Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
October 2012 - Volume 12, No. 10
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The Law of Hospitality - The High Road

When we have injured someone, there’s a common assumption that it’s up to the injured to make restitution, or at least a first move toward reconciliation. That makes a certain sense.  And if I assume that you might be a danger to me, I have a right to protect myself and that which is mine (my family, my property, my possessions). Wealth itself must be protected. The purpose of power in our culture is primarily to defend ourselves and our belongings, even when that defense is used preemptively. The laws of our legislatures increasingly agree.

Children are taught, when they have done something “wrong” they need to apologize for it. How often does a parent insist “not until you apologize.”  To parents it makes sense. To children, an additional pattern is being established - lording it over is OK when you are superior.  

When the lesser is in debt to the greater, we assume it’s the duty of the lesser to rebalance the relationship. That’s why apology is generally up the ladder. “You need to apologize to me.” A cruel extension of this in times past was the debtors prison, the debtor was incarcerated until the debt is paid.  (In many ways this illogically cruel philosophy is returning today.)  Many times the debtor us unable, whether at fault or not, to redeem the “debt.”

The prevailing ‘ethic’ that emerges has become, whenever in doubt, protect yourself. You never know whom to trust. (That’s the work of the primitive part of our brain, often called the 'reptile brain' - fight or flight.) It has most recently morphed into “when in doubt, kill first.”  

However, the awareness of a particular incident in my old family history has led me to revise my thinking about these matters.

The specific incident, which took place in the heart of the Scottish Highlands, is known as the Massacre of Glencoe in the deep winter of 1692. The population of Clan MacDonald of Glencoe who dwelt in that isolated valley, was wiped out under orders of the English King William at the hands of a regiment led by Captain Robert Campbell and his clansmen. The story is too complex to describe here, but the offense was greater than the murder of an entire family of small villages, thirty-eight MacDonalds murdered in their homes, and about 300, including the women and children who fled their burned-out houses were slaughtered or perished in the cold of a harsh Highland winter. Those that did survive escaped by stealth (to avoid death by the Campbells) and hardship, but few ever returned to Glencoe. The House of MacDonald of Glencoe is no more, except in fierce Highland memory.

My son and I have visited that enclosed valley, and hiked in the surrounding hills. To my knowing, there’s no place in the world that feels and looks like that place. You can see some of its stark beauty at

You see, in Celtic lands, as in many other ancient worlds, the Law of Hospitality supersedes all other considerations.  

Many will recognize this tradition from reading the Old Testament - the foundation of three great world religions.  I know that in Native American tradition, the tribal chief becomes by default “a poor man” because he will be approached by many in need.

By this ancient tradition, wealth is judged by what one gives, not what owned owns. Even if an enemy arrives at your door, you feed and house him, if only for the night. By custom (and often by law), the stranger is always given “the protection of the house.” Any ‘political’ considerations will be dealt with in the morning, or at a later time.  

From this later arose the community supported ‘public house,’ the foundation of a hospitality tradition that flourishes even today.

That’s what happened in Glencoe that cold winter morning of February 13. A regiment of 120 Campbells upon arrival asked for quarters, and were taken in, fed and given bed for ten days. That was the high tradition. The high offense was that the Campbells, by a secret signal, arose in the middle of the eleventh night to slaughter their hosts. As I have noted, thirty-eight MacDonalds were slaughtered in their beds, while 300 fled to the hills, where many died simply of cold and starvation.    

Under Scots law there was a special category of murder, known as "murder under trust," which was considered to be even more heinous than ordinary murder. The Glencoe massacre was a clear example of such. Hence it is etched in the memory of MacDonalds to this day.

When I attend Scottish events, my own favorite being the Highland Festival each Memorial Day weekend in Alma College (Michigan), that memory is alive. At Alma, in the Clan Tent area, the Campbell tent is frequently beside the Clan (Mac)Donald (of which I am a life member). As I understand it, this is by courtesy and invitation of Clan Donald.

This is where I began to understand there is a “necessary courtesy” from MacDonald to Campbell. Campbells have no right to equal fellowship since they cannot redeem that ancient heritage, it is therefore incumbent on MacDonalds to offer that courtesy in order for current fellowship to be restored. I call it the “Duty of Courtesy.” In the high order of things, it is not even a choice, but a social necessity as a MacDonald.  It’s what I call The High Road. We have to do it again and again and again, as long as the memory of Glencoe remains, which will be well nigh forever.

A client brought to my attention a similar situation. A neighbor had made a pass at my client’s wife, who in turn brought it to her husband’s attention. Now he had to decide how to deal with the neighbor. There were choices how to deal with it, but it became obvious that to do nothing here was not a choice.  

As we discussed the options, it became clear that the neighbor, being the offender, would and could do little or nothing to redeem the situation.  My client’s wife had some choices of her own, and chose to tell her husband. The right person to act was my client. There was The High Road or The Low Road.  

The Low Road would involve anger, and perhaps retribution, as well as consequences for the neighbor and perhaps the neighbor’s marriage. It would feel right at first (retribution usually does); but what would it do for future relationships, as well as for the well-being of the larger neighborhood?  

So we examined The High Road. We realized his neighbor could not undo what he had done. My client, whose wife’s disclosure had placed on him the necessity to do something, had to act; and the results would effect the specific interrelationships of four people living in near proximity. 

After much inner deliberation, he decided to write his neighbor a private letter, within which he shared his awareness of what had happened, and the gravity of its consequences, including the impossibility of undoing the situation. Nor was it a matter that could be just “forgotten.”  He invited the neighbor to meet and speak with him privately; for this is something that must be spoken about. He also added that he did this, not in anger or retribution, both of which he of course had considered, but “because I believe in you.” These last words, which could only have been spoken from my client’s position, represent the epitome of The High Road - the Duty of Courtesy. (I didn’t coach him in this, they came directly from his heart.)   

These words are also actually words of blessing, the granting of favor. It is not quite the same as forgiveness, which only levels the relationship. It adds something new, which is why I use the word favor or blessing. In like manner, it is the sacred duty of a MacDonald to bless a Campbell, to offer favor to him, a favor that otherwise cannot exist due to the history of the families. It’s a favor that returns to a Campbell a higher right of fellowship and its benefits. Nor is it a matter of deserving, it is by nature a gift.

The Campbells are blessed because MacDonalds bless them. It is the natural order of things remaining true to the ancient Law of Hospitality. My client’s neighbor is blessed because my client blessed him, not just returning him to the status of neighbor, but adding something new - “because I believe in you.” Nobody else in his situation could have done this. It’s a singular act.

I like to use the word “Courtesy” although others may prefer the term “grace.” A favorite Anglican theologian, Charles Williams (1885-1945) had the habit of referring to God as “the Divine Courtesy.” This does not simply level the relationship, but involves an act that over-redeems it. There’s a difference, and an important theological difference. God has not just erased our sins, but has acted in a way to overlook them as only He can do. (It’s a curious fact of theology that our ‘sin’ becomes itself a means of ‘higher grace.) It’s the same with the MacDonalds. It’s the same with my client. Fellowship is restored through an act of Courtesy, of invitation back to favor and more.  

The Law of Hospitality is more than an ancient social courtesy. It involves a radically different sense of identity and personal wealth than is present in our culture. As I noted earlier, wealth is here measured not by how much we have, but by how much we give. What a great antidote to our problems today with greed, hostility, mistrust, anger, retribution, “What's in it for me?” and gated communities. It’s an antidote to “the natural man” within each of us. (I consider many of you will leave me here.)

My own ancient heritage gives me this gift, this Law of Hospitality, this duty to bless those who have done us wrong.  So the stranger at my door is at that moment more important than anything else - it is my sacred duty to welcome him or her. Any other matters become secondary and can be dealt with later. It’s a radical idea, and of course not without its risks and dangers.  Yet is it any more dangerous than the way we live now, where each of us must protect what is ours from “others”? Security for us is a balance of power. Security within my ancient heritage is a balance of Courtesy, centered upon the ancient Law of Hospitality. 

When I consider it, I’m honored to live under this Duty of blessing. It’s a blessing that is a dynamic, not just a static law. It’s a blessing that affirms a higher balance, and reopens for each of us a possibility of life lived to the fullest.  

Pay attention.

Note - A word about spelling:    

McDonald and MacDonald are essentially interchangeable.  In my own case my Grandfather changed the name from MacDonald to McDonald, and the ‘a’ in the former is hidden in the dash (originally like a tilde) that underlines the elevated ‘c’.  In the world of the typewriter and now the computer, the ‘a’ is reduced to a memory.

Comments (2)

  • "Bless those who curse you."

    Bill, as a neighbor you were always so gracious and kind to me when I would knock on your door for whatever reason or stop you in your yard to chat. Now I know why and I have to say “Thank you” for being the wonderful man you are. I enjoy your insights and history.

    There is nothing more humbling to someone who has wrong another than being shown not only “mercy” but also “blessings”. I have had people treat me mean for no reason known to me and I do the “killing them with kindness” and the next thing you know I have a loyal friend. I do believe that God knows what He’s talking about when he says “Bless those who curse you.”

    — Barbara Davis, 10/1/2012
  • What an eloquent posting! It brings together some very deep cultural understandings, and I resonated to it, as Scottish descendant (Urquhart), as a student of Native American philosophy, and as a child of this wild and wooly world. Thank you so kindly (and hospitably) for your thoughts!

    — Mickey, 10/1/2012

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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