Western civilization has its roots in the ancient Greeks and Hebrews. In general, we can find our fundamental values explained and exemplified in these two cultures. Recalling our roots is one way to lift our minds away from the cramped fixations of day-to-day life; it is also a way to notice the unmoored drift of our society, away from ancient assumptions. Like hospitality. Today in America, we tend to think of hospitality as a decorative phenomenon, good manners, the tie to go with a tux – not a bad thing, but definitely not a serious thing. The Greeks saw it differently: Apollo, the protector of truth and justice, was also the defender of hospitality. And few moral teachings were more fundamental for the Hebrews than Moses’ words about hospitality, a rock-solid touchstone value: “Welcome strangers, because – remember! – you too once were a stranger in a strange land.”
So what happened? Where did hospitality go? How did this cultural assumption and habit erode?
Part of the problem is plain old sin – selfishness and greed and racism and suchlike. But I think it’s possible to identify some developments and challenges that are more specific. Seeing what happened does not automatically reverse the damage, but it helps.
So here are ten excuses for inhospitality, in rough chronological order.
1. GER, NOKRI, ZUWR: guest, weirdo, enemy. The teaching about strangers in Hebrew was clear; Greek and Latin and English do not have the same clarity.
2. The story of Sodom has been mangled, and the hospitality triptych has disappeared.
3. In the Patristic era, St. John Chrysostom and other Fathers disagreed about who we are commanded to serve. Who is the least of the brothers: people in need, or Christians in need?
4. The shamrock image of the Trinity (attributed to St. Patrick) is a dead end for thought. We are not accustomed to exploring images of the Trinity, including three found all over our teaching: Father/Son and Spirit, husband/wife and sacramental unity, host/guest and unifying hospitality.
5. As St. Thomas Aquinas noted with concern, the corporal works of mercy drifted away from their roots in Scripture. Over the centuries, this became a serious source of confusion.
6. During the Reformation and the division of the Lord’s church, Christians killed each other, instead of welcoming each other. When the killing stopped, the inhospitality remained.
7. Before they were suppressed or weakened, the monasteries in the name of the community – fulfilled the Lord’s command to welcome strangers. When the monasteries closed, no new pattern of hospitality emerged to replace the Patristic pattern.
8. Science fiction, shaped in large part by the eugenics movement, routinely painted the universe as a place of constant warfare. In the sci fi universe, Earth is surrounded by hostile forces. C.S. Lewis worked hard to change this pattern. The universe of mainstream sci fi is inhospitable: a detail of the stupendous damage wrought by the eugenics movement.
9. The Catholic Church was split in reaction to Vatican II. There are still millions of Catholics who have no idea what the Church teaches about social justice. The left-right split resembles the older split over the lessons from Sodom, but it’s deeper and more comprehensive.
10. In the 1960s – a time of sex and drugs and peace, man – rapists on the road changed the way Americans responded to strangers. In 1960, nearly every child in the country was taught: “Be polite to strangers.” One single decade later, nearly every child in the country was taught, “Don’t speak to strangers.”