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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.


Jan W. said…
I read your blog often, and I find this post especially wonderful! Thank you for expressing this sentiment so well and coherently. Bravo, and blessed be!
ThresholdMum said…
Thoughtprovoking & beautiful Cat. For me, coming from the UK where the National Health provides for all basic care free at the point of use, and now living in Kenya, where so many around me cannot afford the basic healthcare their families need - and seeing the awful impact of this, I find it difficult to understand why a society wouldn't want affordable healthcare. I loved thining more about the links to a wider hospitalilty. Thank you.
Hystery said…
Hospitality is a good word to invoke in this discussion. Hospitality is such a vibrant, complex, interfaith, cross-cultural human/e concept too often confused with the offering of crackers and juice after meeting for worship. In the name of community and hospitality, I feel that the current situation is a step in a healthy direction but gives too much power to already powerful people/organizations and continues to neglect many of the needs of the least powerful. It is not radical enough (using radical as a word indicating a need to create change at the "roots"). Count me in the lefty leftist column, but as one who grounds her belief that we need to continue to move toward universal care both in spiritual and political/economic theory.

A question for you asked from my position in Pagan isolation (because it surprised me to see you using ancient Romans to support a contemporary justice issue): How binding/important/relevant are ancient Pagan beliefs and practices to you in determining right relationship to your faith and practice today?
Rhoda said…
I echo Hystery's question. I was a little put off that you seem to be applying your definition of paganism to everyone who professes paganism. Maybe I misunderstood, I really hope I did.
Hello, all! Thanks for reading, and for commenting.

Jan, I appreciate the compliment... blessed be right back atcha. *smile*

Threshold Mum... it's really exciting to see a comment of yours here, as I am a big fan of your blog. I do often think that American views on healthcare suffer from a lack of perspective on the realities in the rest of the world. The horrors of "socialized medicine" as our Right likes to call it are so terrible that I have yet to encounter a single citizen from a country that actually has it (like Britain or Canada) who would trade it for our system.

But that doesn't convince those who feel that, now that our country has taken some small steps toward universal coverage, there's nothing left to do but flee to Canada--which, of course, has had single payer insurance for decades now.

And I fear that our systems of class and race segregation keep far too many Americans unaware of what it is like in this country for the many who lack health coverage. I wish we had a more global perspective, and I also wish we had a clearer vision of our own country than we are likely to get from network television...

Hystery, I agree with you that true universal care, as opposed to universal access, appeals more to my sense of justice and fairness. For me, that feeling is more about my political and economic understandings than my religious ones, however, and I wanted in this article--in this blog generally, in fact--to stay rooted in my religious and spiritual understandings.

As far as my use of ancient Pagan examplars to support a modern Pagan view of justice, and the degree to which I am attempting to extend my own definition of Paganism to all Pagans: I was attempting in this post to speak to all contemporary Pagans, as a participant in the Pagan Values Blogject. While I often speak in the blog from my own immediate and subjective experience, in this case, I wanted to ground my comments in a more shared cultural heritage.

I would not say that the myths, customs, and beliefs of the ancient world are binding on modern Pagans--though I certainly know of some Pagan traditions that feel otherwise, and in particular, Hellenic, Roman, and Norse reconstructionist Paganisms seem to do so to a significant extent. It's a bit like the situation in most of the Quaker world, where the Bible is seen as perhaps inspired, but as words about God rather than the Word of God, but some (like Evangelical Quakers) take a fairly literalist view of that document, and others (like Liberal Quakers, who may be non-theist or non-Christian) may reject it entirely.

However, just as the language and mythology of the Bible forms a common vocabulary which informs all the branches of Friends to one degree or other, familiarity with ancient myths and legends--and to some degree with the beliefs and practices of indigenous polytheists and animists throughout the world--forms a common ground which modern Pagans share. To some degree, our religious culture draws inspiration from that strata of history; for some of us, it is central, and to others, less so.

And for a much better discussion of how that view of Paganism today fits in with other competing views, I'd much rather steer you, Hystery, Rhoda, to John Halstead's wonderful essay, The Three (or More?) "Centers" of Paganism over at The Allergic Pagan. He does a much better job than I could of describing the way Paganism is often more a matter of overlapping concepts than of exclusive definitions.
Rhoda said…
Thanks for the explanation. :)
Tarotsfool said…
Sorry, but this will not be affordable healthcare. It will add more unnecessary bureaucracy to a system that is already floundering under it. More regulations will limit the freedom of doctors and patients to decide on the best method of treatment for the individual. It create more paperwork, increasing time and expense needed to process government forms and decreasing time and effort focused on patient care.
Hospitality and benevolence are good things, to be practiced by the individual. If individuals in the community come together to increase their ability to aid, that is fine, as long as that is their choice. But to demand that others give against their will is wrong.
If you pass a homeless man on the street and give him a few dollars, that is your choice, as well as the decision not to. If that homeless man were to reach into your pocket and take it without your consent, you would consider it theft. Yet just because it is the government taking that money to give to someone else does not make it less of a crime.
Helping others is an wonderful thing to do, but is an individual's choice and responsibility. Being made to do so against your will is coercion at the least, and slavery at the worst.
How many people will be helped when the number seeking their "free" healthcare skyrockets, yet the number of doctors, pushed to the brink by increasing workloads, oppressing bureaucracy, and overwhelming paperwork demands, will decrease as those physicians see the futility of just such a system and leave the profession?
Unknown said…
Cat, I wanted to let you know that I included a link to your post at the Staff of Asclepius. Thanks for writing such an informative and important piece.

To the unknown commenter:

I'll address your last paragraph with this. Physicians for a National Health Program. They are a group of American doctors that want universal healthcare in the US and they have the statistics to prove it can be done.
Tarotsfool said…
Juris imprudence: Why ignoring America's doctors will not pan out well for Obamacare

Jan W. said…
To Unknown: I'm not sure that here is the best forum for debating the ACA. Still, Universal Healthcare, along the lines of what Congress is currently afforded, was the original proposal. President Obama was forced to compromise, but at least ACA is a step in the direction of providing healthcare for all Americans.

As for skyrocketing costs, well, let's say I understand the spin, but the economics do not bear out that view. You and every other taxpayer already pays, and pays dearly, for those who are unable to buy or cannot afford health insurance. Take, for example, a homeless person who hurts his/her foot. An ER is the only place that person can go, which requires an ambulance/EMS, a fire truck, and the police to respond to the call. Those goods and services aren't free, but they are paid for through taxpayers' dollars. By the time the person is treated and released, the price tag may be as high as $4,000! On the other hand, if the EMS alone could respond, assess the injury, and either refer or take the person to a walk-in clinic to be treated, the price goes down to around $300. Now your taxes are better spent and more people can receive treatment. Your hospitality is put to better use, and everyone's costs actually go down. Also, I can't see why any of this should entail huge mountains of bureaucratic paperwork--no larger than are already required for my example, anyway.

All nations have growing pains, and this is one for the U.S., but it is necessary. Individual responsibility is fine, but governments, in order to prosper, must take care of their citizens. In my view, our hospitality as a nation is what is at stake.
Hystery said…
Just to be clear, I asked the question because I want to know and understand you better. I am, as I say, an isolated Pagan so while I can read and understand a variety of perspectives of Paganism, I sometimes just really want to know more about what my online Pagan friends believe and understand not as a starting point for argument, but as a way of hearing them better. Unfortunately, the internet is an awkward medium for learning about our friends and their thoughts.
Thanks, Hystery. I hope you got at least a little of what you were looking for and that you didn't feel I'd dismissed the question. (That wasn't at all my intention.)

Jan, thanks for responding to Unknown in my absence from the Web for a few days.

Unknown, I don't think you quite got my post... I was examining the spiritual roots of my acceptance of the ACA, not making a policy case for it (though I do think there is one to be made). I note, too, that your critique of the ethics of the ACA seems to rest mainly on the grounds I identified in my article that some Pagans use to justify opposition to it: the notion that Paganism is inherently opposed to all the ways society might cause us to "do good against your will." I believe I addressed that critique; I don't believe that any Pagan society in history has taken that approach and I don't find it morally compelling in our modern, multi-faith society, either.
Tara, thanks for the link!

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