When it comes to hospitality, we lack practice

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By Deirdre Good

I participated recently in a talk on hospitality at St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in London. I thank them for their gracious welcome. That talk and the subsequent discussion got me thinking about ways in which we speak about and practice hospitality.

Any discussion about hospitality needs to be hospitable. How is a space welcoming? This particular discussion was conducted in a circle, which for many indicates inclusion. But people may choose to participate from beyond the circle for various reasons and we need to provide for that. We need to focus on the people to whom a welcome is shown, anticipating and facilitating their degrees of involvement in the event.

We can all agree that hospitality is a Christian virtue. But why are we thinking about hospitality at all? Hospitality is central to other religious traditions. Abraham’s offering of food and protection to the three messengers of the Lord in Gen 18 becomes the paradigm for ancient Israelite, Jewish, and early Christian hospitality. In fact, hospitality to strangers is a mandate in most non-Western societies. I’ve been welcomed into the houses of complete strangers in Matere Valley, Nairobi and in the favellas of San Paulo in ways that I would never be welcomed into the apartments of strangers in Manhattan.

Openness to strangers reflects a mindset most of us who are Western don’t intrinsically possess. Is this why our discussions of hospitality can dwindle to stories of our hosting (non-Western) strangers in our homes? But if our discussions and practice of hospitality become questions of whom we welcome into our homes (and for how long under what conditions), then we have lost the dynamic of exchange that hospitality presupposes. Hospitality has become a one-way street. We determine who is invited and who is excluded because it is our home, our castle. Such an interpretation is not about welcoming anyone-it is about control. Welcoming someone has become secondary to an assessment-a judgment by me as host about the kind of stranger that is welcome and the type of welcome that is appropriate. If we reduce hospitality to an arbitration of who is and who is not welcomed by us as hosts into our homes, and under what conditions, is this not a diminution of God’s hospitality to the point of distortion?

I believe this is also true of debates about conditions and circumstances under which people may approach the communion table. If we enter into such debates, we have already decided that there is such a debate about who is welcome and who is not. I myself believe that on this question, the evidence of the gospels is univocal: Jesus practiced open table fellowship with respect to God’s hospitality. It wasn’t his table. He was received as a stranger, welcomed as a guest, and gave hospitality at the tables of strangers or acquaintances. Sometimes he learnt from others about brokering God’s limitless inclusion.

The practice of hospitality is not about being a good host: it is about participating in a continual exchange of the roles of stranger, guest and host. It presupposes a network of relationships-an awareness of interdependence. We can see this best in the story of the two disciples encountering a stranger on the road to Emmaus. That stranger walks and talks along the road with them about recent events in Jerusalem. They offer him hospitality at the end of the day whereupon, invited to stay as a guest, he assumes the position of host and is identified by them as he breaks bread. On the road to Emmaus and in a place that is not his, a homeless, resurrected Jesus moves fluidly between roles of stranger, host and guest. Luke’s Jesus offers Westerners the challenge of receiving and giving hospitality “to go.” In Luke’s gospel, journeys characterize and shape ministry; Jesus journeys to Jerusalem for most of the gospel while in Acts, disciples and apostles travel from Jerusalem to Samaria, to Europe, and eventually to Rome. Hospitality facilitates and defines Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem; it identifies followers and disciples who listen and extend welcome (Mary and Martha, the mission of the Seventy, the Good Samaritan, Zacchaeus) and solidifies opposition (some Pharisees and scribes).

When we relocate the practice of Christian hospitality from who is and who is not welcome in our homes to the recognition that hospitality is offered and received in other places along the way, a different more permeable dynamic opens up. But changing the location of the welcome is only half the solution. Offering someone food in a soup kitchen, while it is a good thing in itself, is not actually hospitality because it is not rooted in an exchange of roles.

In post-biblical tradition, Abraham, the paradigm of hospitality, moves out of the familiarity of his house. He pitches a tent at the crossroads so as to welcome more strangers, according to the Testament of Abraham. Philo says Abraham ran out of his house and begged the strangers who were passing by his home to stay with him because he was so eager to extend hospitality to them. Abraham and Jesus confront our restrictive notions of hospitality, encouraging us to think about our human interdependence in giving and receiving hospitality on the way.

Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. While she is an American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and loves marmite which may explain certain features of her blog, On Not Being a Sausage.

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14 Responses to "When it comes to hospitality, we lack practice"
  1. This is one of the more thought-provoking positions in favor of open communion that I've read in a while.

    Out of curiosity, Dr. Good, could you say a word about the relationship between hospitality and boundaries in the Johannine literature? Is its notion of hospitality in tension with what we find in Luke-Acts, and what do we make of the drawing of community boundaries in 2-3 John?

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  2. "If, as followers of Christ, we expect to continue to gather around Christ's Holy Table as a way of expressing our commitment to the ministry to which Christ calls us, we must welcome the newcomer, proclaiming the good news to the huge population yet untouched by its promise of life eternal." From Holy Hospitality - Worship and the Baptismal Covenant by Clayton L. Morris (Church Publishing, 2005)

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  3. gather around Christ's Holy Table as a way of expressing our commitment to the ministry to which Christ calls us...

    We do believe it's this--but isn't it quite a bit more too?

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  4. Derek,

    Thanks for the question. Yes, Johannine hospitality seems to me to be distinct from that of Luke-Acts. The Johannine community--the gospel and the letters-- seems already to be a separate minority apart from the world. (In this investigation, we have to use the NRSV cautiously.) 3 John, for example, describes "brothers" (NRSV:friends) being being treated well (probably shown hospitality) by the beloved Gaius although they are strangers. Such people "went out on behalf of the name, receiving nothing from pagans/Gentiles" (v.7). This does seem to describe the separate outlook of the Johannine community. They receive and give hospitality from those they know.

    The problem of 3 John v.9 is that Diotrephes "is not receiving us as a guest" (NRSV: does not acknowledge our authority). So Diotrephes is mirroring what I take to be Johannine community behavior: he refuses to welcome brothers and he prevents those who wish (to offer them hospitality) by throwing them out of the church (v.10). What the elder of 3 John advocates instead is not open hospitality but the rather vague injunction, "imitate what is good" (v.11). Charles Talbert in his new book, "Reading John: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Epistles" (Smyth and Helwys 2005) says that the point of the author of 3 John makes here is to continue to offer hospitality as you have done in the past and not act like Diotrephes (p.12). But this is hospitality shown only to brothers in the Johannine circle!

    Does this all start from John 1:11, "He came to what was his own, and his own people did not welcome him"? (Jesus is welcomed by Galileans in 4:45 but cf. v.44).

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  5. So what do we do with the Johannine witness? Do we regard this as a perversion of Christian hospitality? Could there not be a Christian virtue here that competes--but does not necessarily conflict--with hospitality centered around the typically Johannine concern for truth?

    If the 3 epistles are read as a packet addressing the same situation (quite likely in my opinion), 2 John roots the rejection of hospitality in the telling of untruths about God in Christ--that he did *not* come in the flesh, a clear contradiction of their experience of the Word of Life "which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched" (1 John 1:1).

    It is easy to caricature an emphasis on this kind of truth as rigid dogmatism--because it can and has become such in the past. Nevertheless, when the voices of Luke-Acts and the Johannines are put into conversation with one another don't they call us to both radical hospitality and abiding in the truth of what we have received?

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  6. A beautiful and thought provoking essay.

    I recommend highly to anyone for whom this essay resonates, that they read Sara Miles' recent book, "take this bread."

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  7. I think the issues raised in this essay are primary to current discussions regarding the Anglican Communion. Hospitality does not seem to me as much an issue of what is true or what is acceptable based on holy writ, but rather is an intrinsic part of our orthodox theology. God redeems us, heals us, and presides at the “table” of our lives with no other requirement than we believe. If we profess God as ultimate truth, and believe we are transformed by God’s grace, then will we not want to include all who desire to come? It is interesting that an essay regarding our inability as Westerners to fully embrace hospitality would so quickly digress into a discourse on truth and biblical interpretation. Diverting the discussion away from our discomfort with welcoming others is understandable, but perhaps more time should be given to considering the log in our own eye?

    DeDe Duncan-Probe

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  8. I'm sorry that you feel that I'm diverting the discussion, Dede. That's certainly not my intention.

    I agree entirely with your statement: "If we profess God as ultimate truth, and believe we are transformed by God’s grace, then will we not want to include all who desire to come?" As I've said before, I'm a staunch supporter of Open Baptism. We believe that God yearns to be in relationship with us; why is a commitment to that relationship in baptism such a heinous thing?

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  9. "Commitment to that relationship in baptism" is not at all heinous to me; I think baptism is central to our theology and should remain so. In reading Deirdre’s essay, I resonated with her focus on hospitality in a more global sense. I hear in her essay a focus on the attitude of our heart rather than a more narrow discourse on access to Eucharist or entrance rites. Given the current climate in the Anglican Communion, I find great value in recognizing our discomfort with openness to other people. Like birds, those of like mind do flock together, but isn’t this exactly what Jesus saves us from? Agreement, commonality, and comfort are not what unite us--Jesus is. As a priest I have watched as people experience hospitality in a parish and their lives are radically transformed. Derek, I think as we are hospitable, as we encourage people to love God and to live out the gospel, baptism becomes more important, not less.

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  10. "Offering someone food in a soup kitchen, while it is a good thing in itself, is not actually hospitality because it is not rooted in an exchange of roles."

    Miranda Hassett in her new book "Anglican Communion in Crisis: How Episcopal Dissidents and Their African Allies Are Realigning Anglicanism" writes about the relationship of the African Aglicans with the North. When the North is so much richer can the relationship be one where there can be an exchange of roles? And if not, can the relationship be a healthy one nonetheless?

    The great irony is that it is conservative Episcopalians who have made African Anglicans feel valued by participating in an exchange with them.

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  11. "Offering someone food in a soup kitchen, while it is a good thing in itself, is not actually hospitality because it is not rooted in an exchange of roles."

    I don't want to speak for Sara Miles, who may drop in on this conversation herself, but I read her memoir "Take this Bread," as a book length argument with that assertion.

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  12. Hmmm... I realized I may have been a little ambiguous, so let me be very clear: I think Christian hospitality calls us to offer food, shelter, clothing, etc. to all without regard to creed. Please don't mistake my comments above as suggesting that Christians require doctrinal tests before we welcome strangers. DeDe, you're quite right to remind me that there's much more to hospitality than just access to the Eucharistic table.

    I do see open communion as a more complicated issue than simply a matter of offering hospitality, though. That's where the importance of baptism enters the discussion...

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  13. Derek,

    You're probably not meaning to cross onto the thread Jim and I are on about "exchange of roles" but your "doctrinal tests" triggered another thought along the lines of the one I was on.

    That is, because the material wealth of the North and South is so unequal there are accusations thrown around on all sides that dollars/donations are being paid or withheld to influence members of the South based on whether they meet doctrinal tests or not (or at least, silence). (Such as whether homosexuals should be ordained.) That is, a doctrinal test before needs are met, needs like hunger, education, clean water....

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  14. My understanding of radical hospitality/welcoming the stranger- as shaped by a seminary professor at VTS - has exactly to do with that mutual exchange that has been mentioned. When we 'walk' with someone we must be open not only to hearing their story, but to being changed by it. And then, or- and also - they hear our story and they are changed by it. A mutual exchange - a rapprochement - is at the heart of radical hospitality. It is from that perspective then, that we engage in the act of welcome and of ministry to the world.

    Jennifer McKenzie

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