A Global Context for Hospitality

September 11, 2001 will be remembered in history as a day that changed the world. We are now living in a time of great danger, and equally great opportunity. The ways in which our world will be changed for better or for worse will be shaped by our actions. Above all, September 11 has underscored the interdependence of the United States with other nations, our global neighbors.

There can be no justification for the terrorist acts of that day in New York and Washington, D.C. Nor is there justification for continuing social and economic injustices that are inherently wrong and that provide a fertile breeding ground for terrorism. Our times require national answers to the ancient questions, “Who are our neighbors?” and, “What is our responsibility as neighbors?”

In small town United States the image of lending and borrowing between neighbors–a cup of sugar, vacation care for pets, errands–is commonplace. Few of us would deny hospitality to a neighbor we know.

In certain seasons–and in response to disasters of many kinds–our hospitality extends as charity to more distant neighbors whom we don’t know individually. At Christmastime every year newspapers carry heart-warming stories about local efforts to provide holiday meals to thousands of our less fortunate neighbors. During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims provide the evening meal to all who would share the breaking of the fast, both rich and poor. This is similar to the Jewish tradition of sharing the Passover seder. When disaster strikes through floods, tropical storms or terrorist attack, the generosity of the American people is legendary.

Placing hospitality in a global context is a greater challenge. Geography and racial, cultural and religious differences make it difficult to recognize far away others as neighbors.

Although the United States has always been a multicultural society, the great diversity in the racial and ethnic backgrounds of today’s immigrants–together with the fact that many immigrants are from non-Western cultures about which many of us know very little–has contributed to an ebbing willingness to provide welcoming spaces and true hospitality for refugees and immigrants.

Stereotypes make it easy to ignore the richness of the cultural diversity and the different needs of each immigrant group. In addition, today’s immigrants face increasing hostility from citizens who believe that immigrants threaten their jobs and economic security. Such concerns become fertile ground for state and Federal-level legislation, denying even legal immigrants the rights guaranteed to native-born Americans.

Anti-immigrant fears are heightened by anxiety over the decline in our domestic manufacturing industry resulting in part from a great increase in low-cost imports from developing nations. Together, the influx of immigrants and imports are leading many to question the extent to which America’s borders should be open.

Christians, Jews and Muslims all share a common value base from which to begin addressing the issue of local and global neighborliness.

For Christians, in the parable of the Good Samaritan (1) Jesus asks which of three persons was neighbor to one who had been beaten and robbed and affirms the answer “The one who treated him with mercy.” Set in a multinational context, the parable implies that all human beings are neighbors.

In Judaism, giving to the poor is not viewed as a generous, magnanimous act, but as tzedakah, an act of justice and righteousness, the performance of a duty, giving the poor their due (2).

Giving alms to the poor is also one of the five pillars of Islam (3). Zakat (alms giving) means taking some of the wealth God has given and sharing it with the poor. The extension and acceptance of hospitality is sunnat (an obligation) for Muslims.

If we accept the poor and hungry of the world as neighbors and accept the teachings that we should love our neighbors as ourselves, we must extend hospitality–must transform social policy and in so doing become partners in transforming the world. As global citizens, we have responsibility to ensure that all people on this planet have access to the basic resources of food, clothing, health care, sanitation, clean water, shelter, education, love, and esteem that are necessary for a truly human existence.

Accepting this responsibility is daunting. However, it can no longer be avoided. Nearly 800 million people–one-sixth of the population of the world’s developing nations–are malnourished. In developing countries, 6 million children die needlessly each year, mostly from hunger-related causes. In these countries, one child in 10 dies before the age of five compared with one child in 165 in the United States. Each day 30,500 children die from preventable diseases including diarrhea, acute respiratory infections, and malaria. During the past 50 years, three times the total number of all people killed in all the wars of the 20th century died from hunger and poor sanitation. Today 880 million people lack access to adequate health services. The richest fifth of the world’s population consumes 86 percent of the earth’s goods and services, while the poorest fifth consumes 1 percent. Thirty-two percent of the population of developing countries exists on less than $1 per person per day. Two billion, six hundred million people lack access to basic sanitation.(4)

These are the conditions under which anti-Western terrorism flourishes. Transformation of these conditions is demanded by fundamental, shared values of Christians, Jews and Muslims and is necessary for success in the war that has been declared against terrorism. Success in that war requires addressing the social and economic conditions under which terrorism flourishes. The aphorism, “To achieve peace, work for justice” has never been more necessary than it is today. Indeed, there is no feasible alternative within a democratic context in which cherished freedoms are preserved.

Addressing the social and economic needs of humankind is essential to a successful war against terrorism. While military interventions may succeed in routing one or many terrorist networks, as long as the conditions that breed terrorists persist, new generations of terrorists will emerge.

The educational activities of Bread for the World, Church World Service, Network, and other religious organizations are beginning to win the hearts and minds of civil society in the United States. A national public opinion poll released February 1st shows that a large majority of Americans strongly support both foreign aid and efforts to reduce world hunger.

The poll was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, and conducted by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes. Eighty-three percent of those polled said that the United States should join an international effort to cut world hunger in half by the year 2015; 87 percent favored giving food and medical assistance to countries in need; and 75 percent said they would be willing to pay an additional $50 a year in taxes to cut world hunger in half.

Most people polled vastly overestimated the amount we spend on foreign aid. When asked how much of the U.S. budget goes to foreign aid, the median estimate was 20 percent, more than 20 times the actual amount we spend today. When asked how much should go to foreign aid, the median response was 10 percent, more that 10 times the actual amount. Asked about spending 1 percent, only 12 percent of Americans polled thought that it was too much.

Foreign aid makes up less than 1 percent of the U.S. budget. Less than 1/10 of one percent is spent on economic aid.

It is important to keep in mind that the burden of ending hunger and the other plagues of poverty and injustice is not ours alone to bear. Extending hospitality and neighborliness involves reciprocity and shared struggles. In recent years I have traveled to Mexico and India, to South Africa and Uganda. In multiple communities in each nation I met with groups of extraordinary, intelligent “ordinary people,” each one dedicated to partnering with their neighbors at home and abroad to improve their circumstances and the prospects for the children and grandchildren of their communities. As we seek effective ways to share in these struggles, we join millions of our neighbors throughout the world. With them we are partners in the most basic form of hospitality, the process of ending hunger at home, everywhere.

A long history of global challenges and unmet needs has become more urgently important in light of the attacks of September 11. There are several initiatives the United States can pursue to respond positively to the opportunities and challenges of today’s world.

First, we need to operate in concert with the international community to enhance human rights. Our propensity to “go it alone” has resulted in a systematic refusal to sign international accords that have received nearly universal backing from other nations. The United States should sign, ratify, and actively support the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the conventions and protocols banning chemical and biological weapons and anti-personnel land mines.

Second, we should redouble our efforts to find just solutions to the protracted conflicts in Northern Ireland and, especially, in the Middle East. We need to apply equal standards of conduct to all parties to these conflicts.

Third, the United States should provide leadership by taking a step as bold as that of the post-World War II Marshall Plan. Working through the United Nations, in partnership with the industrialized nations of the global North and with the non-governmental organizations of civil society throughout the world, we must commit to economic development at the grassroots level, resources of the magnitude that we are prepared to commit to waging war. Congress recently appropriated $40 billion for the war against terrorism. The United Nations Development Program estimates that an additional $13 billion per year would meet the basic health and nutrition needs of the world’s poorest people. If the U.S.-led coalition is serious about ending terrorism, these additional resources must be provided.

Surely, this is a feasible way to begin to set the table for global hospitality.

William H. Simpson Whitaker is Professor and Dean of the Marywood University School of Social Work in Scranton, Pennsylvania. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Winter 2002 issue of Journey, a publication of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. If you have a comment on this editorial which you would like to direct to the author, he may be contacted at whitaker@es.marywood.edu


1. New American Bible, Luke 10:36-37.

2. For example, see Leviticus 19:18 “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen. You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and 19:33 “When an alien resides with you in your land, do not molest him.” In his final words to the people of Israel (Deuteronomy 27:19), Moses says, “Cursed be he who violates the rights of the alien, the orphan or the widow.”

3. “And in their wealth there is acknowledged right for the needy and destitute.” Qur’an 51:19

4. Source: Bread for the World hunger basics: International facts on hunger and poverty. (2001)www.bread.org/hungerbasics/international.html.

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