Moving Beyond the Rhetoric of Christian Hospitality

By: Sunder John Boopalan

Let’s begin with a basic recognition: Hospitality is an industry. It is a financially lucrative business model in which professionals are trained to win hearts and wallets with smiles and niceties. It comes of no surprise, of course, that the underlying logic in the hospitality industry is transactional. This logic is fully owned without pretension. The customer has money to give. The service provider offers hospitality. While I have gladly participated in such transactions (a spa treatment, for instance), I imagine this is not the kind of hospitality Christians are in hot pursuit of, theologically speaking.

What does it mean for Christian hospitality to be categorically different from the transactional model outlined above? There are some good ideas. Take a fancy but profoundly important theological term, one I often introduce students to: Perichoresis. Perichoresis refers to the mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Trinity. In other words, mutuality is inherent in the divine life. This mutuality extends outwards towards creation as hospitality. This is a great notion, but still, only a notion.

However theologically profound it may be, a notion, by default, is merely of rhetorical value. Anyone (or anything—like artificial
intelligence) can come up with a rhetorically persuasive notion. In a training I participated in at Canadian Mennonite University on the uses and abuses of artificial intelligence, participants were asked to create an account to access the ChatGPT tool. I did. I input a favorite theological idea (surprise, surprise; perichoresis). ChatGPT did a great job of giving a definition of it. If a student gave me that response in an essay, I would have given them an “A” letter grade. Receiving an “A” for a mere definition or description of hospitality is, nevertheless, a futile outcome in a discussion of Christian hospitality if such hospitality is not embodied in concrete practice.

Hospitality requires us to move beyond its rhetorical use and embody it in practice. If it’s not embodied, it’s not Christian hospitality. Conundrums persist because embodiment in itself is not hospitality. Like we considered in the very beginning, hospitality in the hospitality industry is certainly embodied, but nevertheless remains a transaction with no mutual reciprocity. Hospitality, then, involves embodied reciprocal relations.

Perichoresis (the ultimate “us”) is certainly a model of reciprocity in the divine life. It is tricky to apply such a model in human life. If “us together”—not “me, myself, and I”—is the life blood of hospitality, how does one practice “us” with integrity? The problem with “us” is that it often presupposes a binary opposite, namely “them.” This occurs even in well- meaning social collectives like churches. Many Christian participants in churches don’t think of themselves as forming small in-groups in their churches, and yet the closedness and exclusive nature of in-groups is palpable to those who are not part of the in-group. “They” know when the “us” does not include all of us.

Christian hospitality operates with an in-the- beginning-of-the-beginning primordial “we” logic, an original unity and reciprocity present in the life of God and one which does and can animate human life together. Strictly speaking, there is no “them” in Christian hospitality. One area into which such a “we” has made its way is the host-guest relationship. Increasingly, Christians are getting used to the idea that Christian hospitality blurs the distinction between host and guest, pointing them in the direction of that primordial “we.” While embracing the “we” in the guest-host relationship certainly moves beyond the merely rhetorical use of the term “hospitality,” there is yet another area which I think merits some analysis, which brings me to the notion of “help” in hospitality.

Passages such as Matthew 20:20-28 and other portions of the Bible have been used to popularize the notion of “servant leadership” in Christian circles. While helping is certainly a good thing, I am afraid that people who are eager to “help” others do so from a position of assumed superiority. To be clear, as much as it is a problem, I am not talking about moral superiority or self-righteousness. I am referring rather to (servant) leaders who serve others who need help. These servant leaders dominate Christian and other circles. The problem with this kind of “help” with respect to a discussion of hospitality is that it is not really hospitality because it still operates on an us-them logic. The “us” here might not be like an enclosed in-group or clique, but it still problematic because it assumes that “they” need help and “we” are here to help others. Such a “we” is not the primordial “we” that ought to animate Christian hospitality.

There is a quote that is attributed to Murri (Australian Indigenous) scholar and activist Lilla Watson that goes, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time…. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” When we apply Watson’s words to Christian hospitality, we understand Christian hospitality as one that moves beyond rhetorical value and embodies a life together in which there is no ‘us versus them’ or ‘us helping them,’ but rather a collective “we,” that despite our legitimate differences sees our liberation being tied up with each other’s liberation.

 

Sunder John Boopalan author of the book, ‘Memory, Grief, and Agency,’ is Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg. John is an ordained minister in the progressive Baptist tradition.

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