unsafe? Being in the presence of enemies is not a place one would typically consider safe, after all. Judy Chicago created this dinner party because normal dinner parties did not feel like safe spaces for women. More so, that the world is not a safe space for women. Who is the enemy? Sexists or patriarchy? Is it the individual or the structure? Or is that a false dichotomy?
Jesus has a lot to say about what we should do in the face of our enemies – love them, pray for them, “do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return” and “pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-38). I wonder what Judy Chicago would have to say about that. Read from a feminist lens, I can’t help but think of being a girl, and feeling unsafe in the presence of certain boys, who would flip my bra strap, leer, slap my rear, and rate me on my f*ckability. And the adults would throw up their hands and say “boys will be boys” and then teach me how to monitor my behavior, cover my shoulders, not wear too much makeup, never leave my drink unattended, and certainly not go walk down that street alone.
Love your enemies is good general advice for individuals, but that command can ring hollow when presented within systems of oppression by people doing nothing to disrupt the status quo. “Love your enemies” is often weaponized, used as code for “sit down and shut up.” But I wonder. Maybe that table in the presence of our enemies is God’s way of preparing us, of setting us a feast, filling our bellies, steeling our hearts, and strengthening our souls, so that when we do face our enemies, we do so prepared. Full. Ready. Not to rise up against our enemies in violence, but instead to harness the redemptive power of love to create a world in which our enemies have no power.