The ethos that lies behind the ethics

Published November 1, 2000

AS I LOOK over my columns for the Journal I realize that I have fallen into a pattern that I have often criticized. Almost every column has focused on a particular moral problem. There is a great deal to be said for this approach. It is timely and topical. It makes it clear that Christianity is relevant and has the resources to speak to contemporary issues. Even if I don’t offer simple solutions, the focus on concrete problems helps to suggest both the questions that need to be asked and the ways in which Christians can work together even where they disagree about how to respond.

The focus on particular moral problems can be helpful, but it misses aspects of the moral life that we need to remember. This focus can also be divisive. We talk about the things we disagree about. This tends to conceal basic characteristics of the moral life that we, as Christians, share before we face any particular problem. The result is that we neglect the ethos of the community we are called to be as the body of Christ. The focus on disagreement also threatens to undermine the life of that community.

What I would like to do therefore is to think about the ethos that should lie behind Christian ethics. There are many places where I could start. The qualities of faith, hope, and love would be an obvious place, but I have chosen to start with the notion of hospitality.

The Christian commitment to hospitality helps us to flesh out what we mean by the great virtues of faith, hope, and love. Hospitality was a key theme in the New Testament. Frequently we see Jesus enjoying the hospitality of others and making it an image of the good news of God’s kingdom.

I have travelled around the church; I have experienced a great deal of Christian hospitality so it has been very much on my mind. It also connects well with the focus on medical ethics that has dominated my previous columns. The modern word “hospital” shares the same root as the word hospitality, and is a reminder to us that hospitals began in the work of the great monastic houses that offered hospitality to the thousands of pilgrims who passed through their doors, most on their way to healing shrines. Hospitality is more than just room and board.

The history of the birth of the modern hospital in the hospitality of the religious houses reminds us that hospitality involves responsiveness to the needs of others. Hospitality involves welcoming others in their need, whatever it might be, and seeking to meet that need. We cannot hope to do this unless we are attentive to those around us.

This was a central characteristic of Jesus’ life and ministry, and needs to be seen in the lives of his followers. To be hospitable to the need of the other means going beyond our sense of what is best for them.

Linked with this is a willingness to be hospitable to otherness. People are different and all too often we as a church have not been very welcoming of those differences, whether they relate to difference in age, race, social class, gender, or sexual orientation.

Jesus once told his hearers to observe the birds of the air. I am a keen birdwatcher, and as I see the incredible variety of bird-life I am reminded above all that God loves difference more than we do.

Hospitality is about an attitude of openness and welcome to the world in all its variety, and to those who share that world with us. It is a defining characteristic of the Christian community and part of an ethos that opens us to the work of grace.


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