Directional Charity and the Revolutionary Table

In considering this week’s theme of Charity, I have to start with a passage I love from Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, in which the narrator describes a painting of the Virtue Charity, by Giotto di Bondone:

she is holding out her flaming heart to God, or shall we say ‘handing’ it to Him, exactly as a cook might hand up a corkscrew through the skylight of her underground kitchen to some one who had called down to ask her for it from the ground-level above. (84)

The painting shows a common, workaday woman who holds a large bowl overflowing with food in one hand, and her own, fist-sized heart, lifted up to God’s outstretched hands, in the other. Charity, in this iteration, has a proper direction; it is to be offered up, as a gift, in humility, and not handed down. To state the obvious, all too often charity ends up being condescending, our acts of giving serving more our own sense of morality than they do the people we interact with. In Christine Pohl’s chapter “Hospitality, Dignity, and the Power of Recognition,” she draws out this unfortunate potential result of hospitality:  “our helping roles give definition to the relationship but they also keep it decidedly hierarchical” (74). This problem of directionality is a real one, and Pohl outlines the key roles which recognition (broadly) and sharing meals (specifically) play in counteracting a hierarchical view of others, particularly strangers in a place of need.

Pohl points to the importance of “[u]nderstanding the historical connection between hospitality and recognition” (63), particularly as it manifests in the Christian tradition. Rooted in the belief that all human beings bear the Divine image, Christian hospitality recognized (and, one hopes, does still) that “Every person is worthy of respect because of the work of God in them and for them” (67).  Herein lies the reason for an upward directionality of charity, rather than a condescending one:  every individual is created by God, and “[b]earing God’s image establishes for every person a fundamental dignity which cannot be undermined either by wrongdoing or neediness” (65).

Rightly, Pohl points out that “Recognition and respect cannot be sustained at the level of abstract claims or commitments” (63). It is all well and good to say that we are all bear the image of God, but if that purported recognition does nothing to influence our love and care for our fellow human beings, then it breaks down into inutility. Here is where shared meals come in. Sitting down together with strangers, and particularly strangers in need, can aid true recognition of “being equals eating together” (74). While it can be easy/easier to give our money, time, or vocational talents to people in a place of need, it can be more difficult, more complicated, and more uncomfortable to just exist in relationship at the common place of the table. Pohl acknowledges this, and recognizes it as a good thing:  “Meal-time, when people sit down together, is the clearest time of being with others, rather than doing for others. It is the time when hospitality looks least like social service” (74). Sharing meals with people who are different from us, especially with people who might be seen to occupy a lower place in the societal hierarchy, allows for recognition of common humanity that goes beyond altruistic abstraction and towards specific, individual human fellowship.

Pohl didn’t have to win me over to this argument. The table is a place that I love, and I think she is absolutely right about its equalizing and dignifying potential and power. I do, however, want to probe some of her choices of language, and to consider ways in which the table might have even more power than Pohl describes.

As I made notes for this post, I noticed how often the word “hospitality” was used in Pohl’s chapter, when it felt like the word which would communicate the intended meaning was “charity.” Certainly this is intentional, and in Pohl’s title-stated aim of “Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition,” she clearly wants to convey that hospitality’s roots go much deeper than current definitions of it may imply. It is not just about the “hospitality industry,” or about hosting friends or newcomers in our homes. Pohl points out that in church history, “Hospitality provided a context for recognizing the worth of persons who seemed to have little when assessed by worldly standards” (62). In contrast to our current understandings of the word, historical hospitality was linked with need.

Looking at the etymology of both hospitality and charity is compelling. Hospitality comes from the Latin hospes, meaning “host,” “guest,” or stranger,” while Charity comes from the Latin caritas, meaning “dearness” or “costliness,” but also often referring to love for one’s fellow human beings. Given the fact that Pohl seems to be seeking to trouble a flat, service-industry view of hospitality, as well as to upend hierarchical notions inherent in contemporary definitions of charity, I understand her choice to use “hospitality.” I wonder, though, if she couldn’t similarly reinvigorate “charity” by drawing out the historical roots of love which precede charity’s current definition of financial assistance and altruism. Viewing interactions with strangers in need as “hospitality” can emphasize the relationality involved, as well as the fluidity of the host/guest roles, but so too could reimagining “charity” direct us back towards the love for others which is the best impetus for all giving.

I very much agree with Pohl that “the intimacy of a shared meal can forge relationships which cross significant social boundaries” (73). One of the most exciting contemporary examples of this is the Refettorio kitchens, founded by Italian chef Massimo Bottura and his wife Lara Gilmore. These kitchens, of which there are currently four, use food waste—in-date, surplus food destined to be thrown away—to make meals for people who need them. Many people who come to eat at the Refettorio are homeless, or elderly, or refugees, or all of the above. The parent organization of these kitchens, Food for Soul, states on their website that “a meal is a gesture of inclusion,” and that they seek to “celebrate the value as well as the potential of what is abandoned, unheeded and discarded” (www.foodforsoul.it). Renowned chefs from all over the world come volunteer to cook, and guests of the kitchens are served in beautifully-designed spaces, restaurant-style rather than walking through a cafeteria line.

This work by Bottura and Gilmore feels like a wonderful amalgamation of the historical notions of hospitality and charity. The Refettorio kitchens welcome people who are marginalized and serve them beautiful food. They honor not only individuals, but also the earth through their use of food destined to be waste. Still, it is complicated to discern whether these kitchens do only good; does the fact that celebrity chefs (Rene Redzepi, Eric Ripert, etc.) come in to do the cooking draw attention to the chefs’ generosity more than to the individuals who come there? How can our responses to strangers emphasize their inherent worth and dignity rather than emphasizing their need? How can our actions avoid being directed towards people in ways which imply they are “beneath us,” and instead become gestures upwards towards God, in humility and love?

I think one key is the empathy which Pohl describes as “remembering our own experiences of vulnerability and dependence” (65). By being at the table with people different from us, and sharing in each other’s lives and stories, we can work against a better-than/lesser-than view of society. And certainly we have to be on guard against the disempowerment Pohl mentions (119), where in our own desire to serves those in need we don’t allow them also to serve and minister to us. This is where the Good Samaritan story offers such a wonderfully inverted vision of charity:  the one serving the man in profound need is not one of the “higher-ups,” not from the upper echelons of society, but is one who occupies a low, disgraced place in society, at least according to the eyes of the Jewish establishment. He, the Samaritan, and not the priest or the Levite, is the one to dress the wounds of the beaten man, to provide him with room and board. And perhaps most important of all, “when he saw him, he was moved with pity” (Luke 10:33); the Samaritan notices the man, and his heart responds. In light of the inverted hierarchy of this parable, I can envision a world where the table, and especially a table where the marginalized are invited to serve, to cook, or to create, becomes a place of revolutionary hospitality, charity, and love.

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