Hospitality has a rich history, though the practice of hospitality by God’s people was supposed to differ from the dominant cultural norms of the day. For example, the Quar’an sees generosity as an ethical imperative; Hindus are to treat the stranger, atithi, as a god; and Buddhism honors hospitality in various ways but sees generosity as the core. Philosopher Immanuel Kant defined hospitality to mean “the right of an alien not to be treated as an enemy upon his arrival in another’s country.”
But for the Israelite people, the theological and moral foundations of hospitality were closely tied to Israel’s special covenantal relationship of dependence and gratitude to God. Israel’s duty to extend hospitality to strangers was encouraged by an emphasis on its own experiences as aliens in foreign lands. God’s commandments to extend hospitality also reflected God’s gracious character. The teachings of the Law, the warnings of punishment for disobedience, and the promise of blessing on obedience reinforced Israelite hospitality toward strangers, as did the individual hospitality stories: guests might be angels or messengers from God, bringing divine promise or provision. Additionally, hospitality was not merely a matter of personal or private virtue. It was ingrained in the fiber of the community as a sign of God’s presence. Christine Pohl refers to Israel’s hospitality as “an embodiment of a biblical ethic.” After all, the Israelite’s corporate identity was “deeply rooted in a sense of being strangers, even though they understood themselves to be God’s chosen people.” So it should be no surprise that the law spoke to the “proper attitude to strangers and sojourners,” and that rest on the Sabbath included slaves and aliens. The law also prohibited the abuse of aliens, poor, widowed, the orphaned. In addition to the commandments, the Israelites also told the histories of Abram and Sarai welcoming strangers who turned out to be angels, and the stories of Rahab and the widow of Zarephath entertaining strangers who turned out to bring great blessing and honor to their hosts.
In the New Testament, Jesus deepened and even radicalized the significance of hospitality and how his followers were meant to practice hospitality. In the great judgment of Matthew 12:31-46, those who welcomed strangers and met the needs of persons in distress welcomed Jesus himself, and thus were welcomed into the Kingdom of God. The passage in Matthew essentially identified Christ with the “least of these” and makes hospitality a personal and powerful connection with not only other humans but also with care for Christ. Jesus also made it clear that hospitality did not depend on typical social and familial ties that reinforced status and mutual benefit. Instead, Jesus commanded hospitality to those who could not repay or benefit the givers of hospitality.
In the book of Luke, chapter 14, Jesus instructs through a story about ordinary hosts who invite rich friends, relatives, and neighbors to solidify relationships, reinforce social boundaries, and anticipate repayment from their guests. Yet Jesus praises the hosts who anticipated the hospitality of the Kingdom of God by welcoming the poor, the lame, the crippled, blind, and those who lived on the margins and outside of the community. The hosts would not receive any immediate benefit, but Christ promised that this hospitality is what God expects in the Kingdom.
If history is a field of increasing irrelevance and hospitality is a field that has lost its Christian virtue, how does a historian practice hospitality? This is no small task, to make the academy more palatable to the larger public, and to also invite the everyday historian into a more thoughtful appropriation of the historical process. I suggest the Christian historian is uniquely placed to practice hospitality by inviting the stranger into academic history and placing a higher value on ‘the Other’ in both historical research and conversations. Historians are trained to look for the Other in sources and context, so it should not be a stretch to invite the Other into a larger conversation about our research and teaching. A Christian historian welcomes the Other in a respectful way that revises traditional ideas of tolerance and thus cultivates a practice of worship and gratitude that evokes the Kingdom of God.
For academic historians, it is not hard to find strangers to the profession. Yet welcoming the stranger through conversations, meals, and communities of discussion about history or current topics of interest is an important step in the practice of hospitality. According to Pohl, offering hospitality to strangers allows us to welcome them into a place to which we are somehow connected –a space that has meaning and value to us. It could be our home, but also a church, community, nation, or institutional space. In hospitality, “the stranger is welcomed into a safe, personal, and comfortable place, a place of respect and acceptance and friendship. Even if only briefly, the stranger is included in a life-giving and life-sustaining network of relations.” Such welcome involves attentive listening and sharing life stories. It requires an “openness of heart, a willingness to make one’s life visible to others, and a generosity of time and resources.” The experience of offering hospitality can be deeply enriching as well as quite demanding.
The practice of hospitality is difficult, which may explain why our twenty-first century culture, Christian and secular alike, fails to practice it well. But Christian historians are well trained to apply their critical thinking, emphasis on diversity, and complexity to a more public audience. The Christian historians who spend more time writing in non-academic settings connect with a broader audience. Blogging, writing for online and off-beat publications, and harnessing social media outlets to engage with historical issues in a contemporary context is an excellent way to engage. Christian historians need to spend more time with non-historians when doing and presenting their research. This past summer, I presented a short talk on the Prohibition Era with librarian Sara Huyser at the local museum. I had to figure out a way to make the material accessible and connect with a local audience but without surrendering the tools of the historical trade. The audience was lively, engaged, and enjoyable because Sara and I connected a historical era and people with a twenty-first century audience in an understandable language.
I would argue that communicating good history to the popular audiences of the United States is not only possible, but a responsibility of all historians. History examines how we know what we know about the past. Good historians examine multiple perspectives, we analyze primary sources from the time period, and we explore what other scholars have said about that topic. We spend time analyzing the origins, purpose, audiences, and trustworthiness of our sources, and focus on the role of context. By locating sources in a time and space, we learn to ask questions and make clear claims supported by evidence. All of these skills are accessible to regular Americans who have a passing interest in history. The curriculum and standards for social studies in the K-12 school system reflect these practices, which shows that doing good history is not just the purview of the academy, but a skill set that is understandable and useful for children and adults alike.
Ultimately, hospitality is a practice for unity in the body of Christ. The practice of hospitality is a form of worship, but also a way to celebrate the depth and breadth of the kingdom of God. Russian orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann envisions worship as more than a mere collection of individuals, but that liturgy is an event where people become a “whole greater than the sum of its parts.”
Pohl, Christine D. Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999.
Newman, Elizabeth. Untamed Hospitality: Welcoming God and Other Strangers. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007.