The Culture of Hospitality

by Mark T. Mitchell on September 6, 2012 · 26 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Articles,Culture, High & Low

christian-hospitality

Hidden Springs, VA. In two recent pieces, I argued that 1) the language of “culture war” is not helpful and should be discarded, and 2) that to the extent that liberalism is rooted in a denial of limits, it is anti-culture, for culture is, at the very least, a set of established norms that include prohibitions as well as prescriptions. In short, to weaponize culture is to destroy culture, and to attempt to forge a culture that denies limits is incoherent conceptually and disastrous socially.

So where does that leave us? I want to suggest that we need rethink the meaning of cultural engagement. “Engaging” culture in the idiom of warfare has not produced much in the way of results. Yet at the same time, those who want to preserve historic norms regarding marriage, sexuality, and even life and death are understandably reticent to simply abandon the field to those who seek to undermine or destroy those norms.

To rethink the possibilities, we might find help in a most unlikely place: a late second century letter from an otherwise unknown author named Mathetes to an equally obscure recipient named Diognetus. The letter is an apologetic of sorts, a kind of primer on what set the new Christian sect apart from the pagan religions of the time as well as from Judaism. In a section dedicated to describing the manners of the Christians, Mathetes remarks that “they marry, as do all [others]; they beget children but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed.” If we unpack these lines, I think we can find a plausible alternative to the culture war, an alternative that Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other men and women of good will can employ as a means of engaging the culture creatively and winsomely.

The phrase I want to focus on is this: “they have a common table, but not a common bed.” Of course, the author is describing the lifestyle of the early Christian community, who were known for sharing meals with each other. They were also known for the limits they recognized: they were exclusive sexually even as they were promiscuous in their hospitality.

The emphasis here is the practice of hospitality (with obvious limits), and I want to suggest that hospitality is a radical alternative to both the language and practice of culture wars.

In the ancient Greek world, as in some cultures today, hospitality is a central concern. To practice hospitality to strangers is considered a duty demanded by virtue. The author of the book of Hebrews goes even further when he writes: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” To practice hospitality is to open one’s home and thereby one’s concern to others. It is to shake off the narrow and narrowing confines of self-interest and attempt to love one’s neighbors, which, according to Christ, is the second great commandment after loving God.

When we share a common table, we necessarily cease, at least for a time, from contending against each other as our attention turns toward rejuvenating our physical bodies. We can lay aside differences as we join in one of the most basic of human activities. As we share food and drink, our common humanity is starkly revealed. Good food and good drink facilitate, nay almost demand, conversation, and conversing over a shared meal is a means by which differing ideas are mellowed by the common activity undertaken by all. Hospitality breeds friendship, and friends often disagree, but disagreements between friends are of an entirely different nature than disagreements between avowed enemies.

But hospitality is not merely the sharing of meals. Consider, for instance, how the seemingly intractable abortion debate changes when we consider it through the eyes of hospitality. Abortion is a striking instance of inhospitableness, for who could be more in need of hospitable care than an unborn child? A hospitable culture cares for the weakest and the most frail. A hospitable culture, in the context of abortion, is a culture of adoption. The abortion issue looks different when adoption is the obvious choice for a woman who is pregnant and unable to care for her child. What if churches, synagogues, mosques, and civic organizations made adoption a priority? What if laws were passed to make adoption simpler and less expensive? What if churches had funds to help pay for adoptions by families in their congregations who couldn’t afford the fees? What if, in addition to weekly attendance numbers and financial statements, church bulletins or bulletin boards featured the number of adoptions sponsored by the church? What if every pro-life family adopted a child in need of a home or financially helped another family do so? In what way would these acts of hospitality change the culture?

To be sure, abortions wouldn’t end. But people on both the left and the right—those who are ardently pro-life as well as those who are pro-choice—can agree that decreasing the number of abortions is a good thing and that fostering a culture of adoption is one way to accomplish this end. While hospitality will not solve every problem (neither will any policy, program, or party), a culture of hospitality will address a variety of issues—care for the infirm, the elderly, and the poor, for example—in creative ways that are simply overlooked or ignored by those who are focused primarily on public policy, court decisions, and protests. One solution looks primarily to the political arena for redress; the other, like the Good Samaritan, takes the wounded traveler and cares for him. Do you want to change the culture? Practice hospitality.

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Rob G September 6, 2012 at 7:43 am

I think that one could include hospitality under the larger umbrella of what Weaver called “piety” and W.B. refers to as “affection.” Seen in that light it becomes one very important facet of an entire way of life that also includes such things as manners, courtesy, respect for elders, care of creation, etc. This way of life is, of course, fundamentally opposed to the life of autonomous “liberty” currently on offer from both the Left and the Enlightenment-infected Right in this country. It is those who live the life of piety who are truly counter-cultural. It’s our turn to be subversives.

avatar Robb Davis September 6, 2012 at 9:06 am

Thanks for this post. Having lived in a traveled to many places (the “some cultures” you refer to) where hospitality is primary, I can attest that it is a shocking/blessed thing for those of us who practice it so little.

In addition, you allude to but do not develop the idea that hospitality in the early church and today is also an economic statement in that those with little share a table with those who are materially wealthy. John Howard Yoder in “Body Politics: Five Practices of Christian Community Before a Watching World”, makes a strong case that the table practices of the early church were merely a continuation of the practice of Jesus and his disciples and that they challenged the social stratification of the first century world.

Thanks again for suggesting this path.

avatar Daniel September 6, 2012 at 2:29 pm

The icon at the heading of this piece is wonderfully appropriate. The Holy Trinity’s visit to Abraham: a reminder indeed of those who entertained angels unaware, and likewise of the true image of hospitality itself in God’s own loving perichoresis – a unity in difference, love in and between “others,” resulting in a common essence of shared divinity. That we would go and do likewise… perhaps Pope Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity” should be expanded into a hermeneutic of hospitality?

We are indeed in the midst of a war, yet it is unseen warfare and not cultural and political warfare. Our weapons ought to be humility, meekness, kindness, gentleness… qualities that are not encouraged by “culture war” rhetoric.

Thanks for your thoughtful analysis.

avatar David Walbert September 6, 2012 at 5:07 pm

Mark, thanks for this post. I was thinking about the matter of hospitality from a different and more literal perspective recently, after I read this blog post in which a woman explains her strategy for remaining pure of processed foods at dinner parties. On the one hand I try to sympathize: I understand (and share) the principle here, that compassionate and responsible people have a difficult path to navigate to steer clear of food that’s produced by abuse of all kinds, and that balancing personal righteousness with the need for community can be difficult. On the other, if we feel we have reached the point where we have to gird our loins (so to speak) to keep ourselves pure at the table, not from our enemies but from our friends — and are proudly proclaiming our willingness to do so! — then we are in a dire mess indeed.

Hospitality must be accepted as well as given, which means, to some extent, putting ourselves at the mercy of those who host us and trusting them — if not in details, then in their good intentions. I’m reminded specifically of Peter’s dream in which God tells him to get over his dietary laws and just go eat with the Gentiles. God had to send the dream three times, was it? to get it through is thick skull. I recall this used in Sunday School only to point out to me that I could eat whatever I liked, but I take the broader point to be that, far more often than we are inclined to think, people matter more than the easy abstractions we call principles — because God made people and we made the principles, or because love your neighbor is the most important principle of all.

avatar Lee Lauridsen September 6, 2012 at 5:45 pm

Thanks very much for this post. After I read it I felt like I’d just been given a refreshing rainshower after a long trip through the desert. It was very encouraging to hear a call for civility and hospitality – even (especially) when dealing with those with whom we either differ in some way (race or religiion, e.g.) or disagree. I’m weary from the culture wars and am sick and tired of hearing even from many of my Christian friends about how many people and groups I’m supposed to hate. And as I find myself getting angry at them for that attitude, I realize that I need your reminder and call to hospitality, too. Again – thanks. It’s posts like this that bring me back rather often to lurking around the Porch.

avatar robert m. peters September 6, 2012 at 9:04 pm

Hospitality is an aspect of Charity; it is a foreshadowing of God’s ultimately Charity or Hospitality: we will be guests at the marriage supper of the Lamb. Christ, in Revelation tells us that if He knocks and we allow Him – perhaps as a fetus, perhaps as a beggar, perhaps even as our enemy – to come in and to sup with us, he will reciprocate.

Revelation 3:20 “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.”

I for one acknowledge the war – the war between culture and the anti-culture. I for one acknowledge that we as Christians have enemies. I tire of Christians who pretend that we have no enemies and that we must, in the faux mentality of Modernity, tolerate them, i.e. they are ok and we are ok; however, once I have an enemy as a Christian, what am I to do to him? I am to love him; to show him hospitality. Again, however, before I can love my enemy, I must recognize him as such; otherwise, the sacrifice of God’s love through me is meaningless. It is a faux charity covering an equivocating heart of Modernity.

avatar love the girls September 7, 2012 at 11:07 am

Mark T. Mitchell writes : A hospitable culture, in the context of abortion, is a culture of adoption. The abortion issue looks different when adoption is the obvious choice for a woman who is pregnant and unable to care for her child.”

Adoption is also the separation of the child from its mother. It may be preferable and less unnatural then killing the baby, but adoption is likewise unnatural separation.

What is needed is not offering girls the option of loosing their baby, but instead the option of being able to mother their baby.

A rightly ordered society does not separate a mother from her baby.

avatar T. Chan September 7, 2012 at 6:23 pm

In a rightly-ordered society, women would not be having sex, or mothers would not be seeking children, outside of wedlock.

avatar love the girls September 7, 2012 at 7:44 pm

T. Chan writes: “In a rightly-ordered society, women would not be having sex, or mothers would not be seeking children, outside of wedlock.”

True, but so what? It doesn’t change the nature of a mother’s relation to her baby.

avatar T. Chan September 8, 2012 at 10:48 am

I don’t believe being a mother is an absolute right. Those who cannot raise their child properly should look out for their child’s well-being by putting the child up for adoption, rather than compelling the rest of society to pay for her “to have it all.” In this case the separation may be “unnatural” as you call it, but it may still be the moral thing to do.

avatar love the girls September 8, 2012 at 11:38 am

T. Chan writes : “compelling the rest of society to pay”

Why do you consider helping a mother in need to be theft?

avatar pb September 8, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Theft in so far as the welfare state steals from families who need to support their own first.

avatar love the girls September 8, 2012 at 3:29 pm

pb writes : “Theft in so far as the welfare state steals from families who need to support their own first.”

Your argument is not an argument according to principle, but according to method of taxation. And thus even if your argument was accurate, which it is not, the error is with supporting a mother in need, but with the method of taxation.

Families are actually on the receiving side of taxation. Especially large families with a mother at home. Should we likewise force those mothers to either work or give their children up for adoption?

Further, the article did not mention the civil government but privately owned entities, nor did I mention what the support would be. As it stands, private organizations have an unnatural mindset of adoption, what need is a change of that mindset to support mothers who are unable to care for their children, just as we currently support families that are unable to care for their children according to subsidiarity.

avatar love the girls September 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm

that should read, the error is NOT with supporting a mother in need, but with the method of taxation.

avatar T. Chan September 8, 2012 at 3:51 pm

That was me before, on another browser.

“Your argument is not an argument according to principle, but according to method of taxation. And thus even if your argument was accurate, which it is not, the error is not with supporting a mother in need, but with the method of taxation.”

We are talking about reality, are we not? Besides, help should take into consideration how a person found himself in his circumstances and culpability. That is in accord with charity and justice.

“Families are actually on the receiving side of taxation. Especially large families with a mother at home. Should we likewise force those mothers to either work or give their children up for adoption?”

Taxation, at the federal level, is unjust with respect to families as well, that needs reform to.

” As it stands, private organizations have an unnatural mindset of adoption, what need is a change of that mindset to support mothers who are unable to care for their children, just as we currently support families that are unable to care for their children according to subsidiarity.”

If a woman is unable to care for her child and gets pregnant irresponsibly, the burden should be on the woman’s family and she handed over to the authority of her father, instead of her relying upon the state to be the baby daddy.

avatar T. Chan September 8, 2012 at 3:52 pm

If her family does not wish to or is unable to accept the burden of taking care of the child, then they are right to give up the child for adoption.

avatar love the girls September 8, 2012 at 4:33 pm

T. Chan writes: “help should take into consideration how a person found himself in his circumstances and culpability. That is in accord with charity and justice.”

Historically, charity and justice expected the baby to be raised by the family. My mother is such an example, her mother was her aunt, so to speak.

When my cousin became pregnant outside of marriage, her mother had a surprising new baby no one expected. My cousin was able to quietly mother her child without scandal.

Each was a quiet way to solve a problem as it should be solved. For the good of the mother and the baby.

Similarly, if a women became pregnant via an affair, her husband was expected to raise the child as his own.

We used to recognize that life is rough at the edges requiring solutions that did not throw throw the baby out with the bathwater.

avatar T. Chan September 9, 2012 at 1:14 am

“Historically, charity and justice expected the baby to be raised by the family.”

That is one solution, if available, as I mentioned above.

“Similarly, if a women became pregnant via an affair, her husband was expected to raise the child as his own.”

But this is probably not, in this society and the age of marriage 2.0.

avatar Margarite September 9, 2012 at 8:20 pm

Dear Author,
My thesis director sent me a link to your post because the necessity of hospitality was the topic of my senior thesis which I submitted this past spring. It is so exciting to read a contemporary piece applying hospitality to modern troubles.
Thank you so much for your article, it is food for much thought!
Sincerely,
Margarite

avatar James the Thickheaded September 10, 2012 at 9:27 pm

Thank you for the post. Love the Rublov’s icon of the Hospitality of Abraham and the tie-in to the Diogenes letter. Will have to read your earlier post, but one of the most moving things I remember hearing one time was Professor Kreeft’s lecture on the Culture Wars where he points out that so many of these folks that we get wound up about really aren’t our opponents… they’re our patients. We need to understand that if it is a war… and here he suggests that it is in fact, but he suggests it is a war not with other people, but with demons… and it is a spiritual war. And that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

avatar Renee September 13, 2012 at 9:17 pm

“Adoption is also the separation of the child from its mother. It may be preferable and less unnatural then killing the baby, but adoption is likewise unnatural separation. What is needed is not offering girls the option of loosing their baby, but instead the option of being able to mother their baby. A rightly ordered society does not separate a mother from her baby.”

I understand the challenges and sorrows inherent in the choice to pursue adoption, but as an adoptive mother who has real life experience in this realm, and who has loved ones who are birthmothers and adoptees as well, I can tell you that there is a peace that a birthmother can experience in her choice, amidst the loss. My daughter’s birthmother was a courageous teen who chose life for her baby and us to parent her child. She has shared that she would make the same choice again. It is not just a matter of financial support to birthmothers. Sometimes they are at a place in their life where they cannot parent their child. A child can have the gift of life and the opportunity to have a mother and father ready to love and parent him or her. I am not saying that adoption is the preferable or mandatory option for all, but from my experience in speaking with others, I have found many to be unaware of the modern truths and workings of adoption, leading to negative and misinformed viewpoints. Adoption can be a gift to all involved. True love is never without sacrifice.

I really appreciated the article. I think it is a good reminder for me, to reach out to others in friendship, and when conversations arise, share the truth in kindness and love.

avatar love the girls September 14, 2012 at 11:45 pm

Renee : “I have found many to be unaware of the modern truths and workings of adoption, leading to negative and misinformed viewpoints. . . ”

But I am not one of them. Nor do I know it from your side. But I do know it all too well from the other side. I have seen the years of unending trauma of a girl who gave her baby away because she had nowhere else to turn.

The misery is not the same as those girls who kill their babies, but the loss is the equal of it.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins September 15, 2012 at 9:00 pm

An excellent essay, and as Mr. Mitchell says, it offers a broad framework that people of many different preferences, viewpoints, even principles, could co-exist within: culture as a common foundation rather than as a weapon of war.

Establishing the principle of hospitality erases the incredible waste of energy, verbiage, and moral capital fighting over adopting or not adopting criminal penalties. Hospitality is offered, it is not force-fed.

lovethegirls worries that adoption is the separation of a child from its mother. Thus, lovethegirls will no doubt focus on that kind of hospitality that encourages and enables mothers to keep their children close… but, not those mothers who whip their children bloody and give them boiling hot enemas. Not every biological mother is capable — and I acknowledge many abusive parents are simply at their wits ends, not intrinsically evil.

T.Chan is concerned that “In a rightly-ordered society, women would not be having sex, or mothers would not be seeking children, outside of wedlock.” I agree. But there has never been such a rightly ordered society. Some have come closer than others, or pretended to. Shall we not remain hospitable to women who conceive out of wedlock? Indeed, if we wish abortion to be rare, we must.

I think the back and forth shows that most commenters recognize the limitations of the cultural sub-sets they wish to emphasize. While Mr. Peters asserts that Christianity has enemies, and he may be right, the founder of our faith taught us how to treat enemies. Hospitality has a place in that teaching — indeed, pagans often had strict rules of hospitality that protected even blood enemies.

I would like to add, with regard to the author’s point about marriage, that those concerned with a precise definition of marriage, as a specific covenant, not a generalized benefit, have been lax in highlighting facts amenable to civil law under a secular constitution. It is obvious on its face that sexuality exists because of, and arose in conjunction with, the differentiation of species into male and female. If not for this difference, homosexuality would have no meaning, and no existence. That a civil order would recognize, provide a framework for, this fundamental biological connection, in all its social ramifications for a human culture, while ignoring rather irrelevant deviations from the norm, statistical and biological outliers, is quite rational and does not discriminate against any man, or woman.

avatar love the girls September 16, 2012 at 11:24 am

Siarlys Jenkins writes : “lovethegirls will no doubt focus on that kind of hospitality that encourages and enables mothers to keep their children close… but, not those mothers who whip their children bloody and give them boiling hot enemas.”

Years back when the term “every child a wanted child” was first being pushed by the abortion baby killers there was a study that found ‘planned’ children have a greater chance of being abused than ‘unplanned’ children.

Further, the article did not discuss child abuse, but it did more than strongly suggest that adoption is a good, as opposed to a last resort necessary evil, and it was concerning that false understanding of adoption that I directed my comment. The author has bought into the pretty photo shoots and articles of smiling girls giving away their babies to smiling families.

Not that I blame the author, I too was taken in by those same pretty articles and photo shoots year back when I worked in the right to life movement at the national level. But the local level after the baby is given away is where realty exists.

avatar JonF September 24, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Re: It may be preferable and less unnatural then killing the baby, but adoption is likewise unnatural separation.

Given the agelong reality of premature parental death, adoption is as ancient as the human species. There is nothing “unnatural” about it at all. Even in the animal world we find instances of mothers who nurse infants not their own.

Re: In a rightly-ordered society, women would not be having sex,

Er, that “rightly ordered society” would not last beyond the span of one human lifetime if women were not having sex.

Re: Theft in so far as the welfare state steals from families who need to support their own first.

Under own current tax system, families that are pressed in supporting their children have a very low tax burden– they are in fact quite likely to be among Mr Romney’s “47%”, paying no federal income tax. Affluent Families that are not so pressed have naught to whine about.

Re: Besides, help should take into consideration how a person found himself in his circumstances and culpability.

Unless one believes in something like Buddhist or Hindu reincarnation and karma, it is impossible to conclude logically that a newborn child bears any responsibility for the circumstances into which s/he is born.

avatar love the girls September 24, 2012 at 4:52 pm

Jon F. writes : “Given the agelong reality of premature parental death, adoption is as ancient as the human species. There is nothing “unnatural” about it at all. Even in the animal world we find instances of mothers who nurse infants not their own.”

It’s unnatural because a mother by nature nurses her own children. That is how it is naturally done, that is why mothers have breasts and lactate.

Further, just as the privation of blindness doesn’t disprove that men are by nature sighted, so likewise does the nursing of a baby by another woman not disprove that adoption is not unnatural.
__________

Jon F. writes : “Er, that “rightly ordered society” would not last beyond the span of one human lifetime if women were not having sex.”

Obviously I meant sex outside of marriage.

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