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Hosts and guests: hospitality as an emerging paradigm in mission.


In recent years, hospitaly has turned into a central term in missiological discussions integrating several aspects of missiological reftection. The essay summarizes how the dialectic between host and guest builds a central thread throughout the biblical narralive and explores how the dual role of missionaries as hosts and guests opens new dimensions of missionary existence and self-understanding. On the one hand, the role of the missionary as guest emphasizes the missionary's vulnerabilily and voluntary submission to the cultural and contextual rules. It thus implies a humility that stands in contrast to any spirit of conquest. On the other hand, missionaries who understand their role as one of host show a readiness for disruption and openness to the sacramental quality of a guest that possibly allows an encounter with God. Hospitality thus re-enacts a basic movement of faith, the movement of receiving the alien word of God. In a final reflection, the essay considers a contradiction inherent in the concept of hospitality, as pointed out by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, the contradiction between openness to those in need of hospitality and the host's dependence on power and control in order to host people.


Some years ago, I spent a couple of weeks as seasonal pastor in the Swiss mountain resort of Zermatt. While there, I visited the local museum and learnt how the grand hotels of this resort village root in the church's practice of hospitality: When the first mountaineers arrived, they naturally used to stay in the local pastor's house. Over time, the increasing number of tourists forced the local pastor to establish hotels to accommodate visitors to Zermatt. The visit to the museum prompted me to rethink the important link between hospitality and Christian faith.

This insight came back to me at a recent meeting of an ecumenical working group discussing the meeting of the World Council of Churches' Commission on World Mission and Evangelism of March 2012 in Manila rifled "Together towards Fullness of Life." One of the emerging paradigms that played a role in Manila and integrated several aspects of missiological reflection was hospitality. In fact, hospitality has, in recent years, turned into a central term of missiological discussion) The concept naturally leads to its dialectic counterpart, the side of the guest and stranger.

A biblical tradition of hosts and strangers

The dialectic of hosting and visiting is a central thread throughout the biblical tradition and offers a key to reading the whole story of the Bible. Abraham left his home to become a vulnerable stranger, dependent on a hospitable reception from the residents of an alien land. The Israelites, who had once arrived as guests in Egypt, became slaves and experienced the low point of this dialectic. After Israel had established itself as a nation, the prophets reminded God's people of their nomadic roots, and the law of Moses frequently admonished them to care for the stranger (Deut. 24:17ff). During the Babylonian captivity, Israel had a renewed experience of being enslaved strangers. (2) All through the story of Israel we find an awareness of a deeper dimension of hospitality, possibly bringing surprising encounters with transcendence: Abraham encounters God's angels in the three visitors (Gen. 18); a poor widow encounters a messenger of God by receiving Elijah in her poor house (1 Kings 17). Against the background of such experiences--guests who depend on the hospitality of local people in a foreign land, and hosts who may encounter transcendence in the stranger--hospitality turns into a central element of Old Testament ethics. (3)

The New Testament extends this tradition with the story of the disciples who encounter the resurrected Christ in a stranger they meet on their way to Emmaus and then host when night falls (Luke 24:13-35). The ultimate ground for the dialectic of host and guest is revealed in Christ, in whom alien transcendence became flesh to live as a guest among us (John 1:14), and who invites us as the host to his festive banquets, the past ones during his lifetime, the present ones around the Eucharistic table, and the future eschatological banquet.

Hospitality consequently remains a distinctive mark of Christian communities in the New Testament, where we find numerous admonitions to be hospitable. (4) The dialectic of hosts and guests/strangers appears repeatedly. Among the relevant passages, the concluding remarks of Hebrews (13:1-3) are particularly striking, because they link hospitality to the ministry of visitation, namely to those in prison.
   (1) Keep on loving each other as brothers [and sisters]. (2) Do not
   forget to entertain strangers for by so doing some people have
   entertained angels without knowing it. (3) Remember those in prison
   as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated
   as if you yourselves were suffering.

Here, we find the different strings brought together, the admonition to receive strangers, the idea that in the stranger unexpected transcendence may appear, and the idea of visiting--as if you yourself were in prison. Indeed, visitation and hospitality belong to each other like bolt and nut--neither goes without the other. Hospitality as an emerging paradigm for mission thus includes both, understanding mission as a ministry of visiting and as a ministry of hosting. To offer hospitality to the stranger is to welcome something unknown and vulnerable into our life-world, (5) to create space for something foreign, to offer room, to accommodate, care for, and protect the alien. (6) Visiting, on the other hand, implies an attitude of humility and deep respect that confers value to the host. Visitors do not impose themselves but accept their own vulnerability and their dependence on the host. Nowhere has this become more visible than in Jesus, who lived as a stranger and guest in our world--and died on the cross. Visiting has a transforming impact, as the story of Jesus' visit to Zacchaeus shows (Luke 19:1-10). Jesus' mere decision to visit the chief tax collector's house triggered conversion because it so strongly expressed value and love.

Guests or strangers?

Benjamin Franklin famously said, "Fish and visitors stink after three days." What he meant is clear. Guests remain guests only for a short moment. After that, they either become residents or move on. Remaining in the status of guest is impossible for both host and guest. The host cannot afford--in terms of time or money or effort--to host somebody properly for more than a few days. And a guest, after a few days of accommodation to a new environment, yearns for independence and chooses to put down roots, or leave. However, strangers stay, and they remain strangers for a much longer time. They naturally encounter a very different reception. Guests are invited. Strangers come without invitation. They come as refugees, as migrant workers, as people with their own interests and agenda. Are guests and strangers different? Does hospitality apply only to guests and not to strangers?

One remarkable conclusion from the biblical theme of hospitality to the stranger is that no such distinction between guests and strangers is made. The guest is to some extent a stranger; however, the law of hospitality is not limited to the invited guest but extends to any stranger who appears at our door without invitation. He shall equally receive hospitality and be turned into a guest. The basis of such hospitality is exactly the Israelites' own experience of having been economic refugees and strangers for an extended time in Egypt.

Hospitality to the stranger, as understood in the Bible, allows--or even expects--the stranger to remain different. As host and as guest, Israel remained committed to its separation from the people of the land, be it as guests in Egypt or in Babylon, or as hosts after gaining dominance in Canaan. Separation does not exclude hospitality. Still, separation and difference point to a basic problem of the dialectic of host and guest/ stranger: one cannot turn into the other. A host needs to own property and control his own house in order to host. If this control is lost to the guest, the latter turns into an occupier. Hospitality thus reaffirms power, hierarchical order, and political stability. This dilemma of the dialectic of hospitality was pointed out by the philosopher Jacques Derrida in his reflection on hospitality. (7) We will return to this point in our discussion of the missiological implications of hospitality.

Missionaries as guests and strangers

I regard the role of the missionary as guest and stranger as one of the most sensitive ways of approaching the people we like to reach. If missionaries come as guests they express the highest level of respect and value to their hosts. A guest accepts the rules of the host and enters the alien environment as somebody who wants to learn what it means to live there and what challenges are to be faced. Guests come with a healthy curiosity, with respect for the local culture, and with questions rather than answers or solutions. (When missionary organizations require their missionaries to go through thorough language training, this happens not simply for practical reasons to acquire the skills necessary for effective ministry, but as much to set them on a path of learning so that they approach the foreign context with humility and understand themselves first as somebody who has come to learn, rather than to teach.)

The model of the missionary as guest / stranger has several implications:

* Too much of past mission history and present mission endeavours has been and is shaped by condescendence and feelings of superiority on the side of those engaged in mission. In contrast, missionaries who come as guests and strangers show humility and readiness to submit themselves and avoid all connotation of condescendence, which hampers growth and obstructs genuine relationships. In the words of Kosuke Koyama: They will not come with a crusading mind, but with a crucified mind, (8) not to establish their own kingdom, but ready to decrease (John 3:30).

* Voluntarily exposing themselves to an alien environment, dependent on the benign hospitality of the host country/church, and accepting the vulnerability that comes with existence as a stranger, they touch all those who themselves experience alienation. The missionary in the role of a guest is thus particularly effective among people in a situation of alienation, as I have personally experienced in prison ministry in Hong Kong: Here, my own feeling of being a stranger, including my occasional feeling of homesickness--feelings that every stranger/missionary goes through--resonates with the inmates' alienation and their longing for home and safety. In the context of modernity, this applies far beyond those in prison. Estranged from tradition and from the natural processes of life, alienation is commonly described as one of the basic conditions of life in modern society.

* Guest/stranger-missionaries have an empowering effect by turning their recipients into hosts. Again, this is particularly relevant in mission to people who have been denied dignity and respect. Of course, in some cases, as with those in prison, or the homeless, this carries a certain ambiguity: Neither prison nor the street should turn into a permanent home. Still, the respect, the dignity, and the value conferred to people when a visit turns them into hosts elevate and empower them. Empowerment happens because the common distinction of giving and receiving is turned upside down. The visitor, supposed to be the one who gives, turns into guest and recipient. The supposedly powerless recipient of charitable aid turns into the host.

* Guest/stranger-missionaries, although not proper guests anymore after having stayed a long time, will never become fully local--and they do not need to. It is exactly their existence as a stranger that is their charisma and contribution to the residents. (9) The strangeness of a missionary not only connects local people to other possibilities of good life, making them see things in a different light, selectively breaking through the constraints of normality, or challenging their tendency to take a given situation for granted; even more, it reminds people of their own roots as strangers. The biblical insistence that Israel needs to remember when they were strangers in a foreign land stands for our collective memory that all of us have been strangers at some point. This is particularly true in the case of globalized cities that accommodate many migrants.

* Missionaries as guests/strangers point to a missionforpilgrims. We are not here to stay and to put down roots. This is--not least for many missionaries--a difficult task. Finding a sense of belonging is a basic human need. To live somewhere only provisionally, without fully unpacking one's luggage, is a precarious and painful existence. And, after having made efforts to adjust to a foreign context, to learn a foreign language, and to understand local people, it seems wrong to forfeit all this acquired knowledge by moving on. Still, it is a necessary aspect of the countercultural role of a missionary, reflecting the necessarily countercultural character of Christian existence, standing between the new age to come and the present world that is passing away. (10)

The hospitable church as missional church

Hospitality has, throughout the history of the church, been a crucial form of reaching out to the community, particularly cultivated in the monastic tradition. Monasteries received refugees of all sorts and gave them protection or a sense of temporary home. (11) Hospitality is also today a powerful form of being a missional church. Mission is, most simply speaking, the movement of the gospel--of God's grace and love--beyond walls of separation and exclusion, whether ethnic, linguistic, national, political, social, cultural, religious, or even ecclesial in nature. The following points show how the church's practice of hospitality does not so much directly increase the effectiveness of its mission but rather transforms the church herself, turning her into an "open church," a church that is open to the transcending movement of God's Spirit and of the gospel.

* Hospitality is missional in a very direct, practical, and concrete sense. Evangelism is often understood as inviting others to experience the redemptive hospitality of God. For today's context we may further qualify this: global economic competition forces a growing mass of people to migrate and give up their homes. To welcome such people in transition is first of all a basic service to them. Yet, it is more than that. The migrant workers and refugees living among us will also enrich our churches, not simply by adding to the numbers on our membership lists, but by causing us to grow in wholeness. The strangers living among us and entering our churches break through our tendency to set up small and exclusive islands of beatitude.

* Hospitality to the stranger affects, as every missional encounter should, both host and guest. It leads back to basic experiences of welcoming in a context of globalization where the experience of alienness has become rare. Many people in modern societies like to be and claim to be global citizens; many schools boast about offering education for global citizens; but the global citizenship aimed at, achieved, and experienced is mostly of an easily digestible, fast-food kind. Most so-called global citizens know McDonald's and Starbucks from Auckland to Zanzibar but have not really encountered the different realities. By hosting a stranger, however, we may expose ourselves to their different reality. The missionary encounter thus transforms both sides, host and guest. Missionary relations are never simply one-way roads.

* When host and guest meet, it is foremost by joint celebration and joint meals, an aspect that traditional Chinese hospitality reflects particularly strongly. In convivial fellowship and celebration, the concerns of everyday life are broken through and we focus only on the present. (12) Jesus was a passionate host and enjoyed inviting complete strangers to his convivial banquets. He was generous with his presence, refused to be chased by an agenda and, knowing the symbolic character of his ministry, did not care about missionary efficiency. In fellowship, Christians share not only the word of God but also their lives, as in the words of Paul, "We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us" (1 Thess. 2:8). The convivial nature of the church and the joy of its celebration are a powerful form of witness.

* When hosts receive guests, they potentially receive mediators of God's presence. As such, guests have sacramental quality, communicating the otherness of God. (13) The guest as mediator of the transcendent other is the deeper ground of Jesus' admonition to hospitality: by receiving guests, we receive him (Matt. 25:35, 40). For those of the Reformation tradition, it is not the guest who can claim the sacramental quality, but it is the host--through faith--who confers this quality on the guest.

* Hospitality obviously also holds challenges, most importantly difficulties in communication. Different linguistic backgrounds appear as an obstacle to good communication, making it slow and causing frequent misunderstandings. This is what many churches that are hospitable to the stranger experience on a daily basis. Yet, a hospitable church is one that experiences translation and foreign language as spiritual enrichment. Why should the communication problems caused by foreign guests spiritually enrich the invitational church? Ricoeur gives us an idea by calling it "linguistic hospitality": Here, "the pleasure of dwelling in the other's language is balanced by the pleasure of receiving the foreign word at home, in one's own welcoming house." (14) Receiving strangers allows us to dwell in somebody else's story and to receive the foreign word and linguistic world at home. Hospitality thus re-enacts a basic movement of faith, the movement of receiving the external or alien word (verbum externum et alienum in dogmatics) and of dwelling in it. The difficult communication when the church hosts strangers who are not familiar with the local language is what Ricoeur called the "long route" of multiple hermeneutic detours. It is through such detours, through such a path of distanciation,(15) that understanding happens. The German missiologist Theo Sundermeier called this a xenological hermeneutics against an appropriating hermeneutics. (16)

* A hospitable-missionary and invitational church is one that accepts interruption and grows through it. (17) Obviously, it is easier to be left undisturbed. Guests are time-consuming and cause additional work. With guests, one never knows whether they understand the local code, whether they know how to behave according to local rules, or whether they cause embarrassment. Yet, it is not through the moments where we are left undisturbed, able to work and study according to our plans, that we grow, but through the moments of disruption. It is these moments that cause revelation and transformation.

* An important aspect of hospitality is the hospitality to non-believers. The presence of strangers, non-believers and believers of other faiths, (18) serves as a healthy reminder to be transparent and understandable and to express our faith and the fruits of our faith in ways that do not divide but connect. Emphasizing comprehensibility and transparency and avoiding esoteric language in liturgy and preaching are some of the ways that help reduce the sense of exclusion. This may, not least, happen to the benefit of members who themselves often feel left out by the incomprehensibility of liturgy and sermon.

* Hospitality contains an inherent contradiction, as the French philosopher Jacques Derrida has pointed out: Hospitality is, on the one hand, only possible on the basis of having power to host and exert control over the people hosted. This means that hospitality is always linked to power, ownership, creation of boundaries, and exclusion. (19) In fact, hospitality constructs an otherness that is in turn received as a guest.

On the other hand, the notion of hospitality demands openness towards whoever is in need of such hospitality. Such unconditional hospitality--Derrida calls it "impossible" or absolute, but necessary hospitality--implies giving up control of who will receive hospitality. Hospitality thus requires non-mastery and the abandoning of all claims of ownership and control. This, however, contradicts what makes hospitality possible. Derrida argues that it is this internal tension between possible and absolute hospitality that keeps the concept alive.

A Christian understanding of hospitality keeps in mind that the host is also a guest, as there is properly speaking only one host, Jesus Christ, who calls us into his celebration and fellowship. Host-missionaries who keep their status as guests in mind will not be concerned about losing power or mastery. They will allow guests/strangers to become fellow citizens and part of the family. From such a perspective, churches will regard asylum seekers as fellow citizens or welcome migrant workers' quest for residency as a move from the transient existence of a stranger to the settled status of a fellow citizen.

(1) As this essay went to print, I received the Christian Conference of Asia's CTC Bulletin (Bulletin of the Program Area of Faith, Mission and Unity) Vol. XXVIII, No 1 and No 2 (Dec. 2012) with papers presented at the Seventh Congress of Asian Theologians (CATS VII) held at the Methodist Theological University in Seoul, Korea, July 1-5, 2012. The theme of the conference was "Embracing and Embodying God's Hospitality Today". The insights from the various articles could not be integrated into this essay anymore.

(2) For a broader discussion of the different aspects of the biblical concepts of hospitality, see David B. Howell, "Hospitality in the Bible," in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, by D. N. Freedman (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000). A number of biblical dictionaries contain similar articles. A good discussion of the biblical hospitality narrative can further be found in Amos Yong, Hospitality and the Other: Pentecost, Christian Practices, and the Neighbor (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2008), 99-117.

(3) See Waldemar Janzen, Old Testament Ethics. A Paradigmatic Approach (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 38ff.

(4) Mortimer Arias summarizes the scriptural emphasis on hospitality. See Mortimer Arias, "Centripetal Mission, or Evangelization by Hospitality," in The study of Evangelism. Exploring a Missional Practice of the Churh, ed. Paul w. Chilcote and Laceye C. Warner (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008), 424-426.

(5) Thomas W. Ogletree, Hospitality to the Stranger (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 2.

(6) Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (New York: Doubleday, 1979), 89.

(7) Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality: Anne Dufourmantlle Invites Jacques Derrida to Respond (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 149: "It's the familial despot, the father, the spouse, and the boss, the master of the house who lays down the laws of hospitality. He represents them and submits to them to submit the others to them in this violence of the power of hospitality."

(8) Koyama, Kosuke: "What Makes a Missionary? Toward Crucified Mind, Not Crusading Mind," in Crucial Issues in Mission Today. Mission Trends No. 1, ed. G. A. Anderson and T. F. Stransky, pp. 117-132 (New York: Paulist Press, 1974).

(9) See the book by Philipp Hauenstein, Fremdheit a/s Charisma (Strangeness as charismaj. Die Existenz als Missionar in Vergangenbeit und Gegenwart am Beispiel des Dienstes in Papua-Neuguinea (Erlangen: Erlanger Verlag fur Mission und Okumene, 1999).

(10) Ogletree, Hospitality, to the Stranger, 7.

(11) Kenneth S. Latourette, A History of Christianity. Vol. 1. Beginnings to 1500, Revised ed. (San Francisco, Calif.: Harper, 1975), 276; also Kreider, "Beyond Bosch: The Early Church and the Christendom Shift," International Bulletin of Missionary Research 29:2 (2005), 59-44; 66-68.

(12) Henry J. M. Nouwen, "Creative Ministry," in Ministry, and Spirituality (New York: Dayspring Edition, 1998), 82. See also a more extended discussion of hospitality as movement of reaching out to our fellow human beings in Nouwen, Reaching Out (Fount Paperbacks 1998[1975]), 43-80.

(13) Arias, "Centripetal Mission," 426.

(14) Paul Ricoeur, On Translation (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), 10.

(15) See Pierre Biihler," 'Als Leser finde ich mich nur, indem ich mich verliere.' Zur Einfuhrung in die Hermeneutik Paul Ricoeurs," Theologische Zeitschrift 62 (2006), 402-404.

(16) Theo Sundermeier, Den Fremden verstehen. Eine praktische Hermenentik (Gottingen, 1996).

(17) Jacques Derrida, "Is Not Hospitality an Interruption of the Self?" in Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, trans. Pascale- Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 51.

(18) important further reflection regarding theology and practice of hospitality in the context of interreligious encounter can be found in the already mentioned, highly readable book by Amos Yong, Hospitality and the Other.

(19) Jacques Derrida, Of hospitality, 151-155.

Tobias Brandner (ThD University of Zurich, Switzerland) works with Mission 21, Switzerland as an assistant professor for church history, missiology, and ecumenism at the Divinity School of Chung Chi College, Chinese University of Hong Kong, and as prison chaplain in Hong Kong.
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Author:Brandner, Tobias
Publication:International Review of Mission
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EXSI
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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