Sunday, March 04, 2007

I was working on a book once

This is some of what I got done:

What is hospitality?

The answer seems obvious. Hospitality is kindness to guests. Hospitality is the set of rules that determines how we treat people in our home. Hospitality is the courtesy we extend to friends and family and even to strangers. But the hospitality we show to strangers is different from the hospitality we show to friends, and to family. Strangers, after all, are different. There are, then, various levels of hospitality, various ways of being hospitable all defined by a social code that is learned more than taught, more absorbed than observed. Where we learn hospitality, then, is in our family, and in our community, and in our social class. Each layers, each circle, each community that we belong to, has its various claims on our hospitality, and its various lessons to teach.

Now the answer doesn’t seem so obvious. What is hospitality? It varies, of course, with culture. Culture varies across continents, across groupings of people: nationality, race, ethnic clan, family identity, social class, economic class, locality, region, neighborhood, generation. What is hospitable to one generation may be sheer formality and foolishness to another; what one generation accepts as hospitality, another in the same class, came locale, same economic group, even same family, may consider nothing better than rudeness and impertinence. Formal dinners in Western European culture were once the only way to display hospitality to guests. In most such societies today, formal dinners are a burdensome and irksome anachronism, and no one would think if inflicting them on their guests. There are exceptions, of course; but most people in that culture would agree those exceptions only prove the rule.

Less and less obvious the answer seems. To be fair-minded, to be considerate and not condescending, we have to speak of so many cultures. What Jacques Derrida has labeled our “teletechnology” has, among other things, made us aware of how many cultures there are in the world. The paradox is that, even as our teletechnology places us at the center of our universe, it makes us aware that we really aren’t the center at all. If our teletechnology can be said to work like a telescope turned wrong end round, making it possible for all the world to see how a very small portion of it lives, and making the world imagine it should live as we at the center of this telescoped gaze do, it also allows us at the center to look down the barrel and see, however miniaturized, that there are other people at the far end, other ways of living, other ways of being “hospitable.” We may not know those ways, but we flatter ourselves to imagine their ways are like ours; otherwise “their” ways would not seem to us like hospitality at all. We flatter ourselves, but we realize we are flattering ourselves; because we aren’t sure what “their” ways are like; and being unsure, but determined to be hospitable, we opt for its poor substitute, and show tolerance.

But hospitality is not tolerance, not forbearance, not gritting one’s teeth and keeping a “stiff upper lip.” We understand enough immediately about hospitality to understand that. But we also understand enough to know that we don’t understand all; so we are not sure what hospitality is in all times and all places; we have some vague memory of an anthropologist’s report about a culture somewhere in the world where shaking hands is the gravest of insults, or looking into a stranger’s eyes is tantamount to a challenge. We aren’t even sure if this is truth, or just an urban legend, but anxious not to offend, we retreat from the offering of hospitality to the quiescent acceptance of tolerance and forbearance. Better, we decide, to do nothing, than to act and do something terrible or, perhaps even worse, inhospitable.
Still, it isn’t that simple, either, is it? We don’t withhold hospitality for fear it won’t be accepted, or because we’re afraid it will be misinterpreted as hostility. We go forward with what we have to offer; but we tread lightly on the matter of deciding what hospitality is. We know in general terms; we have an idea. But we are careful how we turn our ideas into something concrete, something for discussion. On matters this important we prefer to act, because words limit us. Worse yet, words require we think about what we are doing, and why; and there’s always the possibility we won’t have an answer. Which will make the discussion pointless; or worse, disruptive. We will consider so hard what it means to show hospitality, that we’ll forget to simply do it.

If we don’t know what we are doing, how can we be sure we’re still doing it?
Have you ever thought, for example, that hospitality was so important it couldn’t be left to custom and habit, that the very nature of it should be examined? Have you ever thought about how hospitality is extended, and to whom, and on what basis, and for what reason? Are we hospitable because we are nice people, or nice people because we are hospitable? And to whom do we show hospitality? Is it owed to everyone, or are some people undeserving? Do some people, by their very actions, put themselves beyond the reach of our hospitality? Should be show hospitality, for example, to child molesters? To pedophiles, or rapists, or murderers? What about terrorists, people who either want to kill you or would gladly do so for the slightest reason? Do we show hospitality to them? If we don’t, are we still “nice people?” If we do, is their label enough? Are their past actions enough to place them beyond the reach of our hospitality? Is there a boundary that has to be crossed, is there are place where certain people are not allowed? English law gave us the concept of the “outlaw.” It literally meant a person who was placed outside the protection of the king, of the law. Such a person was fair game to anyone who found him, or her. To kill or harm the King’s subject, was to harm the King himself; that was the power and reach of the law. But to no longer be the subject of the King, to behave in such a manner as to put you beyond the law’s reach, by order of the King, made you an “out-law.” And without the law, as Thomas Hobbes observed, life particularly for an outlaw individual, could be nasty, brutish, and short. The tree falling unheard in the forest may still make a sound; but no one listened to the pleas of the one outside the law.

So do we have a similar category now, a social category, a cultural one? Are there people who’s actions make them “outlaws?” Are they properly placed beyond the comfort and protection of our hospitality, and there they should remain to the end of their days? Does our hospitality require limits in order to be hospitality, and are those limits determined by what someone has done in the past, by whether or not they have, in turn, shown hospitality? Can you so breach the hospitality covenant that hospitality itself will never look on you again?

Now, what if God is hospitality? The cliché has it that “God is love,” but we are careful to distinguish that claim from making love a god, an object of worship and veneration. So the question is a carefully phrased one: what if God is hospitality? What if the one word that best declares the nature of God in the world is not love, but hospitality? Love, after all, has become very much an individual matter, at least in Western culture, in the teletechnological culture that brands and markets and packages and purveys love as the essential element in all transactions. Love is more and more defined as an emotion that moves me, that causes you to be attractive to me, or causes me to be attracted to you. And when that attraction fails, I am the one who suffers, who cries, who is broken-hearted by love. It is love that will redeem me, or purify me, or exalt me; it is love that is the most important thing to me. To say God is love is more and more to say God is most interested in me, to say that God is most concerned about me, to say that God is as convinced as I am that I am the center of the universe and all that really matters is that I feel love.

Consider the message of any commercial, advertisement, billboard, radio jingle: it is all aimed at consumption, and that consumption is something done by me. It may be done with other people, but they simply heighten the pleasure enjoyed by me. It may be accompanied by other people, but their company simply affirms that I am the one enjoying the product, that I am the one benefiting from the love that product is supposed to provide. “Love,” wrote Harlan Ellison, “ain’t nothing but sex misspelled.” Commentators have noted so often that sex is used to sell everything available that the charge is not even challenged anymore, it is simply embraced as something inevitable as sunrise. We have to be careful, then, in such a culture, to speak of God as love. When God is love, God soon becomes just another commodity aimed at providing me with what I want, and when what I want is what is most important, I always want more and more of it. That is the other simple truth of a consumer culture; so simple, so obvious, so blatant, that it isn’t seriously questioned anymore, either.

But if God is hospitality, it suddenly isn’t about me anymore. I cannot show hospitality to myself. Hospitality is what is shown to others; and if God is hospitality, then God directs me, not into myself, but out to others. But others, and which others? My friends? My neighbors? The members of my social class, my economic class, my ethnic clan or nationality or race or creed or culture? Am I directed to those who do not share my ideas about hospitality, who do not understand what I mean when I offer my hand for a handshake, or look them directly in the eyes? Am I directed to pedophiles and child molesters and rapists and murderers? And also, to attempt to leave no one out, to their victims, the families of the victims, the people who would punish them, banish them, put them beyond the social law of a hospitable society? Am I directed to do this by the God I worship, the God of Abraham and Jesus?


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