In ancient times, in the Middle East, a man once sat near his tent in an area not far from a village called Mamre. His wife remained in the tent attending to chores. He saw three strangers approaching. He rose, ran to them, welcomed them, bowed to them in respect and offered them his hospitality. He washed their feet (a gesture of welcome of nomadic peoples) offered them bread to eat and water to drink. His actions were guided by a prevailing custom, which obliged him to offer hospitality and protection to aliens and strangers.
He took and slaughtered one of his calves and prepared a feast for the three guests. When it was time for them to leave, the story goes, he went with them a distance “to see them safely on their way.”
This is one of the myths of the legendary Abraham and Sarah who appear in Islamic, Judaic and Christian scriptures. By all accounts we have a picture of a man and his wife, people of privilege and power offering hospitality and protection to the potentially weak and vulnerable – in this case to three men who appeared as strangers in their midst.
Last Friday, the President of the United States signed a directive closing the nation to refugees and people from “certain predominantly Muslim countries.” Immigrants were turned away, with no preparations or forethought apparently given to how appropriate authorities would ‘see them on their way.’ The directive created unimaginable suffering for millions of people – all of whom wished us nothing but affection and admiration for what we stood for – a just and welcoming space. I was deeply saddened when I read about it.
The supreme irony is that the practice of hospitality was an ingrained spiritual tradition in many of those same countries that now seek refuge and sanctuary here.
There are darker implications to the recent executive directive. In this action, I believe our present leadership violated one of America’s fundamental moral foundations. The operative myth that has made America unique and distinct in its greatness is its commitment to hospitality.
We live by myths. Campaign slogans are myths. Our most beloved religious stories and symbols are myths. This is not to suggest they are only “make believe or fanciful.” They may be, but do not need to be historically verifiable to be powerfully motivating. To be viable they only need to speak to some deep human yearning. In the myth of Abraham and Sarah, we see the deep and universal human need to care for others, in short, to offer hospitality to strangers.
Two symbols represent our national myths; the eagle and the Statue of Liberty. The eagle represents nobility and strength, the alpha bird if you will. It tells the world that America is strong. It feels good to be strong. The eagle is, however, a predator. Eagles are also kissing cousins to buzzards.
The Statue of Liberty, our greatest national landmark, was conceived in grace. It was given to America by the French in gratitude for our supporting their struggles for equality and justice. For us, she has become the iconic symbol, not of America’s might, but of America’s caring. The gift was given in gratitude, one of the most profound feelings we have as human beings.
What’s disturbing is that the symbol of America’s true greatness with it’s long and venerable history of hospitality to the stranger, might soon become more like the guard stationed at the entrance to a gated community; admitting members only. I recently saw a picture on the side of a pickup truck with a picture of Lady Liberty on the cab door. In her arms she’s holding an AK 47.
This portrays the statue more as an armed guard than a hostess welcoming “your tired and your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.”
The highest task imparted to us as human beings is to care for one another. It is not some kind of legal imperative, but more a recognition that we belong to that interdependent web of life that is woven into who we are and has consequences in what we do.
The story of Abraham and his guests is instructive from another point of view. We can assume that he is a man of means, with resources. Even if he were not wealthy, the same call to hospitality was a spiritual value that would be as incumbent on him as it would be for the privileged.
The substance of spiritual matters is reflected more subtly than say, closing a deal.
What characterized the recent executive order banning immigrants was its ‘slapdash” quality. Many, including the Secretary of Homeland Security were just learning of the order as it was being signed. The people in government agencies that would have the responsibility for carrying out the directive, “to see them on their way,” were largely blindsided which led to scrambling and confusion, only aggravating the predictable suffering for all involved.
In the spiritual nature of life, awareness is critical. It’s expressed in the attention one gives in the way we treat others in our routine or extraordinary transactions with them. Careless and off-handed treatment of others suggests that there’s little awareness and care or feeling for the other.
There’s one other irony in these developments. Of all the countries being impacted by the present migrations, America’s space, wealth and privilege position her to be compassionate with far less impact to her than countries with fewer resources.
To whom much has been given, much is required.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.