At first glance, it appears that hospitality is a pretty straightforward concept—inviting people over to your (reasonably tidy) home for a meal and conversation, for the purpose of developing your relationship and deepening your friendship. Easier said than done in twenty-first century society in the age of commuter churches, busy families, demanding work schedules, and a culture structured around the needs of the individual (instead of the needs of society as a whole). In her book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, Dr. Christine D. Pohl explains the scriptural and historical contexts of hospitality, giving the reader a careful and comprehensive understanding of the tradition of welcoming the stranger. Earlier this year, Dr. Pohl discussed with Modern Reformation the recovery of the hospitable life in an individualistic world.
In the introduction to Making Room, you explain that ancient Israel understood themselves as “strangers and sojourners, with responsibility to care for vulnerable strangers in their midst.” How did this idea of the people of God influence the New Testament church?
From the covenant between God and Abram (Gen. 15) onward, the theme of being aliens and strangers was central to Israel’s identity. Even after they received the Promised Land, the people of God were to see themselves as aliens and tenants in it. This almost paradoxical combination of being chosen and yet aliens operated at several levels. Partly, it helped the people to remember their dependence on God and that, ultimately, everything belonged to God and they dwelt in the land by God’s grace and invitation. But also, if everyone is an alien or stranger, it has a profoundly egalitarian impact on the community. Additionally, it was one of the bases for Israel’s response to the literal alien or sojourner in their midst. Because of their own experience of vulnerability and need for God’s provision and grace, Israelites were to care for the aliens among them. In Exodus 23:9 we read, “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” It is a basic part of the covenantal relation that the people of God understand themselves as aliens in the world and that they care for the aliens or strangers among them.
In the New Testament, the theme of alien identity continues. In 1 Peter, his letter is addressed to exiles—those early Christians who have been scattered. In 2:11, Peter says that you are aliens, so live as aliens. Here he uses alien identity to reinforce the idea of living distinctly from the world as God’s own people, holy as God is holy.
Paul also writes that the Gentiles who have come to faith are no longer aliens and strangers but members of the household of God (Eph. 2), so the theme is powerful and multi-stranded throughout Scripture. Understanding ourselves as aliens or strangers in the world helps us to remember that we are dependent on God and are called to live in a way that demonstrates to whom we belong, that we hold lightly onto the things of this world and yet faithfully engage the world, and that we have a special responsibility to those who experience the literal vulnerability of being strangers.
Why is it so important to recognize in others the image of God? And how does this factor into a Christian’s understanding of hospitality?
When we offer hospitality to someone who is usually overlooked or undervalued by their society, we’re saying that the person is valuable and interesting, and that their needs matter to us. This is a powerful expression of recognition. Part of the way we know that we have worth and value is by how others respond to us, and when we are systematically excluded or ignored, our sense of self is undermined. So when a person or community invites someone to be with them and gives him or her full attention, it is a way of acknowledging our common humanness, as well as the person’s gifts and needs. The Christian tradition provides an extraordinary theological framework for recognition. Both Calvin and Wesley understood this well and articulated it beautifully.
So, for example—to paraphrase the insights of both men—when we encounter a homeless person on the street, we see their rough exterior and degraded position. Perhaps we see their need. But each person is so much more than a bundle of needs. Each is an individual of infinite worth with whom we share the experience of human identity, suffering, and need; each person bears the beauty of God’s image. Such understandings provide a foundation for viewing every stranger as having great worth, and as worthy of our attention and response.
You believe that “hospitality is fundamentally connected to a place—to a space bounded by commitments, values, and meanings” and that part of “the difficulty in recovering hospitality is connected with our uncertainty about community and particular identity.” How does the confusion of who we are and where we fit hinder our ability to share our lives with other people, even other brothers and sisters?
Contemporary understandings of hospitality often equate it with tolerance, where there is little commitment to anything and a minimal sense of community. But historically, the most hospitable communities had a strong sense of identity, and hospitable individuals offered welcome because of their deep commitments.
There are tensions in hospitality related to welcoming people and preserving a particular identity. It was a concern for ancient Israel and the monastic tradition, and it continues to challenge hospitable communities today. When we welcome strangers into a household or community for more than a brief period, they will be changed, but so will we. Mostly this is a blessing, but it is also a continual challenge because it requires that we think about what defines our communities, where we need to be more porous, and what it means to be faithful. Understanding that we are called by God to welcome strangers reverses the cultural focus on self and pushes us outward. We find ourselves and our place partly by caring for others and making a place for them.
What does a group’s commitment to hospitality look like, and how does welcoming a stranger combine public and private life?
Hospitality is most commonly understood to be rooted in the household—homes are our most personal and intimate space for welcoming people. Inviting someone in to share a meal or a place to stay is a basic expression of hospitality. But today our households are often empty and all the adults are working outside the home. There isn’t much structure into which to welcome folks—so a recovery of the importance of the household seems crucial. But it is still not enough. If our focus is on welcoming strangers, we also need to pay attention to threshold places. Before folks are welcomed into the intimacy of our homes, we often need more public spaces in which we can begin to get to know one another. In the past, the front porch and the city gate served as threshold places. Today we need to find or create equivalents—it could be our place of employment, school, or a church dinner or activity.
Hospitality, however, is bigger than the household. Because it is a way of life, we can embody it in all sorts of situations. Churches and communities are particularly important in offering welcome and in creating life-giving environments.
How does gracious hospitality effectively minister to the marginalized and vulnerable members of our communities?
In our age of specialization, we have tended to assume that there is a professional who is trained to meet every need. But people are not just a collection of needs; they are individual human beings. Untrained people often feel like they aren’t equipped to welcome someone with a significant disability or a troubled home situation. But what ordinary, untrained followers of Christ have to offer is distinct. People don’t necessarily need another program to meet their needs; they need a family or a community to which they can belong. They don’t want to be another of our projects; they want friends. And that is what hospitality can offer—the chance to recover the significance of relationships in the healing of persons and communities.