Practicing Hospitality Amidst Competing Visions of Justice

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Earlier this year NPR aired a story on Americans who, as a result of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), were now able to access medical treatment that was previously unavailable to them. In some cases, the medical treatment was life saving. This is a great thing, I thought to myself. Despite the immense controversy surrounding the bill, maybe this will work. How could I argue with the mother whose son, for the first time, was not denied coverage for his leukemia treatment?

While listening to this radio story, I was interrupted by a phone call from my mother. During our conversation she mentioned that she was looking into the changes in our family’s health insurance coverage as a result of the ACA. Not only were there going to be some aspects of the new coverage that were less efficient than the old, but also our same coverage was going to cost significantly more. My newfound optimism towards the ACA was somewhat tempered in that moment, as I realized the negative impact it would have, at least short-term, on many people, including my family. I struggled to simultaneously hold these competing narratives, both personally relatable and compelling.

We face these competing claims of justice all of the time in our public policy conversations. Justice is raising the minimum wage because a person cannot live off of the current minimum wage. Justice is not raising the minimum wage so as to not increase the burden on businesses and job creation in a recovering economy. Justice is legalizing same-sex marriage so as not to discriminate based on sexual orientation. Justice is not legalizing same-sex marriage, retaining the traditional definition of marriage and recognizing the societal implications of procreative relationships and family structure. Justice is placing strict standards on coal-fired power plants in order to limit carbon emission and protect the environment. Justice is tempering restrictions on coal-fired power plants in order to retain affordable prices for electricity. And the list could go on and on.  

These policy debates are complicated, nuanced, and require much thought and consideration. The current political climate is such that our conversations, however, are boiled down to black and white “answers,” reinforced by a sensationalist media and the Internet sphere. There are winners, there are losers, and there is very little in between. It is not that our policy conversations have become more heated; there have always been major disagreements, heated competition, and power grabs. One only needs to recall Alexander Hamilton’s infamous duel with Aaron Burr in 1804, which mortally wounded Hamilton, or Senator Preston Brooks severely beating a fellow member with a cane on the senate floor in 1856, to realize our current atmosphere of fierce disagreement is not unique. What we lack, more so now than ever, are voices leading us through the middle of these difficult conversations rather than bulldozing over or tiptoeing around them. 

How do we begin to navigate these competing visions of justice? As followers of Jesus, might our faith inform the how of our political engagement just as much, if not more, than the what? I suggest that bringing the practice of hospitality into the political arena would be a counter-cultural, even radical, act that not only reflects the way of Jesus, but also offers practical ideas to move forward. Hospitality - graciously making space in which others have the opportunity to flourish - is counter to our current political narrative, which seeks to silence all opposition and discredit dissenting voices. So then, what does hospitality look like in these conversations of competing visions of justice?

It begins simply with the acknowledgment of competing narratives of justice in public life. There are few things more degrading than refusing to grant validity or value to the stories of people or groups. The ultimate demonstration of poorly wielded power is to tell someone, either directly or indirectly, that his or her experience is either not true or not important. Not only is recognition the empathetic, loving, and dignifying thing to do, but it is also impossible to create good policy any other way. How can we create more effective policy if we ignore the actual effects it has on people’s lives? To do this would be akin to a scientist developing a new theory based on only parts of the tested data. When claims for justice come into conflict, we must hold the competing claims in full view, giving them a fair hearing in the public square.   

A posture of hospitality places principles and the policies they inform into their correct context: serving people, both individuals and communities. Public policy decisions, and the political ideologies they are informed by, are a means to an end, not an end unto themselves. Thus, public dialogue about public values and public policy should always center on the wellbeing of our neighbor and neighborhoods, with special attention to the stories of those being left out or left behind. If public policy debates result in the disintegration of community rather than its growth, then we are entirely missing the point.

Through hospitality, we shift the point of confrontation from people to policies and ideas. By creating this space between people and policy, we give others and ourselves the opportunity to simply be human, rather than be smothered by harsh rhetoric. Of course, we must critique and analyze policy with rigor and high standards, but how much more productive will these conversations be if participants know that they are first and foremost valued and respected as human beings? People can approach these discussions with confidence knowing that there is space to think, express, learn, and even fail without being personally ridiculed.

A focus on hospitality does not offer any answers to whether the U.S. should legalize same-sex marriage, what to do to improve the ACA, whether to raise the minimum wage, or any other number of policy questions. What it does offer, though, is a way to navigate these conversations. A way that not only brings an increased level of civility, dignity, and care, but also a creation of space for meaningful conversation, which must result in better policy. In a political climate that is begging for all of these things, may we, as followers of an incredibly gracious and hospitable God, heed the call to go and do likewise.

-Andrew Whitworth is a senior political science major at Taylor University. He is fascinated by conversations surrounding good food, politics, being from Kentucky, the U.S. men’s national soccer team and what Jesus has to do with all of them.