If we are honest with ourselves, we will change the name of the United States of America. The Divided States of America seems more fitting.
Many, perhaps all of us, would agree we are living in a nation divided against itself. We have a problem. It is far more profound than our division, which is only a symptom of a deeper problem, a kind of heart trouble. The Torah and Haftarah readings of Parashat Vayera help us identify this heart trouble and suggest a treatment. But first, let’s take a peek at history.
Shabbat, November 19, 2022, marks the 159th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address when he addressed a seriously divided nation. He provided a cure for what ailed America in his time. While his diagnosis and prescription are not what we need, he points us in the right direction.
It is in the last line of his Address at Gettysburg that Lincoln names his cure: “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
He was right. In his time, America needed a new birth of freedom so that it might become and remain a nation that was no longer half slave and half free.
We need another therapy at this time. Inspired by the scripture readings of Parashat Vayera (especially the eighteenth and nineteenth chapter of Genesis, and the fourth chapter of the Second Kings), we may see that we need a new birth of hospitality.
I know that sounds strange and superficial. Even funny. If so, it is because we underestimate hospitality. We don’t fully understand what it is. By the end of this blog you will have a deeper understanding of hospitality and how it is the cure for what ails America.
In chapter eighteen of Genesis we see ninety-nine-year-old Avraham rising to his feet to greet three strangers in the heat of the day. With respect, he prostrates himself to the ground before urging them to enter his tent for rest and a meal. Next, we see him running and ordering his household to hurry and prepare food for their guests. While they eat, he stands beside them as their host and servant.
In chapter nineteen we see Lot, Avraham’s nephew, imitating his uncle’s example, intercepting the visitors in S’dom’s square and insisting they come to his home to be safe and well-fed.
In the Haftarah of Parashat Vayera we meet the woman of Shunem. When she first encounters Elisha, the traveling Prophet, she prevails upon him to stay at her home and have a meal, something he would continue to do whenever he was in the area. She even built an extra room on the roof of her house to better accommodate him. Elisha comments on her conspicuous hospitality before rewarding her with the promise of a son.
Avraham, Lot, and the woman of Shunem are each portraits of hospitality. Now we know what it is. How shall we put that into words?
Author and poet Kathleen Norris gives us language we need, widening our view of hospitality:
True hospitality is marked by an open response to the dignity of each person. . . . It means recognizing that we have not always seen grace where it exists in the world, and agreeing to turn away from a stubborn and [unyielding] position that cannot accept what is new and different and therefore cannot entertain God’s mysterious ways. . . .
The classic sign of [our] acceptance of God’s mystery is welcoming and ‘making room’ for the stranger, the other, the surprising, the unlooked-for and unwanted.
Norris is sensitive to what Hebrews says about hospitality, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers—for in doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it." She suggests we often encounter the grace of God when we show hospitality to strangers.
Author Henri Nouwen takes us further, to necessary depths, exploring what it means and what it costs for us to welcome the stranger. His words, written in 1975, are far more an indictment of our day than his. See if you don't agree.
Although many, we might even say most, strangers in this world become easily the victim of a fearful hostility, it is . . . obligatory for us [as God’s people] to offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings. The movement from hostility to hospitality is hard and full of difficulties. Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude and do harm. But still—that is our vocation: to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest, and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.
Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.
We are truly hospitable when we welcome the stranger, different from ourselves, alien in culture, politics, even religion and values. Often, the stranger brings convictions and perspectives objectionable to us. When we treat such people with courtesy and warm respect, then, and only then, are we welcoming the stranger.
Remember this short definition of hospitality: “Treating strangers like family.”
I can’t blame any of you for thinking I am talking about our attitudes toward what happens at our southern border. But my focus today is broader and more personal to each of us. My focus is this: we as Americans have become strangers to other Americans, and they have become strangers to us. This is especially so in the area of politics with all the clamor surrounding it.
I will not and need not quote examples of the hostile and hateful language that fills the air, all the ways Americans are defaming, labeling, dismissing, and attacking other Americans over political issues. It is like clanging brass and tinkling symbols, the sounds of pagan worship which Paul contrasted with the better pathway, love. And much of this worthless clamor comes from people who claim to be outspoken Christians, followers of our Messiah.
None of this should be ignored, nor is any of it harmless. Violent and dangerous words have triggered and will continue to trigger mayhem and murder. But wicked speech itself is murderous. Assaultive speech is the sound of people refusing to treat strangers like family. Assaultive speech advertises an inhospitable heart. Such speech murders the human spirit, kills human relationships, and strangles human hope. It dehumanizes all concerned.
Failure to have a hospitable heart, to welcome strangers as family, imperils America’s soul and democracy's survival.
I close with three voices presenting us with a diagnosis and prescription for a divided America.
Through Isaiah, the word of God delivers a diagnosis of a nation drowning in mutual antagonisms. Looking down from His throne of judgment, God is not pleased with Judah’s inhospitable hearts, nor ours.
Hear what Isaiah says on behalf of his God:
These people say to each other,
‘Don’t come too close or you will defile me!
I am holier than you!’ These people are a stench in my nostrils, an acrid smell that never goes away. (Isaiah 65:5)
As far as ADONAI is concerned, our behavior stinks.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes about an amazing man, an exemplar for a divided America with an ailing heart.
Daryl Davis, 63, is a Black musician with an unusual calling: He hangs out with Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis and chips away at their racism. He has evidence of great success: a collection of K.K.K. robes and hoods given him by people whom he persuaded to abandon the Klan.
His odyssey arose from curiosity about racism, including about an attack he suffered. When Davis was 10 years old, he says, a group of white people hurled bottles, soda cans and rocks at him.
“I was incredulous,” Davis recalled. “My 10-year-old brain could not process the idea that someone who had never seen me, who had never spoken to me, who knew nothing about me, would want to inflict pain upon me for no other reason than the color of my skin.”
“How can you hate me,” he remembers wondering, “when you don’t even know me?”
Davis began to work on answers after he graduated from Howard University and joined a band that sometimes played in a Maryland bar that attracted white racists. Davis struck up a friendship with a K.K.K. member, each fascinated by the other, and the man eventually left the K.K.K., Davis said.
One of Davis’s methods . . . is not to confront antagonists and denounce their bigotry but rather to start in listening mode. Once people feel they are being listened to, he says, it is easier to plant a seed of doubt.
Davis claims to have persuaded some 200 white supremacists to leave the Klan and other extremist groups. . . .
I think that we Americans don’t engage enough with people we fundamentally disagree with. There’s something to be said for the basic Davis inclination toward dialogue even with unreasonable antagonists. If we’re all stuck in the same boat, we should talk to each other.
“Daryl Davis demonstrates that talking face-to-face with your ideological opponents can motivate them to rethink their views,” said Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. . . .
"You won’t get through to people until you’ve earned their trust. . . . You’re not likely to earn their trust until you’ve met them face-to-face and listened to their stories.”Nicholas Kristof, "How Can You Hate Me When You Don't Even Know Me?" (New York Times, June 26, 2021).
All of us would agree that Daryl Davis’ life seems to say all that needs be said on our topic.
But there is one more point that needs to be heard. It comes from the pen of Henri Nouwen.
Nouwen delivers advice necessary to our healing, showing us how America should and should not take its medicine.
Receptivity [as in the case of hospitality] without confrontation leads to a bland neutrality that serves nobody.
Confrontation without receptivity leads to an oppressive aggression which hurts everybody.
It is not enough to welcome the stranger in order to listen to him respectfully. We must also speak the truth to him as we know it.
But if we speak the truth to people without signaling that we accept and respect them and their right to hold and articulate their positions, we are making war, not peace.
And we’ve had too much of that.
May God give us all hospitable hearts.