When I first started attending a Christian church, as a young adult, I was taken back with how much ‘hospitality’ talk was bandied about. It became very clear to me that Christian communities placed a high value on the notion of hospitality. It appeared like a saintly virtue: one of those good practices that happened all over the world and in all cultures, but of which, Christians had taken on as their own. It took a while for me to realize that hospitality was seen as the imitation of Christ, a pragmatic outworking of Christian discipleship. Of course, I later became aware that a whole system of thinking ‘stranger’ and ‘neighbor’ was driving the push for hospitality. As Arthur Sutherland describes:

‘In the light of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and return, Christian hospitality is the intentional, responsible, and caring act or welcoming or visiting, in either public or private places, those who are strangers, enemies, or distressed, without regard for reciprocation’.[1]

I was always interested in the way descriptions such as this were seen to get at the very heart of God (which Sutherlands argues), and how my status as the ‘stranger’ and the ‘distressed’ allowed those well intentioned Christians I knew to become as ‘gods’. I am not employing cynicism as a sport here – as a newcomer to the church – and a young women with ‘all’ the social problems – I literally found myself paraded in front of congregations as the ‘stranger’ in their midst.  With every step I made closer to the norms of Christian life I was celebrated – given access to that territory only Christians inside the house may possess. I was literally told: ‘now you are now one of us’. It was then that I began to suspect that ‘hospitality’ was more indebted to notions of ownership and possession than the Jesus I read in the gospel.

This is certainly present in the ‘homes’ of the faithful in contemporary family life.  The church has aggressively pursued an idolatrous infatuation with marriage, romance, and homemaking; the sheer toxicity of ‘nuclear family’ has seen the hospitality of Christians more easily positioned within the Kingdom of Capital. That we think it is hospitable to invite people behind our walls is symptomatic to the problem, and consequently this current hospitality seeks to possess the stranger. Of course this does not preclude the possibility of people being kind in certain circumstances, and yet the walls erected in homemaking exemplify the dilemma. To be welcomed is to cross those boundaries and to enter the owners’ territory, to become a part of the possessed – a space that becomes the place of ownership. In this sense, hospitality more often than not enacts an unwelcoming of the outsider; it does so through an oppressive sociality of normalization, and it further beckons one to become – or at least to journey towards – ‘one of us’.

The possessive quality of hospitality is grounded in the very demarcations employed to justify hospitality – a delineation which is made explicit by Luke Bretherton, for example, in framing hospitality entirely around the idea of incommensurability between ‘Christian’ and ‘Non- Christian’[2]. Bretherton argues that the Christian notion of hospitality provides a model of practice at the site of difference – a model that does not seek to resolve difference, but rather one that dictates a proper posture of Christian engagement with difference. But herein lies the myth of Christian hospitality; unlike an open encounter with the world, Christian hospitality assumes a posture of ‘rightness’. You are right because you are always already ‘the Christian’ and the outsider is always, well, on the outside. As a posture, hospitality therefore performs a weird kind of sublimation of discourse itself. This is especially true when ‘Christian theologians’ seek dialogue – when theology strives to ‘welcome’ multiplicity. For such a condition is not possible within the demarcation of ‘Christian’ when Christians possess the places of dialogue.  I have seen this many times: confessional theologians ‘radicalizing’ their approach through engagement with ‘non Christians’. What usually ensues is a Christian demand on discourse; the grammar and categories engaged are dictated by Christian territory and the welcome amounts to nothing more than an attempt to make outsiders ‘one of us’. The myth of hospitality – as played out in dialogue – is not so much a myth performed on the ‘non-Christian’, but instead upon the Christian themselves who often believe they have played God, they have welcomed the stranger, they have willingly given up their territory for the sake of the gospel (and some of the strange theological treatments of – especially continental –  philosophy reflect the awkwardness of this whole performance) To be short: I have strong doubts that inviting conversation partners (however people describe this) is ever about shifting discursive patterns. In fact, I think theological dialogue is nearly always a kind of imperialistic attempt to control marginalized discourse. That in this, and in the home, the very notion of hospitality is a claim upon the outsider and an exhortation to normalise.

So what is to be done with hospitality; is it redeemable, is it a concept that can be unbridled from the claim of territory and possession? I am not yet sure, but I actually think the accounts of gospel Jesus problematise all the theoretical accounts of ‘Christian hospitality’. These accounts are neither a matter of dispossession or radical openness. The accounts of Jesus’ welcoming  are represented by contesting discourses; there is not a territory in which a theory, an account, or a posture can be placed. And so it seems that even for those who like to identify as ‘Christian’, there is a slippage beyond possession. And hospitality  – whatever that may mean – cannot ultimately be tamed by mythic accounts of the ‘stranger’ and the ‘distressed’.

[1] Arthur Sutherland. I Was a Stranger: A Christian Theology of Hospitality. Abingdon: Nashville, 2006, xiii.

[2] See Luke Bretheron. Hospitality as Holiness: Christian Witness and Amid Moral Diversity. Ashgate: Burlington, xiii2010. And Luke Bretheron.  ‘Tolerance & Hospitality’, in The Blackwell Companion to Religious Diversity. Edited by Kevin Schilbrack. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

27 thoughts

  1. I think Dorothy Day has really a really sophisticated understanding of hospitality that doesn’t hinge on ownership. Of course she lived a radical life in community with others (and thus was not welcoming people into the walls she owned and the nuclear family she “owned”) but I do think that hospitality is redeemable mainly because I’m so moved by her understanding of it.

  2. Nice, I love talking about food and hospitality! I think the sharing of food has a long tradition of being the place of dialogue but also normative friendship. If someone feeds you its kinda like you owe them. Though by this logic I owe you big time! I think hospitality in homes specifically is also problematic because ‘my house, my rules’. That said, I think in the culture of open sharing ie music tastes you’d hit similar superiority/hospitality issues. 🙂

  3. When I think of Christian hospitality it is in the framework that Jesus defines in Matthew 25, and in opposition to the Pharisaical way of doing it as he articulates in chapter 23. As a pastor (of color), I’m committed to hospitality and the dialogue, but I don’t want be the emperor controlling it. If we are indeed committed to discerning Holy Spirit together, we have to acknowledge that her movement isn’t something we can control. But that still doesn’t shake my commitment to it.

  4. This is lovely, and I’ve thought about this quite a bit. It reminds me of Jacques Derrida’s understanding of hospitality, in which the other, the outsider is the one in control. Hospitality (Derrida would go so far as to say biblical hospitality) is one in which the other, the foreigner, the outsider comes into your home, church, the place which you have sovereignty over, and the host must use all its power, authority, and sovereignty to protect the foreigner, even to the point of the host sending out his/her own children as protective sacrifice against danger. I would think even more in that, that instead of assimilation of the foreigner into the fold, Derrida would also point toward the fold being changed by the foreigner (sometimes drastically), and that is what he would call Christian Hospitality, or unconditional hospitality. Thanks for reigniting this spark. The Derrida book I reference is [Of Hospitality]

    1. Thanks Jonathan. I am aware of this book, and I think several Chrisian writers try to massage hospitality in the same vein. Another way to come at it is to consider the many non-western cultures which assume the guest as responsible for ‘hosting’, and the homeowner as lucky to be visited. These alternatives seem nice, but really I wanted to draw out the way the demarcation of ‘Christian’ and ‘non-Chrsitian’ inevitably operates towards either assimilation or rejection, and how, as operation, this can be frightfully oppresive.

      1. No, you are right in the oppressiveness. I think this is something that is always present, I also know Derrida likes to refer to an impossible state of hospitality as opposed this being a possibility. I think we need to continue to lift of the nature of the Christian/non-Christian divide and ponder what to do.

  5. Have you read Christine Pohl’s “Making Room”? In her book you’ll find some more historical context to hospitality throughout Christian history and some studies of current mission/church attempts at hospitality. She raises questions about the status and mythos surrounding the “stranger,” though her position is one of careful retrieval of hospitality as a practice.

    Thanks for you post, I always appreciate someone speaking up for the newcomer and stranger in any theological conversation, whether its about theological dialogue, conversion or formation.

  6. Thanks! This was really interesting!

    Meanwhile, this morning another friend from college linked me to this article, which made for an interesting comparison: http://queeringjew.com/2014/03/10/vayikra-and-god-called-out-an-invitation-to-gender-justice/

    Mostly I was struck by the fact that both articles relate a kind of “mass-transubstantiation” of a congregation through reaching out to others, collectively – achieving some divine role – as well as the contrast between why those congregations would reach out, and how, and why.

  7. Oops! I meant, “…between the auspices under which those congregations would reach out, and how, and why.”… My stupid touch-pad makes unwelcome edits sometimes.

  8. By your terms, I do not understand how hospitality can be possible in a world where the host is permitted a measure of self-knowledge that cannot be destabilized by a stranger. But then, Jesus knew he was the Christ & carried that knowledge to the end – would that disqualify him from being capable of Christian hospitality?

    I do think you are right to say that there is something strange about welcoming someone, only to then furtively attempt to secretly change him or her. But I think that that is strange only in a world where we do not think that there is truth worth dying for. Maybe another way to see some of the problem I think you are getting at is the refusal of the Christian host to be receptive to the stranger’s grasp of truth – communication is just a one-way road.

    Finally – I am not completely sure how a loose association by way of analogy (Christian hospitality is to welcomed outsider as owner is to property) is a decisive consideration. This is a point of confusion I come to frequently. I would like to be pointed to whatever readings come to mind for you, so that I can come to value this kind of a point.

  9. In fact, I think theological dialogue is nearly always a kind of imperialistic attempt to control marginalized discourse.

    Could you expand upon this, please? For instance, are you referring here only to official dialogues between organized faith communities? Do you include the dialogue that happens through formal academic channels? Informally among colleagues? Thanks.

    1. I actually think official (interfaith) dialogue works hard against this, and recently I have seen some admirable approaches towards this. What I meant here was an organised theological dialogue, by confessional theologians, that is often marked by interdisciplinary concerns (which may be formal, as in an academic conference, or informal, as in spaces created on the internet). The dialogue that is placed within these essentially Christian territories seems (at least to me) to follow the patterns I described – difference is met by a command to adhere to Christian grammar and the theological categories important to that particular Christian community. It is kind of like saying to a vocalist: ‘I resonant a little with that performance, now can you just come to my club and sing it in my range. Then I will be able to sing along’.

  10. Jonathan, I appreciate your thoughts on non imperialistic hospitality–but as a feminist theologian and clergywoman also have major concerns about the scripture you implicity refer to as an example, which is a major fail on that goal. Lot didn’t offer himself to be raped in place of his guests, which would have been actual sacrificial and non imperialistic hospitality, but the children he owned and controlled. And they weren’t just generic children, but specifically daughters, whose lives and sexual integrity–as in today’s church and society– were of less value than the male guests and any male children he might have had.

    1. You are correct, and I totally agree. It is a failure. I thought of the fact that it is always the women who are working, or sacrificing to offer hospitality. Not self, but women, children, servants, all of which have less value that the patriarch. I know that Derrida will say simply that it is using what you are sovereign over to protect the foreigner. Clearly, a greater sacrifice would be to offer up self. And this shows the presence of disposable people in culture, then and now. Women, children, and servants mainly.

      I appreciate your critique. Thank you.

      In pains me to call women, children, any living thing that is not self is my property, and that is basically what these scriptures imply.

      1. Apologies, the last sentence is jumbled. Corrected: In pains me to call women, children, any living thing that is not self, property, and that is basically what these scriptures imply.

      2. Thanks Jonathan! Another thing that always baffles me is the glorification of Abraham’s plan to slaughter his son=property as a divinely willed sacrifice–and the theology of God doing the same thing–among many of the same people who viciously attack women who terminate pregnancies no matter how dire their circumstances and how early the stage of development.

      1. Thanks for sharing your concern and the article you linked, Barbara. I certainly agree with you that gay sex was not the sin of Sodom but that, as the prophetic witness says, it was lack of justice and hospitality–and that the traditional interpretation of the passage has added to the sin of homophobia. However, I don’t see any way to interpret this particular passage that doesn’t involve the men wanting to rape the guests and Lot offering his daughters instead (out of misogyny rather than homophobia). Rape is a crime of violence, not sex, and there are many men who consider themselves straight yet rape other men and boys–for instance in prison, for lack of access to women–degrading them by treating them like women, slaves, war captives, etc. and considering real masculinity to involve always dominating through physical penetration. (As C.S. Lewis said of the older boys who abused younger ones in his boarding schools, many of them “would have preferred girls if could have got them. The same is true of the RC priests who disproportionately abused boys, not because gays are inherently abusers, but because they had more access to them as altar boys, seminary students, etc.). So the men who weren’t necessarily gay, just violent, would have been perfectly happy to have alternate victims. This understanding makes sense of the daughters’ desperate seduction of Lot later in the text–understandable and rather deserved revenge–rather than positing them as evil sluts.

  11. Jonathan, I appreciate your goal of espousing non imperialist hospitality but the scripture you implicitly cite as example actually problematizes it. Lot felt free to sacrifice his children rather than himself because he owned them and they were defenseless against his betrayal–and they weren’t generic children, but specifically daughters–whose lives and sexual integrity, then as in today’s church and society, were worth far less than the male guests or family members.

  12. Leave your church doors open all day, and people who need a place to rest and sit – or just to feel safe – will come. That’s because it isn’t Christians who are the hosts – but Christ himself. (So be sure to hang a crucifix or icon of Christ somewhere in the building.)

    It’s just mad ego to imagine that we ourselves are in any way the attraction….

  13. @Laura, I now describe the “gay sex” interpretation of this story as “widespread” rather than “traditional” since learning that this interpretation is culturally bound: my African classmates were shocked to discover that most Americans don’t associate this story with hospitality, which is how it is universally preached in their home churches. They had never heard the gay sex interpretation before coming here.

    But I must thank you for the insight that the later scene, which I think now must be described as the daughters’ sexual assault of Lot, was in some measure retribution for his offer to hand them over to be gang raped.

    1. My pleasure, Janice–sexual assault and abuse, and the theology and exegesis that fuel them, are personal and pastoral passions of mine. And thank you for teaching me about the traditional African interpretation–I had never heard anything but the Western one. Makes sense given that homophobia only came to Africa with colonialism…

  14. Janice, could you say more about why you think the particular posture of “rightness” (1) flows from the sort of identity claim made when one makes the distinction between “christian” and “non-christian” ends in an “imperialistic attempt to control marginalized discourse”? It’s a pretty broad claim, and one that seems interestingly counterintuitive to me. Do you think it necessarily follows (analytically) or always follows (de facto)? Or does it just usually follow as a matter of course?

    Also, I wonder if you’ve interacted with any of Bretherton’s more recent work, which pursues the way in which the politics of hospitality can morph into or merely complement “theological politics.” He uses Saul Alinsky and community organizing alongside a concept of “faithful secularity” in a pluralist, consocial democracy as a model. This line of thought seems to suggest just the opposite of what you express, especially if you read the “politics of hospitality” through and together with the later stuff on Alinsky. In such a case, it seems to me that Christian hospitality (whatever it means exactly–and not enough was said about the details of Bretherton’s conception here to say one way or the other how you’re reading it) opens into a practice of communal listening that relativizes the “friend-enemy” distinction in politics. Do you think that the Alinsky, consocial democracy strand of political thought (that others like Jeff Stout also articulate) refuses “shifting discursive patterns” and serves as “a claim upon the outsider and an exhortation to normalise”? Maybe Bretherton has evolved, but I guess that I’m wondering if you can say any more about whether and how these two strands fit together, or whether you think the Stout-Brehterton consocial democracy angle fails to address the significant concerns you raise.

    1. Thanks for your questions Sean. I guess one of the things I was trying to push towards, or rather question, is the contemporary identity ‘Christian’, and how that operates as a site of incommensurability. If the norm of the ‘Christian’ is stitched up in a colonised and patriarchal archetype (which I would suggest is the content of ‘Christian’ in the west) then such identity can only function oppressively: conceptually, hospitality is one way such an operation can be evaluated. I think this is why I wanted to make the link with ‘welcoming’ dialogue. One on hand, I want to completely refuse the wests notion of this hospitality as mirroring the hospitality of god. And on the other hand, I accept that the whole exchange of Christ and Chistlikeness – grounding the ‘Christian’ – is precisely God, and as such God must be refused (and so whatever might be meant by rightness flows out of this incommensurable identity). At the end of the post I am trying to argue that one way forward may mean the content we plug into ‘Christian’ must not be normed or fixed in any sense in which theories of incommensurability may emerge. This is largely because I think concepts of incommensurability have been useful in evaluating theoretical schisms, but are not ever helpful in relation to identity. So this is not really a piece about Bretherton (and I have not read much of his more recent work) per se, but I do think his defense of a posture of incommensurability in Hospitality as Holiness demonstrates a kind of theological cul-de-sac in which Christianity is always already normalising.

  15. I’ll quote the relevant passage:

    The traditional interpretation of this story is that the phrase “that we may know them” means that the men of the city desired to rape the angels who were guests in Lot’s house. The Hebrew word translated “know” in the above text can either mean “be acquainted with” or “have sexual intercourse with,” so both are possible translations at this preliminary stage. Because of tradition, and because an alternative interpretation of this passage is lacking, most modern language Bibles interpret this word as indicating rape. However it must be pointed out that in the 936 occurrences of this Hebrew word in the Old Testament, “know” with the meaning of sexual intercourse only occurs about a dozen times, and then it only describes marital sex. Those who interpret the Hebrew word “know” in this verse to mean homosexual rape should have a lot of explaining to do. Normally when an interpretation depends upon one word having a unique, unlikely and unprecedented meaning, most scholars are inclined to discard the interpretation as contrived and as serving some unspoken purpose of its proponents. In this case, the fact that this is the traditional interpretation spares its advocates a lot of work.

    In other words, it’s rather clear here that the “traditional interpretation” was a deliberate misreading of the language itself, in order to promote the church’s anti-gay agenda.

    Aside from the fact that it’s almost certainly simply wrong, it’s long, long past time to retire it, solely on the basis of how destructive this interpretation has been and continues to be.

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