Saturday, June 30, 2012

Pagan Values: Hospitality (And the Affordable Care Act)


Yesterday, Jason Pitzl-Waters of The Wild Hunt wrote an email wondering what Pagans feel regarding this week's Supreme Court decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act, and about the ACA generally.  My first reaction was that I really had nothing to say on the subject... as a Pagan, that is.  I do have my own opinions, to be sure, but at first blush, I didn't see them as grounded in my religion.

Upon further reflection, I have to say that, yes, I do.

Pagans as a group are a pretty political bunch, and of course my Pagan friends have had a lot to say over the past few months leading up to the Supreme Court's decision.  I've heard from friends on the far Right, who would like us to abolish the Federal Income Tax (never mind the ACA) and friends on the far Left, who would like to see us abolish private insurance altogether, and nationalize health care entirely.

What I haven't heard is very much discussion of the ACA grounded in our spiritual beliefs rather than our political convictions.

While I've heard very few Pagans make arguments grounded in our values, those I have heard have mainly come down against "Obamacare," as they generally put it.  One way or another, these opponents of the law tend to rest their argument on what has sometimes been called the "high choice" ethic of most Pagan religious groups today.  Whether Hellenic, Asatru, or Wiccan, most modern Pagans have a basic understanding that as long as what we choose to do "harms none," we have the right to do it without interference.

And the government reaching their fingers into my wallet, should I choose not to buy health insurance, would count as interference.  Interference with individual freedom is seen as an obvious Bad Thing, a violation of Pagan respect for the free will of the individual.

I'm not buying it.

There's a vein of thought in the contemporary Pagan movement that seems to see the point of Paganism as primarily that, as a Pagan others "don't get to tell me what to do."  It often seems that the basic belief is that, for Pagans, nobody,  whether god or man, has the right ever to require service from us.

But if we take the core ethic of Paganism as individual freedom alone, we need to understand that we're breaking pretty dramatically from what ancient Pagan cultures believed.  Remember all that unpleasantness over Christians refusing to offer a pinch of incense to the Emperor?  That wasn't actually a trivial offense, but a serious one: a refusal to honor the god of the state, the deified personification of the authority of the government and the cohesiveness of Rome as a people. 

Likewise, throughout the ancient world, it was understood that a man or a woman had duty to their rulers, who had duty to them, and that everyone had duty to the gods.  Life was a dense and complicated web of obligations and services, and the worst fate imaginable in most ancient cultures was to be free of those obligations, an exile, a landless man living outside the bonds of obligation and community he had been born into.

And while I don't advocate a return to a state religion, and I'm not particularly interested in honoring my government as a god or paying fealty to a lord, I think the history pretty well puts to rest the idea that ancient Pagans didn't think their society or their gods had a right to impose obligations onto individuals.

High-choice we may be, and I think that being a religion of few "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots" is a good thing overall.  But Paganism has never been an individualistic free-for-all, and it's a mistake for us to treat it as one now.  If a legal requirement is in accord with the will of the gods, Pagan history suggests that our ancestors would have been just fine with imposing it on the individual.  Individual freedom, in the face of the values inspired by our gods and the needs of society as a whole, was not unlimited.

So what do our gods, what does our history, have to say on the subject of universal health care?

While there is nothing in the lore that comes down to us from ancient Pagan cultures to say directly whether mandated health insurance is or is not a good thing (any more than there is anything in the Bible that specifically forbids or permits abortion, a technology that didn't exist at the time it was written) there are, it seems to me, Pagan values that do apply.

I am thinking of the sacred duty of hospitality.

Baucis and Philemon visited by Zeus and Hermes

The ancient world is replete with stories of gods in disguise, visiting among men to test our hospitality, whether it is Odin appearing, disguised, on the doorstep, or Zeus and Hermes blotting out an inhospitable village--and rewarding those nearby who upheld the value of hospitality

So what is hospitality?

To a modern, secular mind, hospitality stands for very little beyond a willingness to put out towels for the use of overnight guests, or having a few good recipes for when company comes. Invited guests; invited company.   People we know and already love, or at least want to impress.

In the ancient world, it meant something more.

In the world in which our ancestors lived and formed their values, there were no Sheratons or Motel 6's dotting the landscape.  More, there were no well-organized authorities to turn to for basic safety in traveling.  In the ancient world, there were only two ways to move from place to place and live to tell the tale: with an army at your back, or relying upon the hospitality of strangers.

Hospitality was a serious thing, a duty.  And it was a duty owed, not primarily to one's friends, but to strangers, people one owed nothing and who might never be capable of doing you any good in return for what was given them: a meal, a bed, safety and kindness and an assurance of one day's needs having been met along the road.  True, guest gifts might be offered, and they might well be extraordinary and rich ones; but the point of the gifts was primarily to extend an offer of friendship, and a host was expected to extend their own friendship, at least for one night, without condition based on the ability of the guest to bring offerings of value into your home.

Think of this: throughout the ancient world, a place rife with violence and insecurity, with hunger and need on every side, those who were home and safe were expected to open their doors to the stranger and care for them.

Most of us, today, can scarcely be bothered to drop a coin into a homeless person's paper cup, or to write a check on behalf of the local food pantry.  And yet, there are those in the world still who honor these traditions, sometimes at great risk to themselves--and, like Baucis and Philemon of the old story, they are more likely to be among the world's poor than among us, the world's wealthy.

For instance, I remember clearly the tale I heard from one woman who grew up in poverty in the Townships of South Africa under Apartheid, of how her mother would always stretch the meal, no matter how scanty it was, so that there would be at least one portion left for any unexpected guest who might come to their home during the meal.  In spite of real want, real hardship,  let alone inconvenience, the ancient custom was honored: there would always be a place for the visitor, the stranger, the guest.

Because without such an acknowledgment of the need we have for one another, the bonds that tie us together in human societies large enough for the niceties (art, medicine, music, joy) would fall apart.  Hospitality, the willingness to serve the stranger, is the glue that holds us together--not, as we sometimes mistakenly believe today, money--and the gods themselves require it of us.

How does hospitality apply to ideas of universal access to health care?

Well, obviously, it applies first and more essentially to providing members of our society with the basic necessities of life: food, shelter, safety, and respect.  And it is worth observing that "our society" means our greater, global society, not just the society of our friends and our familiar communities, any more than hospitality in the ancient world was restricted to one's countrymen or members of one's own class or clan.  Hospitality is meant for the stranger... though even in the matter of our own countrymen, it seems pretty clear to me that a good many of us are willing to let the hungry person in our own neighborhood be turned from our door unfed and disrespected.

But in a world where few of us go to bed at night hungry, and where basic shelter is, in fact, available to most, it seems to me that other basic needs, including health care, become part of the obligation we owe to one another, and to the strangers at our gate.

Now I, for one, do not have any more inclination than most to invite people I do not know into my home overnight.  Nor would many hungry or homeless people be able to find their way to my farmhouse at the edge of the woods.  So I do the next best thing: I participate voluntarily with charities that provide necessities to others, and I encourage my government to distribute these basics as well, using my tax money and that of others to do what I as an individual do not want or am not able to do for those who need my hospitality.

And in the matter of health care, I do the same.  I am not, myself, capable of delivering a baby, providing chemotherapy, or insulin injections to those who need these things.  But it seems to me completely in accord with my Pagan ethics that I should be expected, with others, to band together to provide these things as they are needed.

As they are needed.  Many will object, saying that there are those who seek benefits to which they are not entitled, who, in effect, abuse the hospitality of our society by taking goods they do not need, or could easily provide for themselves.

Without disputing that there are some who do that--though, having worked among the poor for decades now, I am willing to witness that it is far fewer than some of us believe--I will only point out that the danger for us, that our tax dollars will be less well spent than we wish, is far, far less than the danger that dogged those who gave hospitality in the ancient world.  They could honestly fear being murdered in their beds by those they sought to help; we fear being "ripped off."

I think it worth reflecting on that most famous story of hospitality abused, that of Odysseus and Penelope's suitors, who abused her hospitality for years in Odysseus's absence, despoiling his flocks, drinking his wine, and laying a kind of siege to his wife in an attempt to take his kingdom from him in his absence.

Penelope received them as guests.  They betrayed her hospitality.  And the gods were offended, and when Odysseus returned, they aided him, and he left none of them alive.

And while I'm not suggesting we bring back the death penalty for those who abuse hospitality, I think it worth remembering that those same suitors, when Odysseus returned, disguised as a beggar, mocked him and would have denied him hospitality if they could.  And it did not end as well for them as it did for Odysseus, or for Penelope, who did the hard work of honoring the duty of hospitality even when it had been dangerous and difficult for her.

I look at our lives of relative comfort and ease--and in global terms, all of America is the 1%--and I wonder: do we consider how much of the hospitality of our culture we have already been shown, we who drive on public roads, make use of publicly supported hospitals and schools,  fire-fighters, police officers, sanitation and safety engineers, and public utilities?  Do we consider, as we ready ourselves to mock those who have less, or to turn them away in suspicion or self-interestedness, how great a debt we ourselves owe?

I would not want to be in the suitors' position, abusing the generosity of my society, growing fat on the forms of privilege and public service that have given me an education, protected my safety, allowed me to find meaningful and gainful work in the world... only to turn around and refuse to honor the needs of those who stand in need of care, on the grounds that some of them might not "really" need it.

The gods favor the generous.  And a just society, in Pagan terms, absolutely does have the right to require us to be generous.

To an observant Pagan, hospitality is mandatory, not optional.

I have no quarrel with the ACA.

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