Hospitality as a Civic Virtue: Lessons from the Streets for Civil Conversation

This is a paper I gave at the D.B. Rinehart Institute for Ethics in Leadership Conference at Viterbo University, LaCrosse, Wisconsin, October 22, 2021


In this age of intense political and cultural disagreement and division, what might the Christian practice and virtue of hospitality contribute to reflection upon and ways to improve relationships with each other, and our political and cultural discourse within civic life?

In seeking to respond to that question, I will identify and expand upon four major themes within the Christian tradition of hospitality which reflect biblical and theological wisdom namely, Love, Listening, Learning, and Limits. I believe these four aspects of the practice of hospitality can offer some help in how we enter into relationship with other people, particularly those with whom we most vehemently differ and disagree. I offer my reflections upon those four themes in light of my experience of over twenty-five years in offering hospitality, both in Atlanta and Memphis. I also fully recognize that these four aspects of hospitality by themselves are not sufficient for addressing the significant divisions we face today in our society; they are a contribution not a solution.

As a contribution, these dimensions of the practice of hospitality can offer some practical and hopeful help in our personal lives as we relate to people with whom we differ and disagree. I see both a realism and a hope in the practice of hospitality. The realism is that hospitality “always involves risk and the possibility of failure” (Pohl 14). Strangers are not always friendly, or even nonviolent. Hospitality does not always result in good relationships. Good relationships can be broken. Good relationships are difficult to create and sustain. The hope is that in the practice of hospitality we can enter into relationships that are mutually transformative, that result in mutual good. The hope is that as we share a place of welcome, conversation, a meal, we can come together to recognition of our shared humanity and a willingness to share life together, even as we will have disagreements and conflicts. With this realistic hope in mind, I offer these four dimensions of the practice of hospitality.

Love
Hospitality as a Christian practice has a long biblical and theological history. The Bible identifies strangers as sent from God, as messengers of God. We see this in the Abraham and Sarah story of welcoming strangers who are angels in disguise (Genesis 18).  Jesus as the Incarnate Son of God identifies with the stranger “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:31-46). The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews urges us to “not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). Christine Pohl in Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as Christian Tradition, draws upon this biblical emphasis and the resulting Christian faith tradition of hospitality to state, “Hospitality is a way of life fundamental to Christian identity” (x). She describes evidence of the practice of hospitality from the early church to contemporary examples. Hospitality is a crucial practice in being Christian.

Love as a Christian practice within hospitality recognizes the stranger as made in the image of God. In hospitality, love is practiced through recognition and respect, especially for those who we disregard and dishonor (Pohl 61). Jesus asks his followers to love their enemies (Matthew 5:44) and to recognize him in the stranger, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick and the imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46) saying “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me.”

Love practiced as recognition affirms fellowship with the stranger as a fellow human being. In recognition, we affirm that we share a humanity and a transcendent destiny beyond our differences, significant as those may be. Love also affirms the Divine presence in the stranger. Love recognizes the other as the presence of God as Other. Love calls us to recognize, to see, the stranger as our brother or sister in Christ. In this love, we welcome others, and respect them by affirming their dignity. In love, hospitality affirms that each person matters. No person is dismissed as unworthy of attention.

As applied to our issue of civil discourse and engagement, love practiced as recognition rejects the reduction of any person to a particular social group, stereotype, or political party. Recognition affirms a “common identity” rather than oppositional identities. (See Christian S. Cleveland “Civil Discourse at the Table of Reconciliation,” in Virtue and Voice: Habits of Mind for a Return to Civil Discourse, location 756 of 3578). Hospitality in its affirmation of each person as created in the image of God puts into practice this common identity at a personal level, and urges that such recognition be the basis of our social and institutional lives as well. In this way, hospitality practices an openness to relationship with those deemed “other.” Thus, hospitality is remedial, counteracting the social divisions and inequalities of the broader society as it provides a modest welcome to each person (Pohl 63). As such, hospitality does not solve all social divisions and social ills. Yet in its practice of love, it provides the possibility of building social discourse based upon recognition and respect for each person as part of our shared humanity. With such respect civility becomes possible. (See Adam Pelser and Ryan West, “Respect as an Intellectual Virtue,” in Virtue and Voice, 80-106).


To practice this love is hard. To recognize and respect the stranger as human, as made in the image of God, as our brother or sister in Christ, challenges our tendencies to withdraw and build walls against the stranger. It is not easy to offer this recognition and respect to those with whom I deeply disagree and from whom I am quite different. And I as I will indicate later in my discussion of limits, there are boundaries that are necessary to establish and hold to in order for hospitality to even take place. Welcoming another requires a space and a place into which persons can be welcomed, where each and every person is respected.

Even with boundaries, the challenge in love as respect and recognition involves overcoming one’s fears, repulsions, and stereotypes that perpetuate social divisions. It requires an empathetic engagement with those with whom one does not typically associate, or with whom one finds association difficult.

As I have practiced hospitality over the years, I find some of my biggest challenges with regard to love and respect with white guests who want to assert their entitlement to special treatment, and also openly disdain African American guests. Like Facebook “Friends” with whom I consistently disagree, I find it difficult to empathize with them and understand them. I have to overcome my repulsion in order to listen to them, and serve them with respect. I often return to what Dorothy Day wrote in her autobiography as she quoted from Dostoevsky, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

Pohl, following Day and others in the Christian tradition of hospitality, urges that the demand of love to offer respect and recognition, can only be met by persons sustained by a strong life of prayer and times of solitude (Pohl 13). There is a mysticism inherent to hospitality, in which through God’s grace we come to see those with whom we deeply disagree as fellow humans, as made in the image of God, as the very presence of Christ. To love our enemies and welcome the stranger, we have to enter into prayer. In prayer, we ask that we might see the most difficult persons as God sees them, as God’s children. In prayer, we experience God’s unbounded love for us, which empowers us to love others as God loves us. This is the heart of Jesus’ great commandment, ““A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).

How we regard with love those who are difficult to love is a powerful test of our faith. As the First Letter of John puts it, “If anyone says, “I love God,” and yet hates his brother or sister, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother or sister whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). The mystery of God’s love is that we experience God’s love to the extent that we welcome God’s love for us as unearned, that God loves us even as we are unlovable. This is what grounds our love for those whom we regard as unlovable. I do not know of any other way to enter into this kind of love apart from prayer, apart from the acknowledgment of God’s gracious presence in my life. I do not practice this kind of love “naturally” but only “gracefully.”

Another way I might describe this love comes through Will Campbell’s stories in Brother to a Dragonfly. In one of those stories, Campbell recalls how he recognized “the redemptive company of a racist Jesus” in a favorite uncle who came to sit with him while mourning the death of a child in their extended family. This was an uncle who deeply disagreed with Campbell’s work for civil rights, who was openly racist. (Campbell 150-151). In another place Campbell writes, that “anyone who is not a concerned with the immortal soul of the dispossessor as he is with the suffering of the dispossessed is being something less than Christian” (Campbell 201). Hospitality practices the loving truth that as Campbell puts it, “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyways” (Campbell 220).

Listening
A fundamental way to show recognition and respect with hospitality is to listen. Let me quote a renowned theologian, Beyonce, in her song, “Listen.”

Listen to the song here in my heart
A melody I start but can’t complete
Listen to the sound from deep within
It’s only beginning to find release
Oh, the time has come for my dreams to be heard
They will not be pushed aside and turned
Into your own all ’cause you won’t
Listen


Beyonce’s song indicates what happens when the songs of one’s heart are not heard, the dreams are not listened to, the relationship ends. Listening is a fundamental part of hospitality that makes relationship possible. Being heard is central to how each of us is affirmed as a human person with dignity, with worth. But what does it mean to listen?

The Rule of St. Benedict, which emphasizes hospitality as a key practice of monastic life, starts with the word, “obsculta,” which is translated, “listen.” Centuries of Benedictine spirituality have emphasized the connection between listening and obedience. Obsculta can mean either “listen” or “obey.” Further, the Latin word “obedire” which literally means “listen to” is the foundation for our English word “obedience,” to obey. The Rule of Benedict recognizes that listening is a way of attending, of paying attention to another in such a way that we are open to the divine presence in that person. As one Benedictine writer observes, “There is nothing casual or half-hearted about this kind of listening. It requires close attention, hard work, care. It means more than just absorbing words. It must embrace nuance, intention, and the subtleties that can easily escape us today, when we are used to scanning at high speed or rushing to add our own contribution before we have fully grasped the meaning of what we have just heard…. We are too full of our own noise to listen properly” (Digital nun, https://www.ibenedictines.org/2020/09/01/listening-with-the-ear-of-the-heart/)

To listen to others in this way in relation to cultural and political division does not mean ceasing to be an activist, to be one who seeks justice. Rather it means, in the words of Will Campbell, to cease being a “doctrinaire social activist” (Campbell 225). The move away from being doctrinaire comes from listening, from learning how the story of oppression is rarely as neat as pure good versus pure evil. As Campbell tells his story of involvement as a white southerner in the civil rights struggle, he writes, “We were right in aligning ourselves with the black sufferer. But we were wrong in not directing some of our patience and energy and action to a group which also had a history” (Campbell 226). And that history, that story, can only be heard if we are willing to listen with empathy, with compassion, and a desire to understand, with recognition and respect for the humanity of the storytellers.

At Manna House this means listening to the stories of African American men who tell of poverty and abuse and harassment from a system set up to benefit white. But it also means listening to the stories of white men who tell of poverty and abuse and harassment from a system set up to benefit whites. And those white men carry a special shame because in a system set up for them, they still “failed.” Since they are told they cannot blame the system, they blame themselves. Meanwhile, the local Union Mission teaches them that it is because they do not love Jesus enough that they are on the streets. When I try to discern what these stories I hear might mean theologically, and how they reflect our deep division, I am better able to love, and I also enter into another practice within hospitality, learning.

Learning
When we listen carefully with respect and recognition, we become open to learning, to gaining knowledge and perhaps even wisdom. Hospitality often speaks of this as the mutual transformation that takes place between host and guest in the practice of hospitality. Returning to the story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming guests, the hospitality they offer results in their being gifted by their visitors with the promise of a son. When the disciples on the road to Emmaus welcome the stranger, he turns out to be Christ known in the breaking of the bread. I could tell many stories of how I have learned from guests at Manna House. They have taught me about God, about faith, about grace and redemption. They have deepened my understanding of racism, classism, heterosexism, of policing and of politics and economics in the US. (See my blog, Radical Hospitality, https://radicalhospitalityblog.com/).

In reflecting upon how I have learned in the practice of hospitality, I see that listening grounded in respect and recognition opens me to what Jason Baehr discusses as intellectual virtues necessary for civil discourse. He argues in Virtue and Voice, that “public discourse is deficient largely on account of how frequently and pervasively it manifests intellectual vices like narrow-mindedness, intellectual arrogance, intellectual dishonesty, dogmatism, and close-mindedness” (Baehr 6). To counter those vices, he urges we need to develop “intellectual virtues” that include curiosity, attentiveness, open-mindedness, intellectual carefulness, and intellectual thoroughness. Intellectual vices include intellectual laziness, inattentiveness, intellectual arrogance, dogmatism, intellectual dishonesty, intellectual hastiness, narrow-mindedness, and close-mindedness” (Baehr 15).

We have to practice those intellectual virtues in order to learn. Intellectual viciousness prevents learning and is manifest in such things as name-calling, failing to fact-check, ignoring counter-evidence and arguments, willfully misinterpreting opposing views, hiding weaknesses in one’s own position, making sweeping generalizations, etc. All of those are inimical to hospitality as they are to civil discourse.

Baehr points out that learning does not mean accepting or even giving any and every belief or argument an open hearing (again something to return to in the discussion of limits). Some views simply do not merit intellectually virtuous consideration. Such views fail to advance human knowledge. At the same time, when we acknowledge our tendency to value our own conclusions above others, we can listen with respect and seek to understand how those we disagree with hold the position they have. In this way we “argue to learn” rather than “argue to win.” We can warn ourselves about “epistemic overconfidence” and keep an awareness that we limited in our own cognitive perspective (Baehr 33-36). In Christian terminology this would be an awareness, in the words of St. Paul, “none are righteousness, no not one” (Romans 3:10 and see Psalm 14:1-3).

In the practice of hospitality, Baehr’s analysis is confirmed. I have found that Learning requires both humility and a sense of humor. Humility is an accurate self-understanding and of our place in the world, along with an ability to acknowledge our own limits and failings. This undergirds our openness to others, and a non-defensiveness. Humility affirms that guests from the streets know the realities of homelessness much better than I do. They also often know better how I can serve them. Manna House was established in consultation with people on the streets who identified what they needed and much of how we should respond to those needs. They also very much see themselves as having “ownership” of Manna House, letting new volunteers know how things are to be done, and informing new guests of the expectations for civility and even charity with other guests and volunteers.

Humor is closely related to humility as humor involves the ability to laugh at ourselves, and to see the incongruity of life. Humor keeps us from taking ourselves or life too seriously. Humor checks self-righteousness and dogmatism. Both humility and humor affirm that no one person and no one group of people have a corner on truth. Hospitality requires a sense of humor, to undercut any self-righteousness or sense of a “savior complex” that those of us offering hospitality might have. Jokes shared certainly lighten the mood at Manna House. So do practices like singing “Happy Birthday” to any guest or volunteer who is having a birthday, but doing so in an intentionally off-key manner so that all can join in without reservation.


Together, humility and humor can work to help us hold our beliefs and our ways of doing things with some tentativeness. Our humble sense that we are finite, fallible, and corruptible supports our willingness to revise our perspectives when given a good reason to do so, a willingness to critically review our own views, and a willingness to acknowledge that others may hold opposing views in good faith. Humility and humor undercut defensiveness. They also de-center us, humility and humor clarify that the world does not revolve around us. Many times in the history of Manna House guests have suggested better ways to do things, and they are almost always correct. Our practice of hospitality is better because we listen and learn from our guests.

Neither humility nor humor, however, should be understood or practiced in a way that cooperates with humiliation. Listening and learning, along with love, are good faith efforts to create and maintain relationships. They are not invitations to abuse. And this brings us to the fourth and final aspect of hospitality, limits.

Limits
Hospitality has its limits. In the practice of hospitality, people can wear out their welcome and be asked to leave. In the practice of hospitality not everything goes. At Manna House, we are firm in our expectations, for hosts and guests alike. No denigrating, degrading, or disgusting comments or actions are allowed. A warning is given, and if a person does not change the behavior, that person is asked to leave (and this applies to guests and volunteers alike). If the person does not leave (we have only had this issue with guests), we announce that we are going to shut down unless the person leaves. Peer pressure almost always works to get the person to leave. But sometimes we have to shut down. And there are occasions when the violation has been so egregious that the person who was asked to leave is told not to come back, sometimes for up to a year.

Limits are also present in that we cannot do everything for everybody. We have limited days and hours of hospitality. We have limited numbers of showers we can offer, and a limited amount of clothing and “socks and hygiene” we can give. We do not serve food, except on Monday evenings. We do not allow smoking on the premises. In this time of COVID, we require masks and practice social distancing. We limit the number of guests allowed into the house. We offer much of our hospitality in the backyard.

All of these limits point to how we cannot do everything in our practice of hospitality, but we remain willing to do something (Pohl 135). Likewise, our boundaries are there to ensure that we will continue to offer hospitality. Boundaries make hospitality possible because they preserve the space and place and people who offer hospitality.

Pohl gets to the tension of limits in the practice of hospitality when she states that “hospitality practitioners live between the vision of God’s Kingdom in which there is enough, even abundance, and the hard realities of human life in which doors are closed and locked, and some needy people are turned away or left outside” (Pohl 131).

The reality of limits offers some help in think about how there are also limits to civility. If someone or some group is seeking the destruction of our shared life altogether, or is urging policies that oppress people, those must be resisted. To shout peace, peace, when there is no peace is to be complicit in injustice. As James Baldwin put it, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

At the same time, we can state those limits with love, with respect and recognition, with a willingness to continue to listen and perhaps even learn from what causes such behavior. Seeking to understand is not seeking to justify. But we cannot understand if we do not enter with some empathy into the lives of those with whom we disagree. Demonization does not prepare us for civil discourse or for addressing any underlying causes for the hatred and viciousness. At the same time, we may well need to step back and away from those holding such positions, and publicly oppose them. It is naïve and a failure to accept our own limits and the limits of others to not recognize and oppose wrongdoing. Our efforts at civil discourse will live in the tension between God’s Kingdom in which we sit down together at an abundant and joyous table, and the realities of family dinners (and political disagreements) where there are squabbles, and fights, and sometimes the need to walk away.

What to conclude?
I have offered four dimensions of the practice of hospitality as elements that might improve relationships with each other, and our political and cultural discourse within civic life.
In order to create and sustain a more civil discourse, we might learn from hospitality about how love, listening, learning, and limits can create a community in which persons are welcomed, treated with respect, heard, and valued for what they bring to the table. Hospitality can also indicate that such practices are not an invitation to moral and intellectual relativism or abuse. I return at this point to urging a hopeful realism in addressing our differences. We can begin, at least, to draw upon hospitality as we seek life together marked by love that respects and recognizes each other as God’s children, and in that opens us to listen and to learn, knowing full well that none of us are without fault, that we will disagree, and even fail in relationship, while also affirming we need to keep trying to be better with each other.

Sources:

Will Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly: 25th Anniversary Edition, Bloomburg Academics, 2000.

Greg Ten Elshof and Evan Rosa, eds., Virtue and Vice: Habits of Mind for a Return to Civil Discourse, Abiline Christianity University Press, 2019.

Christine Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999.

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