In a brief essay on Front Porch Republic, Mark T. Mitchell suggests that we “rethink the meaning of cultural engagement,” as “‘engaging’ culture in the idiom of warfare has not produced much in the way of results.” The post, originally from September, seems particularly apt in the wake of a highly contentious election.
Taking inspiration from a passage in the second-century Letter to Diognetus—which says that Christians “have a common table, but not a common bed”—Mitchell argues that “hospitality is a radical alternative to both the language and practice of culture wars.” He continues:
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.
Granted, there are obstacles to such hospitality today—long work hours, over-booked schedules, TV-watching habits—but it is certainly not impossible to practice it. Hospitality is even possible in neighborhoods whose families have very different religious and political views, in my (admittedly limited) experience.
At the very least, a renewed culture of hospitality could help debunk what seems (at least on the Internet) to be an operating assumption of Americans on both sides of our religious-cultural-political divides: the belief that our “enemies” are almost uniformly malevolent and unintelligent. At best, of course, hospitality does much more than that: It (re-)incarnates the gratuitous, universal love of God in a particular place and time. Which sounds like a tradition worth reviving.