The Ancient Modern

Hospitality and Insurance  /  Joshua Alan Sturgill

I’m reading Rene Girard. So, I have to ask:

Is all civilization built on murder? Must one group die so another can progress unhindered?

This unpleasant thought attempts to comprehend a common characteristic of so much of our history: from Cain’s city in Genesis built on the murder of Abel to the civil wars and revolutions of the Modern age; from invasion and colonialism to legalized abortion. Many will object that these are not comparable examples. But what they have in common is a displacement of one person or group for the sake of another.

Historically, human beings refuse to make room for each other. We refuse to think broadly and compassionately enough to truly be “inclusive.” Though, of course, words like inclusive, tolerance and diversity are frequently lauded and discussed.

How much difference is there between burning heretics at the stake to preserve social stability and establishing genocide to preserve economic prosperity? These seem to be instances of the same plague of fear and hate that infects all cultures, times, systems. Whether in Calvin’s Geneva or in Germany before WWII, the mentality is the same: we must preserve the status quo at all cost; anyone who upsets the balance must be removed.

These are not new thoughts. Rene Girard and others write persuasively on the subject of violence at the heart of culture. The political “right” and “left” are equally guilty of violence. If we fear the economic tyranny of conservatism, we should also fear the ideological tyranny of liberalism. A culture that insists on either absolute conformity or absolute autonomy must, in the end, resort to violence to ensure that its ideals manifest.

Pro-life and pro-abortion groups, to use a difficult, but obvious example, may claim to be on opposite sides of a hot political issue. But both are products of the same culture, and both often use the same venomous rhetoric. The smoke of “choice” chokes us just as much as the smoke of contempt and bigotry.

Meanwhile, who works toward creating a culture in which all childreneven the troubled, unexpected or painfulare welcomed and blessed? The abortion debate would be very, very different if something other than utility and autonomy were characteristic of both sides.

What might this “other” be? Right now, our cultureand, perhaps all humanityis caught between the two poles of hospitality and insurance. If we fail to move toward greater hospitality in all our social and economic considerations, we will inevitably move toward the impersonal and community-eroding insurance.

We are most human when we are most hospitablewhen we make room for others, when we offer our homes, food, possessions and schedules for the sake of those around us, no matter who they are, no matter if they are our own children or the children of “infidels” and “enemies.”

Yet, we do not live in a world where hospitality is easy. We are often unable to offer the hospitality we would want. Hospitality is best in community, and community is sorely lacking at the moment.

On the other side is insurance. We want to live with complete independence, so we need to be insured. Insurance means that no one and no group can hinder the goals or the path we have chosen for ourselves. In fact, the insurance-mentality is so pervasive that we unconsciously remake both law and religion into insurance policies. We want both government and God to insure us in our beliefs and our lifestyles.

Once law, religion and culture all agree that some must be disposed of so that others can thrivethis is the common idea behind abortion and hellfire evangelism (!)then, we will, with impunity, call “progress” what used to be murder.

There’s a famous case of a religious group and a political group who assumed they were opposed to each other’s ideologies. But they were shown to be, instead, quite cooperative and compatible. They conspired to execute an innocent man, when they should have offered Him hospitality.

In one sense, their hands were tied. The culture of hospitality had long been replaced by institutions and legal procedures. It would have taken a long time and much patience to hear the case and consider it. Only hospitality has such compassion and patience.

Without knowing it, we have reached such a situation again. They did not call it murder. We don’t either. We call it expedience, choice, progress and insurance.


All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2020 by Joshua Alan Sturgill

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