Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Unswept Floor

Well, that stirred things up a bit. I return to the topic one last time only to underline that I meant no disrespect nor disagreement with the interest Atrios, Thers, or any other blogger has shown in it. You blog what you want to blog. I was only using them, and the controversy, as examples of what gets people's interest.

The whole mess is like a grisly car wreck we can't look away from; and many people are justifiably upset with the way the family in the center of this melee is being treated by perfect strangers who should know better (there is more than one post on hospitality to tie in there). But my point was, and remains, that the critics of the Democrats are still setting the terms of the discussion. It may be emotionally satisfying to respond them in this case, but is it wise?

Aye, there's the rub.

The subtext of my concern is even deeper, and harder to get at. But fortunately for me, Rudy Giuliani summed it up perfectly:

"America has the 'strongest economy on earth, it is the last best hope of humanity.' "
I was reading an art history book this morning (don't ask) when I came across a reference to the picture, above. It's a Roman mosaic meant to reproduce the floor of a Roman villa, where the custom was to sweep what was unwanted from the table onto the floor, to be swept up later. The book pointed out the Romans gave public dinners, quite different from the private ones the Greeks were accustomed to. Part of the reason for such public intimacies was conspicuous consumption: the Romans, the text noted, wanted to show off their wealth, something very different from the Greeks, who had a less materialistic lifestyle. The mosaic, then, is a display of ostentation, an example of one's ability to provide so much food for a meal for many people, that food could be swept up and thrown away. Such wealth, of course, is a function of empire. And what empire provides, it always provides at a cost.

I've no doubt the Romans, for quite a long time, thought their imperial economy was the greatest in the world, and the last best hope of humanity. Indeed, the idea of an economy as the hope of humanity is why Augustine wrote The City of God. He had to defend Christians from being blamed for the collapse of the empire which had provided such wealth for so long, but which couldn't do it forever. When the "last best hope of humanity" finally failed, someone had to offer an alternative.

But an economy is a cycle of exchange; and hospitality breaks that cycle. If all we have to offer is just another variation on an old theme, then, are we really offering anything? My critique of the argument in left blogistan is not personal; it is theological:

The Roman Empire was based on the common principle of peace through victory, or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace.

Paul was a Jewish visionary following in Jesus' footsteps, and they both claimed that the Kingdom of God was already present and operative in this world. He opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of peace through justice, or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace. In Search of Paul, xi.
I like to look at this mosaic now, and think of it as one metaphor for hospitality. There are better versions of hospitality than this. And, I think, better ways of establishing hospitality in the world, than arguing with those who don't share your vision. If I am going to step away from the ways of empire, from "faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace," I not only have to step away from it, I have to replace it with something better.

Aye, there's the rub, again.

No comments:

Post a Comment