Hospitality, Naive or Difficult?

Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried. (Chesterton)
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares
–Hebrews 13:2

Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.
–I Peter 4:9

Too often “hospitality” is translated in our experience as either “southern hospitality,” a cold beverage and clean sheets, or “individual hospitality,” caring for my neighbor or fellow church member (who is already like me).

If we were to turn our attention to the act of Christian hospitality as a way of welcoming the stranger, the other, the different, how would this modify our behavior toward immigrants (legal or illegal)? Could hospitality replace hostility as an answer for international crisis? How would this look like in a political conversation or a theological issue? Is hospitality a naive approach to conflict and relationships or is it neglected because it is difficult?

In my experience, what I have witnessed is we greet those we know and like with hospitality bordering on excess. While we greet the stranger with suspicion and reservations. Of course the argument could be supported that this is biological, and indeed it could be. But when we hear scripture it seems to say —-love your enemy–which of course is a step beyond the stranger. So if we are to love the enemy can you imagine what we are to do for the non-enemy who happens to be a stranger?

A member of a hate group shot two Methodist, he suspected they were Jewish. Ironically he believed himself to be furthering the cause of Christ by disobeying both a Jewish commandment and something forbidden by Jesus. In Fort Hood a dispute turns into an opportunity for a mass shootings. Current evidence indicates it is more likely our response to conflict will be hostility than hospitality.

In addition to these domestic conflicts we have tension in the Ukraine and Syria where hostility is the default position. These are not our conflicts, yet they are symbols of the global neglect of hospitality?

Let’s begin with a story from the Ancient Hebrews, about how not to do hospitality (Deuteronomy 20:14-18).

 Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom, ‘Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the adversity that has befallen us:15how our ancestors went down to Egypt, and we lived in Egypt for a long time; and the Egyptians oppressed us and our ancestors; 16and when we cried to the Lord, he heard our voice, and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt; and here we are in Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territory. 17Now let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, or drink water from any well; we will go along the King’s Highway, not turning aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.’

18 But Edom said to him, ‘You shall not pass through, or we will come out with the sword against you.’ The Israelites said to him, ‘We will stay on the highway; and if we drink of your water, we and our livestock, then we will pay for it. It is only a small matter; just let us pass through on foot.’ But he said, ‘You shall not pass through.’ And Edom came out against them with a large force, heavily armed. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through their territory; so Israel turned away from them.

I suspect at first glance it is not too surprising. The default position for most cultures is always suspicion and hostility, to be otherwise is to be naive and quickly enslaved or defeated. We often speak of the hospitality of Abraham or other Middle Eastern cultures but this hospitality was often reserve for small groups of travelers. We have always been more frightened of large  movements of people than we have small groups.

Southerners, at least the ones I know, did not mind the individual African-American and were often  supportive and hospitable to them. What drove southern fear and hostility of African Americans were marches and rallies’. Of course change may  never have come without such movements and marches, but nevertheless it is predictable that large numbers produce fear and hostility.

The Hebrews promise the leaders of Edom that they are only traveling through no interest your land or livestock. But promises mean nothing where there is no faith to begin with. This is being relived today in Ukraine. The words of the Russians mean nothing to Ukrainians because there is no trust.

The Edomites name meant “red.” They had received this land from God. After all these were children of Abraham as well. The offspring of Esau, who traded his birthright for “red pottage.” Since Jacob had tricked Esau there was not much trust between these two groups. The Edomites where afraid their cousins were up to no good.

In Deuteronomy chapter 2 God warns the Hebrews not to steal from the Edomites. To pay for water or for grain. Even in this chapter God seems to prefer the Hebrews take the long way around if confronted with hostility with Edom, “do not provoke them” is God’s warning.

The problem is the lack of trust. At least in the biblical tale. But how do we move beyond—no trust to a place where we can show and be shown hospitality to resolve personal, communal, national, and international disputes?

Heaven is for Real is a current movie. I recently read a pastor’s critique of this genre of books and movies. He did not care much for it. His bottom line was, just not biblical enough for him. I haven’t seen the movie or read the book. I wouldn’t see it expecting it to be biblical, the bible mentions heaven but the details are sparse. My question is why be upset over this? Why feel the need to be non-hospitable? Why not let it be?

Just as the Edomites would not allow the Hebrews to trespass, everyone feels a responsibility to protect their land. The default way we know to protect what we love or want is to be hostile. While the author was polite he clearly was not hospitable (Heaven is for Real cannot be welcomed at the table of faith). He was hostile toward welcoming even something like Heaven is for Real.

If the lack of faith and the desire to protect is what often produces the hostility, what can move us beyond hostility toward hospitality toward the “other?” There may be many options, I imagine so, but I concentrate the time I have remaining on the first step—-courage. Possibly active courage is a way to move our relationships from hostility toward hospitality.

In Matthew 5:38 Jesus says, “if someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other cheek.” When another person, another country, another organization, when anyone steps forward to answer us with hostility—Jesus says “turn the other cheek.”

The traditional response to such a slap is to slap back, but this leads . . . well you know where this leads. A man loads a gun and shoots co-workers. Or a person brings a law suit. Jesus is saying something different from our traditional response but he is not saying what we think he is saying.

If someone has slapped you on the right cheek they have done so with their right hand. Further they have slapped me with the back of their hand, a sign they believe me to be inferior. Instead of running or hitting back Jesus says “turn the other cheek,” he is saying step INTO the punch. To turn the cheek is to step forward. Now in the culture of the day the “slapper” could not use their left hand. The left hand was reserved for unclean duties, think bodily functions. So if the aggressor was to slap you again he would have to use the right hand. Because you have turned they can no longer back slap you. So they are left with an awkward option, either slap with an open hand or a fist (which would be a sign of equality) or they could discontinue their aggression. By turning the cheek (not running and not throwing a punch) you have embarrassed and confronted them. We consider the biological options to conflict, as fight or flight, but by practicing courage you have allowed the conflict to move away from hostility toward hospitality. Courage is not hospitality but there is no hospitality without it.

What we witnessed in Boston in the running of the 2014 Boston Marathon is a group exhibition of courage. “Boston Strong” is a way of saying we are turning the other cheek, we are not going anywhere. Hostility is what was visited on Boston, but their response has not been paralyzing fear.

The argument is made this approach is naive. We have been using hostility for thousands of years and while it does produce a winner, it also produces widows, orphans, and poverty. Further it never produces lasting peace. Can hospitality do much worse? Standing strong and being courageous without being aggressive provides the opportunity to show hospitality. Indeed this could be naive or Chesterton could be correct.


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