Teaching and Learning Civic Hospitality: Where Do We Start?

 This essay first appeared in Christian Teachers Journal volume 31 issue 1 and is reproduced here by permission.

In too many contexts around the world, it is easy to find a familiar refrain: our ability to relate constructively to one another in public spaces is being eroded by polarization, tribalization, fear, and anger. Unease is fueled by anxiety about the future combined with proximity to people who are different from us in their cultures, goals, ideologies, and priorities. Rushing to the ramparts to defend the boundaries of our enclave becomes a tempting response, one that can quickly turn ugly if it is not tempered by a fundamental love of neighbor (and not just of the neighbors we like). Loving those who seem to threaten us has never been one of Jesus’s more convenient commands.

A common liberal democratic response to such tensions has been to emphasize the need to learn tolerance. In any society, let alone in the globally networked webs of awareness that we currently inhabit, we will not agree with everyone, like everyone, or approve of everyone. The possibility of a society not riven by conflict rests on a certain willingness to put up with others, to let them be, to let the weeds (at least those we imagine to be weeds) grow with the wheat.

Tolerance has its part to play. Yet it also falls short from a Christian viewpoint, not so much because it allows others too much space as because it demands too little of ourselves.

Tolerance has its part to play. Yet it also falls short from a Christian viewpoint, not so much because it allows others too much space as because it demands too little of ourselves. As Luke Bretherton notes, “Tolerance, understood as never challenging opinions others hold, reduces us to silence and inactivity, because to add to and seek to change what others think is by definition intolerant” (99). Tolerance therefore seems to motivate withdrawal from engagement. Tolerance secures a minimal level of peace but contains little that would move us to actively invest in making things better. It leaves us with relatively little to say and little to work for as long as we are individually being left alone.

Does that push us back toward shouting from the ramparts until others admit we are right and should be in charge? Not necessarily. As Bretherton and others have noted, there is a key practice in the Christian tradition, rooted in the Scriptures, that addresses the presence of differences in a more constructive way. This is the practice of hospitality to strangers. While tolerance merely asks me to endure those who are different (a useful first step but a low bar), hospitality asks me to actively make space for them and intentionally care for them because of the worth that God places on them. Our reactions of irritation and defensiveness are not merely to be suppressed; they are to be replaced by love, a love that has to be more concrete than a pious sentiment.

[H]ospitality asks me to actively make space for them and intentionally care for them because of the worth that God places on them.

We need to pause here to note an immediate risk. Hospitality is a familiar, widely used word with a range of cultural meanings. Use it to search for images and you are likely to see pictures of hotel reception areas and restaurants, referencing the “hospitality industry.” Chase it into lifestyle magazines and you will find a vision of tasteful decor and ostentatious welcome that focuses on the host’s self-presentation. Take your starting point from its default cultural meanings and you are likely to end up with something somewhat distant from the biblical idea, something that focuses on preparing nice meals for your friends, showing off your lovely home, and networking with the folk who can be helpful to you. 

The Bible consistently pushes back against this picture of hospitality. Leviticus 19 includes two “as yourself” commands—the first says to “love your neighbor as yourself” and the second to “love [the stranger] as yourself” (vv. 18, 33). Isaiah 25 pictures God as a host offering a banquet for all the nations with a specific focus on welcoming those overshadowed by death and disgrace. Jesus warned in Luke 14 against taking the best seat at the table and told us not to invite “your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors” (v. 12), but rather those from whom we will receive no benefit. In Matthew 25 he equated our ability to be hospitable to strangers with our ability to welcome him and connected our salvation to both. These and other biblical texts push us toward a more challenging image of hospitality. Here hospitality is active care extended to those who have not earned it, who are not the same as us, who are not attractive guests, and who may well not repay us. We are invited to reflect on the reality that as we welcome them, we welcome Christ. (To explore the biblical treatment of hospitality in more detail, see Jipp.)

This biblical web of references to hospitality led to a long Christian tradition of wrestling with the practice of hospitality. It is not a simple practice, and hard questions have regularly recurred. How do we distinguish guests we can welcome from those who will only do harm? How do we react to guests who take advantage of our hospitality and drain us? How much hospitality can we bear before we are worn thin or overwhelmed? Is this an individual or a community calling? There is much rich Christian reflection on all of these questions and more (see Pohl, Oden). It is not a matter to be approached glibly. Yet the challenges all sit nested within the framing call to love our neighbor even when the neighbor does not have our favorite face.
What happens if we take this vision of hospitality as a lens for civic engagement, for interacting with others in public spaces and working with those who are different?

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Works Cited

Bretherton, Luke. “Tolerance, Education and Hospitality: A Theological Proposal.” Studies in Christian Ethics, vol. 17, no. 1, 2004, pp. 80–103. 

Jipp, Joshua W. Saved by Faith and Hospitality. Eerdmans, 2017.

Oden, Amy G. And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity. Abingdon, 2001. 
Pohl, Christine D. Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. Eerdmans, 1999.

David I. Smith is director of the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning, coordinator of the de Vries Institute for Global Faculty Development, and professor of education at Calvin University. He is editor of the International Journal of Christianity and Education.