Anecdote of Hospitality
While I was preparing with a team to go on a missions trip to Israel’s Jewish absorption centers, I met a young lady named Rosebud who was taking a break in the fast food restaurant where she worked.
As Rosebud and I chatted, I discovered she came from what I perceived as the polar opposite on the spectrum of theology. I restrained my natural inclination toward an inadvertent prejudice. I realized my participation in a prayer group and ministry for Israeli Orthodox Jews would be construed as an affront to her. As a daughter of a Palestinian police officer for the Liberation Organization (PLO) under the former Prime Minister Yasser Arafat, this native of Gaza and former Red Crescent worker could not be associated with a more anti-Jewish Israeli group than the Palestinian Muslim Arabs.
Despite dissonance between our worldviews, I made a choice to allow myself to be implicated in Rosebud’s life. It turned out that Rosebud did not only need to escape from her husband, but also from her brother. Rosebud’s father was demanding that she be sent home to live with her parents permanently in Gaza. Rosebud’s newfound freedom as a woman in the United States would end due to her culture’s requirements for divorced women. She told me that if she would return to Gaza, she would be kept at home for the rest of her life because of the shame of divorce.
I could not in good conscience allow Rosebud to return to what seemed like more suffering than she had already experienced. We made a plan.
Biblical Narrative for Our Hospitality Mandate
One discovers the biblical narrative of the hospitality mandate not just in Christ’s fulfillment of the hospitality mandate as a guest and host, but also in the antecedent scriptures of the Old Testament. The Greek word for “hospitality” is philoxenia (philos, loving; xenia, strangers) resulting in the definition of “love to strangers.”
According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Rabbinic literature called hospitality the hakhnasat orehim, meaning “bringing of guests,” and was considered by some Rabbis to be an act of kindness, or in Hebrew, a “mitzvah” or a command (American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise 1993).
Although in some communities hospitality toward strangers today may include a list of preferred strangers one is willing to engage, a biblical definition of hospitality (love toward strangers) is inclusive of anyone who is willing to live in the land and according to the laws of the community.
Someone seeking shelter in biblical terms includes “sojourner” and is from the Hebrew term ger, defined as an alien in a land (Mounces 2006, 889). While hospitality practices and recipients today are different from the ancient world, the biblical narrative on the topic may have some commonalities in response to refugees seeking resettlement in communities across the United States.
There is a tension that Christ brings to the forefront for all Christian communities facing exclusionary or embracing postures regardless of nationality. While it is difficult for some believers to embrace Syrian Muslim refugees, an even more demanding ethic is represented by Christ’s forgiveness of his perpetrators—those who stood below his cross and crucified the only truly righteous and fully innocent person who had ever lived.
As Jesus petitioned the Father for mercy, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), there is a message regarding embracing versus exclusion.
While the refugee deserves one’s compassion based on what he or she has suffered and lost in his or her homeland, there is a paradoxical embracing required by Christ’s example that is even more counter cultural. Christ exemplifies the embracing of those who crucify the innocent—those who committed the most heinous crimes against humanity.
Furthermore, Amos Yong poetically states:
Christian hospitality is empowered by the Spirit of the hospitable God. We have been graciously invited to participate in this divine hospitality and given many gifts, many tongues, and many practices through which to meet, interact with, and perhaps even bless religious others. (Yong 2008, 160)
Miroslav Volf responded to a confrontation about his limits as to whom he would not be willing to embrace, namely his own nation’s enemies, the “cetniks”—those Serbian fighters who had herded his Croatian people into concentration camps, destroyed cities, and committed other atrocities in his homeland. Miroslav advocates for a missiological stance out of devotion to God’s mission (Volf 1996, 9) much like Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac or God’s willingness to sacrifice his own Son that all would be saved.
Missional Narrative on Hospitality Mandate
According to missiologist Enoch Wan, there is a distinction between traditional missiology and diaspora missiology for missiological application (Wan 2007, 11). Wan states there are patterns of scattering and gathering diaspora all throughout the Bible, including the exodus of the Israelites (Exodus 19:4-6) and in Isaiah’s period (Isaiah 49:5-33), while noting the Early Church period of those gathering to Christ (Acts 8 and 1 Peter 1:1-2) (Wan 2007, 4).
Wan refers to the “involuntary and voluntary” or “push and pull forces” moving people globally (2007, 2). Understanding the variables that push people to move provides potential empathy in host countries. It would be difficult to look away from the needs Wan lists as the push factors: war, political persecution, abuse of power, exploitation of the vulnerable, natural disasters, world poverty, or obligation to improve the family left behind. The humanitarian efforts across nations do their part in receiving those migrating to find refuge.
Refugee host countries (typically including government resettlement, charities, and non-governmental agencies) look to fulfill a global obligation for gathering the vulnerable into a place of provision and comfort from the abuses suffered. Wan notes pull forces moving people globally, including political freedom, human equality, gender equality, quality of life, and success stories of loved ones abroad inviting others to join them (Wan 2007, 2).
Hospitality for strangers often requires assimilation on the perspective of host and stranger in which personal preferences, ethnic differences, and unintentional prejudice must shift. In order to accommodate a hospitable love toward the diaspora of Syrian refugees, there are some commonalities between the biblical mandate of hospitality and receptivity toward the refugees found among government agencies and charitable organizations.
The sending of many refugees affords us access to a new ministry outreach field formerly closed to the Church in the United States. While the Syrian refugee resettlement remains a fiercely debated topic on a global and domestic scale, there is a Judeo-Christian world perspective overtaken in the wake of political debate, sometimes stirring up hatred and stereotypes of Muslims. It is time to survey a biblical theological mandate of hospitality toward the stranger to apply to a changing socio-political praxis in the community.
Read Our Hospitality Mandate, Part Two (Mission of God Revealed in Civic Responsibility of Hospitality; The Socio-Political Narrative for Hospitality Mandate; Implications for the Church) tomorrow on The Exchange.