Monday, May 17, 2010

Musings on Radical Hospitality

Last fall at William Penn House, we were called to respond to why we were hosting Navy Midshipman for an evening conversation and allowing them to call what they do “service”. Among the sentiments that challenged us included: 1) being in the military is less about “service” and more about “murder”, and 2) that these young men and their peers were nothing more than pawns in the military industrial complex. During the evening, while people were civil (for the most part), what became clear was this: these young men were articulate and thoughtful. They could talk about their vision for the world and how they see what they do as serving that vision. They could articulate some of the ethical and moral dilemmas of serving. They talked about how the military community has, over the last decade, recognized that humanitarian work is vital to preventing unnecessary violence and casualties, citing the examples of the shift in strategy in Iraq and the creation of floating Navy hospitals that respond to such things as earthquakes and tsunamis.

What also happened that night was this: while these young men were calm and easily answered any and all questions, the questions from the people in the room were not up to the task. There were certainly some questions about specific acts of war and what these young men do when they don’t agree with the orders that come to them, but there was a lack of articulate questions grounded in the philosophy and practice of pacifism. There were passions and emotions, and there was a desire to ask good questions, but the ability to clearly state these questions was not there. What I saw was that the reactivity drowned out the peaceful messages that we seek to bring forth. So what can we do?

This brings me to Radical Hospitality. As we at William Penn House have adapted it and strive to practice (notice "strive"), it means “welcoming everyone as if he/she were Christ”, or in Quaker-speak, “seeing that of God in all”, or for the more secular among us, recognizing the goodness in people. To live this way takes a leap of faith – a leap that can take us right out of our comfort zone about what we have been taught to believe about good and bad in the world. But it does not at all mean being soft or wishy-washy. In fact it is quite the opposite: To me it means that if I really believe there is that of God in all, I want to see it in others and while I share mine with them. In order to do this, I have to do what I can to create a safe and respectful place. My experience is that this actually works in making the world a better place. One of the basic tenets is this, I’ve learned: we have to be fully willing to be wrong. It’s hard in our polarized work, but take gay rights, for example: if you ask people how they feel about laws supporting gay marriage, you’ll often get a “yes” or a “no”. But if you can hold a real conversation beyond the legislation, you often find a much more enriching conversation about the rights and responsibilities of legal couples. As a bonus, I’ve often found, people become more gay-affirming. They may not be where I am on the spectrum, but the gap between us has decreased when we see that, really, we want much of the same thing in the world. Just yesterday, in an almost "comedy of errors" way, when I was stopped by CIA security in Langley Hill VA, the ability to consciously practice this rather than get fearful or angry led to a positive experience where I saw a good person doing his job and, hopefully, a CIA policeman has another example of Quakers being good people, not just reactionary "peaceniks".

What are the keys to living this kind of spiritual and disciplined life? First, I readily acknowledge that I more often fail than succeed in accomplishing this, but I am doing better. I recently read a book called “In Praise of Doubt: How to hold convictions without being a fanatic”. It’s a great read, and really reassured me that there is a great need in our multicultural, multi-religious society for people to commit to the spiritual discipline of bridge-building for peace-making. It’s a calling that I think easily fits with Friends testimony when we can really push ourselves to put ego and self to the side, and consider that we are part of a much bigger societal fabric. It is a life practice that calls for curiosity (“seeking”), and realizing that there really is no “other”, there is just “us” in this world. Even for the military, it is not the alternative to peace. It’s there for those times when pacifism is just not up to the trick. When we can share in this, it’s a wonderful feeling.

Now the hard part for Friends: to learn to really do this often means that we be experts in listening – “bearing silent witness”. Just like running a marathon, however, we actually have to practice, not just think about it. So how well-trained are we at the art of listening? What can we do? Just as “there is no way to peace; peace is the way”, I would say “there is no way to listening; listening is the way.” Let’s get out there and practice it. Let’s step up our commitment to congregate with people of other faiths – and do the real hard work, congregate with those who not only have a different faith tradition but more importantly with those of the same faith but different interpretations and who may disagree with us on some of the issues of our times. When we feel the need to respond, let’s try and sit in appreciative silence. If we really believe in our faith, let’s put it into practice.


Catrin said...

Thank you Brad for this article. It chimes for me with my experiences at the week-long Eurosatory Arms Fair in France, where I remember feeling very dissatisfied with the depth & quality of our engagement as pacifists with the arms dealers & manufacturers. When we were able to hold the quiet, questioning space, people shared their dilemmas at their work - one in particular noting that he'd only become an arms dealer when the tourist trade at his Montmatre cafe in Paris dwindled - but it was challenging to hold this space, to have the depth of knowledge on technical issues of those who worked in this field as professionals, and to be willing to be changed ourselves by the encounter. I remember thinking at the time that our preparation for such events needs to start long, long beforehand. Best wishes with your work, Catrin

TheYellowDart said...

Very interesting work you are doing at William Penn House. I am relatively new to Quakerism. I have been attending meeting in MD for just over a year now. It seems like every month I learn about some other neat Quaker organization doing some cool work. I would love to have been a fly on the wall in that discussion. I attended West Point for a year before transferring to UMD. I have many friends who graduated from West Point, the Naval Academy, and the Air Force Academy. These folks are some of the most incredibly competent and capable people I have ever known. These kinds of conversations are quite common at the academies. The midshipmen would most likely not be taken aback at all by more intense scrutiny and questioning. Believe me they are ready for a grilling on any topic at any time. This is the style of exchange practiced there. It is quite common to discuss ethical dilemmas, haze of combat, (im)morality of killing in the field, etc. There are more voices for relative "peace" in the military (especially at the academies) than you might believe. And there are folks that I have known that reverted to non-combat positions over such ongoing discussions during their time in the military. Those are folks you don't want leaving the military but to continue those conversations with others in hopes to persuade their brethren so to speak. Do the Quakers have a presence at the Naval Academy chapel group? I know it might seem like an odd question, but like I said I'm new.

Diane said...

Yes, Brad, I agree with you. The more we "love our enemies" and listen, the more we learn.My experience is that most of us do want the same things. I remember reading in a Quaker newsletter about 15 years ago that certain Quakers felt forced to host Southern Baptists because of the hospitality testimony and were relieved that the Baptists"behaved." How much better if these guests had been seen not as the "other" but as a gift from God sent with a needed message.

dcsloan said...


The lamb was lost. It was the shepherd who searched, found, retrieved, and celebrated the recovery of the lost lamb.

The coin was lost. It was the woman who searched, found, retrieved, and celebrated the recovery of the lost coin.

The son was lost. The son had rejected the father as though the father was dead. Even in rejection, the father was generous. The son lived a selfish and self-directed life without the father. Finally, the son had no options, no direction, no chance of rescue, no charity, no hope, no family, no life, complete separation from love and kindness and friendship and companionship, an abomination of an existence – this is death and hell. At such a time under such circumstances, what happens next is natural and unavoidable – the son goes home. The father has been waiting and watching. As hard as it is, that is all a parent can do, watch and wait until the child finishes the journey and turns toward home. When the father, who has been waiting and watching, catches that first distant glimpse of the returning son; the father rushes out to retrieve the lost son, to embrace the found son, to shower the returning son with generous hospitality, and to begin the celebration. The son never even got to finish that well-rehearsed speech of contrition and humility. All that matters is that son turned toward home. The son was never lost to the Father, the son was only lost to himself.

The brother was not happy. (Question: Is the home-bound brother like the nine coins safely gathered in a known location or like the ninety-nine sheep left in the wilderness?) The brother wants to know why there is a celebration for the lost when there has never been a celebration for that which was never lost. The brother wants to know why there are not punitive consequences for destructive decisions and a selfish life. Why is there a father’s happiness for a bad son? The father affirms his love for the brother and acknowledges the accomplishments and stewardship of the brother. The father also rejects rejection. There has been enough separation. There will be no more separation – separation is finished. Now there will be acceptance and inclusion and a great party.

Being a Christian is practicing generosity and hospitality; living non-violently without vengeance; living here and now as one family where all are invited, welcomed, and included without exception or qualification; living in constant relationship with God; and living here and now – not later and not someplace else – living here and now a life transformed by resurrection.

Joanna Hoyt said...

Thank you very much for this post. I live and work on a Catholic WOrker farm in a very conservative area, and I go regularly to the high school as a counter-recruiter. I am struggling to listen and respond more deeply, not falling wither into argument or into making nice. Sometimes I manage, often I don't. When it does work something important seems to happen to my neighbors and to me, as well as to the relationship between us. It is very good to hear someone else wrestling with this issue.

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