Read a fun book recently, “Falling for Icarus,” in which Rory Maclean details his decision to move to a small village on Crete to build and fly an airplane. While the progress toward take-off is the thread holding everything together, the heart of the book is Maclean and his wife’s interactions with their new neighbors.
He repeatedly cites the acceptance and embrace of strangers by the Cretans, referring often to their deeply-embedded notion of filoxenia – “hospitality.” Any hint that the Macleans might need something brought eager helpers to their door. Their presence was demanded at any local celebration. Evidently the more accepted spelling is “philoxenia,” which helps remind us of the Greek root, “philo” – “love.” In this case, it means “love of strangers.”
The natural thought progression for this lover of wisdom led me to the counter concept of xenophobia. Our president and his klanazi base are often referred to as xenophobes because of their ignorant bigotries. But, tellingly, “xenophobia” does not translate as “hatred of strangers,” but rather the “fear.” The hatred is the culmination of ignorance , which begets fear, which causes cowards to hate anything strange.
The exemplar of classical philoxenia comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He relates how Jupiter and Mercury were visiting Phrygia in disguise. With night falling, they tried in vain to find lodging for the night. John Dryden translates their quest: “For Harbour at a thousand Doors they knock’d, / Not one of all the thousand but was lock’d.” Finally, they reached the “homely shed” of Baucis and Philemon, “a happy Pair: / Now long in love though little was their Store.” The old, impoverished couple happily stirred to share their meager fare with the gods. Jupiter, in gratitude, played genie: “Your wish is my command.” The couple conferred and replied that they would be content to serve as attendants at his temple. So, they were transformed into oak and linden trees on the temple grounds, the narrator ending the tale thusly: “The Good, said I, are God’s peculiar Care, / And such as honour Heav’n, shall heav’nly Honour share.”
That same sentiment was expressed in a more familiar vein within 20 years of Ovid’s death: “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: “ Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. “Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? “When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? “Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
I direct those of you who prefer cinematic references to the scene in “Dances with Wolves” where Kevin Costner’s character arrives at the Lakota camp bearing the limp body of Mary McDonnell. Had Lt. Dunbar been encountered alone on the Plains, his safety would have depended upon his own resources. And, while some of the young men resent his intrusion, the elders invoke the law of hospitality to protect him. In fact, the seafaring Capt. Cook had been feted by the same Hawaiians who later killed him under similar circumstances.
Philoxenia has a long, honored history. But, it gets overshadowed by screaming, cowardly bullies whose hatred of strangers is based on fear – xenophobia.
Tom Paine observed in Common Sense: “Let a man throw aside that narrowness of soul, that selfishness of principle, … and he will be at once delivered of his fears on that head. Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society.”
During the DACA debate, The Huffington Post reported, more than 3,000 evangelical leaders signed a letter to remind the “mean souls” among us that: “Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we find God commanding his people to treat foreigners with special hospitality. From Abraham to Paul, many biblical heroes were themselves immigrants, including even Jesus, whose parents brought Him to Egypt to escape persecution early in his life. As Americans, we are proud that our country has affirmed this biblical principle of valuing and protecting immigrants while also protecting national security.”
I guess it’s a good thing the Egypto-Romans didn’t separate the Baby Jesus from his folks when he hit the border.
Don’t be a scaredy-cat.
(Gary Edmondson is Stephens County Democratic Party Chair.)