Hospitality

Hospitality is a great virtue.

I imagine we could all list times we have been blessed by other people’s hospitality as they invited us to dinner, or to their house for the afternoon, or maybe even housing you overnight between flights in another city.

And the Bible commands us to be hospitable (1 Peter 4:9: “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.”)

But it’s not as easy as it sounds.

First off, I don’t even have a house to invite people over too. I live with my parents. So how can I be hospitable if I don’t have a home to invite people to? Now, when I was housesitting, I had a house. But I still didn’t invite anyone because I feared my cooking was not up to standard, and because I didn’t think I could play the role of host like I’ve seen my Mum and Dad do.

Now, there are several answers to those problems, such as “Get over it!” and

Abraham Entertaining Angels Unaware
Abraham Entertaining Angels Unaware

“Learn how to cook!” and communicating with your folks so they can help you invite people to your house, because it is your house too. But as good as those answers are, ultimately these problems stem from the wrong understanding of hospitality. Hospitality is not “having visitors over”. That’s just a way of expressing it.

Hospitality is using your resources to intentionally create a space where other people can feel loved. It’s easy to see how inviting people for dinner can do that. But we can do that when we are out of the home as well.

For instance, listening is an incredibly hospitable act. When we listen to other people, then they feel loved. More specifically, they feel safe, because who they are or what they are saying is being shown respect. Your “listening ear”, to borrow the metaphor, creates a space where it is ok for them to show you a little bit of themselves. 

Conversely, if we are poor listeners, then we are inhospitable. If we do not pay them much attention, then they left feeling that their ideas or experiences aren’t valued, so it’s not safe for them to share them. But if they do not share, then they are isolated from other people, and without that connection, how can they feel loved?

Listening is hospitable.

In exactly the same way, kindness is hospitable. If the words we say or the acts we do show them that who they are or what they are saying or dong is valued, then we’re saying that it safe to be and do those things here. With that safety, they can dare to express a little bit of themselves. And with that freedom, we feel loved.

So I want to be a hospitable person. Yes, I probably should learn to cook (my mum is reading this after all!), but more than that, I want to be a walking dinner invitation, so that how I talk, listen and carry myself wherever I go says: “pull up a chair, make yourself at home. You’re safe here.” That’s very hard work. Some people are better at it than others. The key, then, for the rest of us, is to watch the good listeners and figure out how to use our unique skills to follow suit.

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That Which They Think Good

After work this afternoon, I was listening to Librivox’s recording of Artistotle’s famous book, Politics which begins with the observation that, “mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good.”

At first, it might seem a very obvious statement. Have you ever met someone who was doing something because they thought it was bad?

Ok, a teenager might intentionally break the rules because they want to challenge their adult’s authority or because they’re bored. But even then, they are still trying to obtain that which they think good. It’s just that their idea of good (power, authority or attention and thrills) is different to our idea of good (obeying the rules).

That thought experiment demonstrates just how insightful Aristotle’s supposedly obvious observation is. We often forget that everyone is aiming for what they think is good because we all have different opinions about what is good.

It isn’t natural for us to think that the student refusing to do her homework is trying to obtain good, because our idea of good (knowledge, education, a good grade) implies she would do her homework!

I think a lot of conflict stems, or perhaps is escalated, by failure to understand what the other person thinks is good.

For instance, I love debating. I believe that there are two sides to every story, and I discover the balance between the two sides of the coin by pitting the two positions in debate. I suppose that is somewhat similar to being a devil’s advocate.

Alternatively, my parents love to discuss these things with me as well, but they love doing that because they are interested in their son and his (my) growth as a person, and because they believe certain things are true, so given the first premise, they are keen to see that I understand that truth too.

So when we have a conversation together, I often enter playing the devil’s advocate because my idea of “good” includes neutrally evaluating ideas, which is incredibly frustrating for Mum and Dad, who do not have the time or interest to engage in these hypothetical debates, and just want to cut to the chase of what do I, their son, think and where am I as a person. That’s one reason our discussions often turn into arguments.

If we could recognise our conflicting objectives before we began arguing, then things would run a lot smoother. We don’t have to agree or copy each other’s ideas of good, we just have to understand it. If I stopped to observe their idea of good, I could then respect it by sharing a heart-to-heart conversation, while they could recognise that my devil’s advocacy doesn’t represent their son going off the rails, but is simply me processing where I am at. Understanding that we have different ideas of good would help us make our ideas of good work together harmoniously, and we’d all be better off for it.

And that’s the thing. It is one thing to say “mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good”, and it is another to get to know another person well enough to understand their vision of good. That means investing time and energy into that person. It means adopting an other-centred attitude towards our friends.

So it’s not just a philosophical exercise cooked up by Aristotle to understand impersonal political systems. And it’s tricky sometimes. But its practical value for our daily interactions and its ability to deepen our friendships makes looking for the other person’s idea of good definitely worth it.

 

Justice, the Rule of Law, Terry Pratchett- and Batman

The rule of law is an important aspect of justice and fairness. It recognises that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, so when left to the whims of individual people, power can do a lot of harm.

The solution is rule of law- where that power is governed by impartial principles that pay no heed to individual whims or biases.

Justice, Fairness, Rule of Law
Justice, Fairness, Rule of Law

But in a fallen world, can rule of law really work?

As a quote by a postmodernist I found during university studies says:

“The rule of law, once considered to shield humanity from the exercise of naked power, is eventually unable to perform this task. It ends up reproducing earlier power configurations, while masking this precisely by presenting itself as value neutral. It’s name not withstanding, the rule of law remains the rule of humanity, privileging some while oppressing others.”

The rule of law is meant to protect us from the biased use of power. But those laws were written by biased people, so the power abuse simply moves from the actual use of power, to the system that governs it.

So is rule of law a joke? Is it actually impossible to control power by use of principle?

Thud, by Terry Pratchett
Thud, by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett, in his wonderful book Thud disagrees. In Thud an extremely law-abiding policeman who, faced with extremely dangerous criminals, becomes increasingly tempted to take the law into his own hands, leading to this fascinating piece of internal dialogue between good and evil:

“The darkness lunged, and met resistance. “Think of the deaths they have caused! Who are you to stop me?”
“He created me.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? Who watches the watchmen? Me. I watch him. Always. You will not force him to murder for you.”
“What kind of human creates his own policeman?”
“One who fears the dark.”

Pratchett refuses to accept that the rule of law that governs our use of power is simply a man-made construct. Instead, he believes that they are moral absolutes which humans must, and can, through their own conscience or “watchman”, obey. As his policeman confesses, “You just don’t kill the helpless. You just don’t.”

I’ve quoted a post-modernist and Terry Pratchett, but this blog post would be incomplete without Batman. I love Batman. There are many reasons I love Batman, and I can’t go into all of them now, but one reason is because “given enough time and preparation, Batman can defeat anyone.” That’s right- anyone. Even overpowered good guys like Superman, Wonderwoman or the Green Lantern.

I realised the other day that the most fascinating part of this isn’t that Batman, a non-powered human, is smart enough to make plans capable of defeating these superheroes, but that he’d want to.

Batman believes in justice and moral absolutes just as much as Pratchett. He’s just less optimistic about our conscience’s ability to overcome power’s corrupting influence.

Batman, giving Superman a hang-over
Batman, giving Superman a hang-over

That’s why he created plans to defeat every member of the Justice League, in case they turned evil. He even distrusts himself. In one storyline, Superman has turned into a completely evil supervillain, and Batman builds a machine which can defeat him. But he designs it so it can only be used with the consent of three other superheroes, because he does not trust himself with that much power. He really understands that power corrupts even the best principles.

Rule of law is based upon moral absolutes or universal principles. In that sense, Pratchett’s idealism is justified. To the Christian at least, the ideal is really true. But sin tempts us to bend those rules. That’s what sin is. So I guess the postmodernist was right- not that this is the way things should be, but that’s the way things are, until Christ returns. In a world torn between the justice that should be and the sin that distorts it, I think you need a heavy dose of Batman’s distrust for how power can corrupt principle.

In seeking to use power justly, we need Pratchett’s idealism, the postmodernist’s cynicism and Batman’s precautions. That’s the reality of seeking justice in a fallen world.