Hospitality Perverted

If hospitality, like I discussed in my previous post, is the creation of an open space to allow people the freedom to be who God created and intended them to be (most clearly seen and exhibited when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet), then what is its stark opposite?

Dare I say: Cannibalism?

In Homeric Greece, a civilized community is a place where “people produce grain to make their bread, where they have vineyards to make wine, orchards with apple and pear trees, pomegranates, figs and olives, and where well-planted gardens provide all sorts of fresh green vegetables throughout the year. Communities like this have meeting halls where the people come together for discussion and counsel” (Food: The History of Taste, 67). And hospitality was an act held in high regard; Zeus himself was considered the god of strangers; so much so that the common practice upon receiving a stranger was to first feed him and then, once fed, to ask questions about his history and business (The Hungry Soul, 102).

In his epic The Odyssey, Homer gives us a glimpse into what the antithesis to the idea of Greek hospitality looked like through Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclopes Polyphemus. As many know, the Cyclopes are one-eyed monsters. Because of the one eye, they lack any perspective, motivated solely by the here-and-now, enslaved to an unbridled, imbalanced appetite.

The Cyclopes are further described as “lawless brutes,” having “no meeting place for council, no laws either,” and “each a law to himself, ruling his wives and children, not a care in the world for any neighbor” (The Odyssey, 9:120-128). Their land is unsown and unplowed, overgrown. They live in caves in complete isolation from one another, hating community and hospitality so much that they use huge boulders as doors. Polyphemus takes better care of his goats and sheep than other humans.

When Odysseus and his men finally face the Polyphemus, they beg him to treat them as was the custom, as Zeus had commanded. Polyphemus’ reaction to Odysseus’ request? Mocking Zeus and hospitality to the extent that he snatches up two of Odysseus’ men, “knocked them dead like pups—their brains gushed out all over, soaked the floor—and ripping them limb from limb to fix his meal he bolted them down like a mountain-lion, left no scrap, devoured entrails, flesh and bones, marrow and all!” (9:326-330)

They Cyclopes have such a distorted/twisted view of what it means to be human that they resort to devouring humans, leaving nothing behind. Humans are simply to be tossed aside while his goats and sheep deserve the utmost care and respect. As Leon Kass observes, “For him [Polyphemus], not nature or the divine, but ‘one’s-own-ness’ is supreme” (The Hungry Soul, 112). Kass continues, “One-eyed, without perspective, he is confused about what is truly near and far, about what is superficial and what goes deep, indeed, about that which is truly his own—the human soul and its openness to learning and loving” (112). Everyone that is only slightly different is a threat to who he has become, and therefore, must be destroyed, taken to the furthest extreme in cannibalism.

While no one might be practicing Polyphemus’ deeply perverted hospitality, I do wonder if there is not some sort of spiritual cannibalism we as sinful humans all struggle with? We may never resort to physical cannibalism, but do we spiritually cannibalize others who are different from us?

This spiritual cannibalism brought to mind Paul’s words to the church at Galatia: “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed” (Galatians 5:15).

Life in the Spirit and becoming more and more like Christ is not an easy, straight-forward process. It is messy; it can be disorienting; it can raise a whole lot more questions than provide answers. Unfortunately our tendency is not to embrace said process but to look for shortcuts or easier means. Along the way we are tempted to think that these shortcuts are the means of sanctification and require others to adopt the same. If not, they can be ostracized from the community…devoured and destroyed…instead of “serving one another in love” (Galatians 5:14).

What am I doing that might be cannibalizing others? What practices/ideologies/theologies of the church might be cannibalistic in nature?

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