The centrality of hospitality to the social practices of many societies attests to its almost universal importance. Necessary to human well-being, hospitality offers protection, provision, and respect to strangers while it also sustains fundamental moral bonds among family, friends, and acquaintances. In the first centuries of the church, Christians gave hospitality to strangers a distinctive emphasis by pressing welcome outward toward the weakest and those least likely to be able to reciprocate. What can a closer look at this practice of hospitality teach us about the moral life more generally?
For Christians, the moral life is inseparable from grace. It begins in worship as we recognize God's generosity toward us. Our morality involves responsibility and faithful performance of duty, but fundamentally it emerges from a grateful heart. We can see this clearly in hospitality, which is first a response of love and gratitude for God's love and welcome to us. If not shaped by gratitude, when we encounter difficult demands or ungrateful guests, our hospitality quickly becomes grudging. Grudging hospitality exhausts hosts and wounds guests even as it serves them.
Christian hospitality reflects and participates in God's hospitality. God loves the sojourner and provides for the vulnerable. God gives the lonely a home and offers us a place at an abundant table. Hospitality depends on a disposition of love; it has more to do with the resources of a generous and grateful heart than with availability of food or space.
Hospitality also reminds us that our moral life is inseparable from close attention to the life of Jesus. In the gospels, Jesus is present as gracious host and needy guest. He welcomes the outcast and depends on the welcome of ordinary folk. In his table fellowship, he challenges cultural assumptions about who is welcome in the community and in the kingdom. Jesus identifies himself with the stranger and sick such that ministry to them is ministry to him (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus teaches explicitly that we are to include the poor and infirm (those who seem least likely to reciprocate) in our invitations to dinner (Luke 14:12-14). We know what hospitality should look like when we dwell in and on the life of Jesus.
We learn also that moral actions must be embedded in a larger tradition. Our moral life is not best understood as a series of individual decisions or as the product of unrelated virtues. It makes sense only in a larger narrative that makes sense of our entire lives. The practice of hospitality is nurtured by attention to its rich and complex place in the Christian tradition. Stories and injunctions from scripture and the wisdom and struggles of practitioners through the ages provide the context within which our hospitable responses are formed.
FOR MUCH OF OUR HISTORY, Christians addressed concerns about recognition and human dignity within their discussions and practices of hospitality. Especially in relation to strangers, hospitality was a basic category for dealing with the importance of transcending social differences and breaking social boundaries that excluded certain kinds of persons. Hospitality provided a context for recognizing the worth of persons who seemed to have little to offer when assessed by worldly standards. This rich moral tradition can help to shape a theological framework for contemporary concerns about inclusion and difference.
But locating ourselves and our practices within the historic tradition is not enoughthe moral life depends on a community that embodies its deepest commitments. To do hospitality well, we need models for whom it is part of a way of life. We must learn from those who have found ways to practice hospitality within the distinct tensions and arrangements of contemporary society. We also need a community with whom to share the demands and burdens of welcoming strangers.
As we practice hospitality to strangers and reflect on its place in the Christian tradition, additional insights into the moral life become available. To sustain countercultural practices, we must understand our efforts as small pieces of God's larger work. The ability to continue to welcome strangers in the midst of an unjust world comes from putting our efforts into the larger context of God's ongoing work of justice and healing.
Hospitality reminds us that justice and friendship belong together. For the Christian, concerns about justice can never be abstract and disembodied. Our efforts must be grounded in the wisdom that comes from living alongside those whose lives have been overlooked or undervalued by the larger society.
Finally, hospitality helps us see that moral practices are shaped over a lifetime. We learn the skills of hospitality in small increments of daily faithfulness. The moral life is much less about dramatic gestures than it is about steady workfaithfulness undergirded by prayer and sustained by grace. The surprise is how often it is accompanied by mystery, blessing, and joy.
Christine Pohl, author of Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, August 1999), was professor of Christian social ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, when this article appeared.