From Strangers At Strange Tables
From the Swedish-accented tones of the formidable Greta Thunberg and her call to environmental responsibility to the political dilemmas in more nations than we care to count — uncertainty and controversey sit everywhere like kegs of gunpowder with wicks. Here, at the end of this decade, there are whispers of revolution and uncertainty in the spaces and corners of the neighborhoods that make up our globe. None of us know how peace and freedom sleep together, but, oh how we wish that they could and we pray that they would.
To this question of peace and freedom, theologian Christine Pohl offers a glimmer of insight, “Where communities of hospitality exist, we are signs: we are signs of hope that love is possible, that the world is not condemned to the struggle between oppressors and oppressed, that class and racial warfare is not inevitable.”
Pohl advocates for the power of hospitality to bring healing as we come to the same table, break bread, and share in the ancient habit of eating together. There is a beautiful grace here, an ancient mystery that we have need of rediscovering in our present uncertainty.
The question is how do we practically offer hospitality? We are busy people and having a stranger over for dinner seems anything but transformational. As I live and minister in countries that are post-communist or post-Christian, and some now beyond post-modern, much of my time is spent in conversations about how the church can be a part of bringing the good of God to this new landscape of post-Christianity or even non-Christianity. The scope of these dialogues spans multiple and complicated cultures and a variety of strategies that have both theological and practical factors. Economic, political, geographical realities do create an imbalance of opportunity; some countries, some cultures groan with deeper tones, brokenness creating greater havoc, cutting deeper wounds. But in the end, the blatant truth is that there are systems of brokenness powerfully working against the good grace of God everywhere. The world longs to see the signs of hope that Pohl points to through hospitality.
In an article, ‘Refugees as Guests and Hosts: Towards a Theology of Mission Among Refugees and Asylum Seekers’, missions Professor Ross Langmead asserts that hospitality results in a long list of very practical actions that are radically transformational. Biblical hospitality is:
- Justice seeking
- Political action
- Pursuing a hospitable multicultural approach to church life
- Practical assistance
- Long-term commitment
- Learning from those who are different
- Inclusion around tables
- Intercultural fellowship
- Interfaith dialogue
- Sensitivity to the power dynamics of welcome
- A willingness to let go and embrace
- Discovering the intertwining of the guest and the host rules embedded in Biblical and theological understandings of God’s activity among us
This hospitality of Langmead and Pohl is radical and revolutionary. It is an intentional, concrete, and courageous interruption of the systemic brokenness that is prevalent in our societies. Like the Virgin Mary’s Magnificat, this ancient hospitality of Abrahamic cultures, which is also the very culture of Jesus, is a threat to the status quo and to the empire.
The voices from within Christendom that question whether the Church should concern ourselves with justice have perhaps forgotten that in the Old Testament, one cannot read the prophetic books without encountering a clear call to justice. How do we read the escape of God’s people out of Egypt absent from the clear and practical statement that God fights against and frees from slavery? And this is not only spiritual slavery. Spiritual sin spawns a multitude of other facets of slavery: sex trafficking, forced labor, the organ trade, forced domestic labor, and the list goes on. God, then and now, acts justly against slavery. We are to reflect the character and the culture of Jesus as we practically and tangibly live out God’s love in our neighborhoods.
If we wonder why our voice has been marginalized within our cultures, if we wonder why our churches are not growing in some parts of the globe, and we do wonder these things, then an honest look at how we are present and even if we are present in the midst of the brokennes in our communities is a good place to start. Right now, the Church is living with the consequences of a Christianity that too often fails to courageously and radically join with God, that fails to practically pray against, preach against, and act against injustice. This is the very reason why those anti-justice voices in Christendom are wrong. As the body of Christ, we must rediscover how to both extend hospitality and to receive it and to do this, not for our own empowerment, but for the good of the world that we are called to love with Jesus. This is what it means, in part, to emulate his life and his character. Scripture imparts the cultural identity of Christ so that the Church can understand her posture here in the 21st century.
Langmead’s list pushes us towards the development of uncomfortable relationship with those who are Other than us. We experience discomfort because we must face our own systems of prejudice and we must repent.
That list asks us to remove the world from the role of foe and adversary. When our voice is marginalized, when our churches don’t grow, when our stance on social issues is called into question, we often respond with anger. We often blame the non-Christian community for the failed relationships. We draw lines that categorize people. Often, the Christian community responds in inhospitable ways, but could we reimagine these situations as opportunity? Could we spend time learning from and listening to people who are different from us? And in that space, in that posture, might God give us new insights and revelations? Might God craft new ways in us to respond?
We experience discomfort over the list because Langmead’s hospitality asks us to make room because God’s hospitality asks us to make room. It asks us to move over, to relinquish control, to do things, to see things, to express things, differently than we have in the past. It challenges us to think about who we are politically, and who we are on social media and if those line up with the posture of Christ. It challenges how we spend our time, how we use our homes, and the priorities that we set for our lives. It challenges our perceptions of power and position and our rights to those things.
This hospitality takes courage and it takes faith, but it leads us closer to that peace and freedom for which we long. Recently, my eldest, who has just earned her masters in peace and reconciliation, played for me Your Peace Will Make Us One by Audrey Assad. The new lyrics are set to the old Battle Hymn of the Republic tune and that might be a trigger for some. Most certainly, Assad’s intention was to challenge Christendom’s attitudes toward war. I was captured by a thought in her last verse, ‘you are dismantling our empires until each one of us is free’.
Could we envision the possibility that God invites us to work with God towards peace and freedom? In order to do so, we have to be honest about the empires warring within our own souls. Assad’s song offers us powerful and uncomfortably probing questions as we head into this new year and into this new decade.
What are the internal empires functioning within us?
What are the empires that fight against the good grace of God in our lives?
What are the empires within us that wield power over those that we deem less deserving or less human than ourselves?
What are the empires that secure self preservation and comfort over being vulnerable in receiving hospitality from those who are different from us?
What are the empires within us that refuse to recognize that those who we deem less than us have something to offer that we need?
What are the empires within our own form of Christianity that cause us or give us permission to be inhospitable, unwelcoming, and unconcerned?
In this new year and in this new decade, which in its first week are already ablaze with violence and loss of life, peace and freedom lying together seem improbable, but Isaiah speaks anciently prophetic words for us in chapter 58. Today, may you choose to receive the courage from God to take one step away from the empire that rules within and one step toward the invitation and the hospitality of God. In so doing, you begin to live justly — you live out the call, the identity, and the activity of the people of God. Isaiah speaks clearly and strongly about immersing ourselves in the tangible acts and activity of justice, which cause us to be lights in darkness, soul-satisfied and soul-strong and flourishing participants in the breaking-in-but-not-completely-here kingdom of God. “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” That promise sounds like a place where the lion and the lamb might find rest together.
Oh God, let there be peace in our world and today, let it begin with me. Amen and Amen.