Thursday, October 30, 2008


A (Very Brief) Introduction to Christian Hospitality

One of the creative aspects of Christian theology is learning the ways that our Jesus stories subvert the stories that the rest of the world is accustomed to telling. When I talk with people about my work, I nearly always use the phrase "Christian hospitality" instead of simply saying "hospitality." When we talk about the subject, there are two normal stories that our alternative version seeks to subvert and replace.

When people hear this word, "hospitality," they often think of the "Southern" version. This is usually understood as the practice of pretending to like people you really find annoying or distasteful, and pretending never to be inconvenienced by even the most outlandish impositions. It has a built-in "martyr complex," in which the most successful (or perhaps godly) host is the one who can suffer the greatest inconveniences with the most convincing show of warmth. This is often called mistakenly called "grace."

The other story is related to the "hospitality industry": hotels, restaurants, and related businesses that cater to traveling businesspersons. Good hospitality in these terms is associated with anticipating and fulfilling the desires of clients and customers, who are often called "guests." While these stories will in some way echo the soundings of the Christian hospitality tradition, they are different stories altogether.

Christian hospitality starts with a story about persons, relationships and space. Like all Christian stories, it starts with the Christian God taking loving initiative in the world. In the act of Creation, God made a space brimming with life in amazingly diverse forms. He filled the space with all manner of flora and fauna, and placed people in that space - people who somehow looked like a God who can't really look like anything - in order to live in loving relationship with them. In ancient Israel, the Law required the people to make allowance for strangers, widows and orphans. The prophets railed against those who betrayed the Lord by failing those who could not help themselves. Israel was in a sense meant to be both a physical as well as a cultic/religious space in which outsiders of all kinds could be cared for and taught to worship and live with the true God. This is the same God who made reconciling space and the possibility of new relationship for us by the execution and raising of Jesus Christ, and presents that reality to us continually through the liturgical life of the Church.

This is just a summary, but the point is this: Christian hospitality is the practice of creating safe, healing space for others by which and in which they are invited to move into the abundant, beautiful life that Jesus has for them. It is both a story, and a set of diverse practices grounded in the reality that God has made safe, reconciling space for all of us. It looks like throwing parties, a quiet chat in the coffee house, a beer at the kitchen table, a place to stay for the night, an unexpected phone call: all of these things that are about sharing life and creating space, both physical and relational, in which other people are valued and loved. This is something distinct from being "polite," or doing the expected thing, or anticipating desires. These things can fit into the matrix, but they are not the substance, and they are not central.

What do you think of when you hear the word "hospitality"? What are some memorable ways you've received hospitality from others, or shown it to them?


Edward Ott said...

According to tradition,the prophet Abraham kept his tent open in all four directions, the more easily to share his food and water with travelers from anywhere.

Kyle said...

I like that.