In her book, Making Room, Christine Pohl said something that is immutably true about the relationship between Christianity and the practice of hospitality. “Hospitality,” she wrote nearly 20 years ago, “is a way of life fundamental to Christian identity. Its mysteries, riches and difficulties are revealed most fully as it is practiced.”
Anyone who wishes to explore what the great theological and spiritual writers of the Church have to say about the subject must be prepared to encounter a deluge of literature. From John Chrysostom in the fourth century to Jean Vanier in ours, these writers offer rich insights into a practice that is energised by the Christian gospel itself.
To show hospitality, these writers agree, is simply to obey Christ’s command to love one’s neighbour, whether he or she is someone we know, a stranger or even an enemy.
To practise Christian hospitality, however, requires that we see the other in a certain way. For there is an inhuman way of seeing that makes the practice of true hospitality impossible—this is to see the neighbour not as a person with inalienable dignity, but as merely an object, as a means to an end and as someone who is less worthy of respect than we.
Put differently, hospitality begins with recognition—our acknowledgement and treatment of the other as an equal, that is, as endowed with the same dignity and value that we ourselves possess.
“Recognition,” Christine Pohl explains, “involves respecting the dignity and equal worth of every person and valuing their contributions, or at least their potential contributions, to the larger community.”
In the Christian tradition, to recognise the other is to see him as God sees him, that is to say, as a creature made in the divine image. In seeing others in this way, we cannot ignore their intrinsic worth, nor can we be carelessly neglectful of our duty towards them.
Theologians such as Karl Barth have used the metaphor of the mirror effectively to explore another dimension of our vision of the other. As we “look the other in the eye,” Barth writes, we see a reflection of ourselves—our fallen humanity in need of redemption.
To see ourselves in the other in this way is to expose our pride, the moral superiority that we all harbour and sometimes cleverly camouflage in our superficial performance of hospitality. Thus John Chrysostom, the fourth-century bishop of Constantinople, tirelessly reminded his flock of the importance of respect and humility when offering hospitality and never to “think themselves superior to the recipients”.
But in seeing something of ourselves in the other, we are also reminded of our own need. This vision of others, says Barth, creates a profound self-awareness of our own poverty and our dependence on others. In other words, it creates an awareness of our true humanity.
“My humanity,” writes Barth, “depends upon the fact that I am always aware, and my action is determined by the awareness, that I need the assistance of others as fish needs water.”
Thus in the practice of hospitality, in welcoming the other as our neighbour in the name of Christ, a transformation takes place.
Hospitality transforms the recipients because it is a powerful recognition of their dignity and value as a bearer of the divine image—in some cases, the marginalised and the disabled. Christian hospitality returns to them the dignity they have been deprived due to discrimination, stigmatisation and oppression.
Writers like Jean Vanier and John Swinton could even speak provocatively of their “resurrection”—because those whom society has reckoned as “dead” are given new life by hospitality’s welcome and embrace.
But because it always creates a relationship of radical reciprocity and mutual indebtedness between the host and the guest—where both parties give and receive—hospitality also transforms the host. For in welcoming the stranger with such a self-forgetful generosity, the host learns what it means to be the disciple of the One who came to serve and not to be served (Mark 10:45).
In various ways, hospitality makes both the host and his guest more human. It enables us to see others and ourselves through a humanising lens, and it creates the space for the kind of mutual self-giving that honours the dignity with which we have been bestowed.
Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, Vol. III/2. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1960.
Pohl, Christine. Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition.
Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).
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