06/08/2012 10:35 am ET Updated Aug 08, 2012

The Limits of Security, and the Promise Of Hospitality

In a recent New York Times column, Rich Benjamin insightfully describes "the bunker mentality" of America's gated communities as a significant part of the backdrop to the tragic and much-discussed killing of Trayvon Martin. Benjamin, who spent several years living in and interviewing the (predominantly white) residents of gated housing developments around the country, found among them a disproportionate fear of crime and a view of "outsiders" --particularly the young, poor and non-white -- as threats to safety. Benjamin sees these residents' exaggerated desire for security as being responsible for a vicious cycle of hostility in which like-minded residents "seek shelter from outsiders and whose physical seclusion then worsens paranoid groupthink against outsiders." Without denying the role of racial stereotyping, he concludes that reducing this situation to a case of racism misses "a more accurate and painful picture" about America's violent fixation on security. In response to the slogan that "we are all Trayvon," Benjamin perceptively asks to what extent the United States is also "all George Zimmerman."

The painful reality to which Benjamin alludes here is not limited to the gated community mentality that he describes in this piece. From our nation's readiness to go to war and to accept torture as the price of "security," to the outright xenophobia of certain recent attempts at immigration reform, to the large numbers of American people -- and increasingly youth -- who are poor or homeless, to the dysfunctional hostility of national politics more generally, public life in the United States today is characterized by suspicion, possessiveness, violence and fear.

The antidote to this bleak picture is hospitality, understood realistically but lived robustly. Though this may seem simplistic or even naïve to some, I contend here -- as I have in my recent book, "The Limits of Hospitality" -- that practices of hospitality empowered by spiritual disciplines can transform human hearts, lives, communities -- and perhaps even nations. While I write from within the Christian tradition, I believe that these ideas resonate with the deepest values of any true religion or spiritual humanism.

The Greek word in the New Testament that is generally translated "hospitality" literally means "love of strangers" (philoxenia -- one can see the connection to its opposite, xenophobia or fear of strangers, in this term). Rather than the coziness of a dinner party with friends, this original notion was about creating space for an encounter with one who is different and strange -- without assuming that difference as such is a threat. I've found it helpful to conceptualize hospitality as a tension between openness and boundaries: not only is it necessary to distinguish between "inside" and "outside" in order to offer a meaningful welcome, but it is also crucial that an individual or community have enough control over a space to assure others that it is, in fact, safe and hospitable. Hospitality is not absolute openness -- but the limits of identity and security must always be held in tension with openness to difference and risk if they are to remain limits of hospitality.

Negotiating this tension in practice -- when and how to welcome or close the door on certain guests -- can be profoundly challenging, and for many people it is far easier to build walls around our identities, possessions and time than it is to open our lives and hearts to others. But by regularly engaging in practices that open our finite spirits to a truth that lies beyond them -- times of silence and solitude that allow us to face the truth of our fears, acts of service in our communities and homes that allow us to encounter others as fellow human beings, and practices of gratitude expressed through prayer and celebration -- we are better able to form boundaries that are limits of hospitality rather than high walls and gates of paranoia, prejudice and violence.

While this is not to say that there are no genuine dangers in the world or that we should freely submit to them, the Martin-Zimmerman story and others have demonstrated that clinging so tightly to security that our instinctive response to strangers is suspicion and violence ironically serves to undermine the very security we seek to protect. Rather, learning to see and experience our lives -- our possessions, our freedom, our very breath -- as a gift, freely received and best lived through openness and giving to others, can mitigate the corrosive effects of a culture that has made a violent idol of personal security.