Beyond Debt and Economy: Reclaiming Prophetic Hospitality for Refugees

September 01, 2014

Beyond Debt and Economy: Reclaiming Prophetic Hospitality for Refugees

Welcoming the Stranger

The Australian government uses the language of humanitarianism to describe their acceptance of refugee claimants; Citizenship and Immigration Canada frames their work as protection of the vulnerable; but welcoming the stranger is the most prevalent frame for ecumenical church-based activism. This metaphor of hospitality contrasts with that of humanitarian protection and protection’s fraught corollary—security. The metaphor infers the personal warmth of opening up one’s private home. Church-based activists do not act only in response to a public legal contract (i.e. the state government’s responsibility to the UN Refugee Convention); they share their own personal lives and offer all that comes with hospitality in one’s home.

The practice of hospitality in refugee activism does not always live up to the projected prophetic vision of texts, theology, and activist leaders, though. Used as popular motivation in Christian communities, hospitality is a metaphor filled with radical potential, but the ways in which the metaphor can be taken up into a local congregation’s work with refugee-ed people varies widely. Jacques Derrida saw this tension as inherent to the concept of hospitality. He wrote, ‘We will always be threatened by this dilemma between, on the one hand, unconditional hospitality that dispenses with the law, duty, or even politics, and, on the other, hospitality circumscribed by law and duty’.[1] Biblical texts on hospitality and a historical theology of hospitality offer to church-based refugee activism a framework for radically equalized relationships between activists and refugee-ed people. Yet the popular use of the metaphor and its contemporary connotations of privately hosting friends in one’s own home, when used to motivate church involvement with refugee-ed people, result in activism that reflects the other side of Derrida’s dilemma—a hospitality that ‘is no longer graciously offered beyond debt and economy’.[2] While Derrida’s formulation of the contradictions inherent to hospitality are helpful for setting up the tensions within the use of hospitality in the discourse of church-based refugee activism, this article attempts to recover a distinctively Christian and prophetic understanding of the metaphor. Ultimately, this biblical metaphor and its vision for communal Christian life presents us with a call to more radical faithfulness.

Hospitality as an Ecumenical Metaphor

The interrelated metaphors of welcome and hospitality undergird a compassionate Christian response to asylum seekers worldwide. In response to then Prime Minister Rudd’s decision to send asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea, Rev. Andrew Dutney was quoted in Ecumenical News as saying ‘We now see firmly entrenched in our political system an approach that seeks to circumvent the spirit of hospitality and compassion codified in international treaties and obligations’.[3] Resources published by the National Council of Churches in Australia for Social Justice Sunday 2013 remind readers that ‘Jesus even calls on us directly to “welcome the stranger”’, and Christians are urged to make this message of hospitable welcome public.[4]

In the Canadian document ‘A Call to Conscience: A Statement on Refugees from Faith Communities of Canada’[5] (1995) the only explicit reference to the common faith of the signers refers to the responsibility to welcome strangers: ‘A people who have been shaped by the biblical tradition, we are called to welcome the stranger as we would welcome God in our midst’.[6] This phrase is the base common denominator for churches that disagree on all sorts of other theology; they can agree that hospitality is a part of the Christian tradition.

‘Punishing the victims of persecution: Churches speak out on detention’ is a statement that was circulated at the UNHCR Executive Committee meeting in Geneva in 2005 by the World Council of Churches Global Ecumenical Network on Uprooted Peoples (shortened to GEN). After a long description of current state policies—tightened borders, increased use of detention centres, increasing exploitation of asylum seekers, the criminalization of refugees, etc.—the signers state their commitment to the imago dei, to advocacy, and to hospitality:

Faced with this situation, the WCC GEN participants reaffirm our belief in the God-given dignity of all human beings, our commitment to advocating for the rights of uprooted people, and our dream of a world of compassion and hospitality.

We recall and reaffirm the words of the World Council of Churches Central Committee in its 2005 statement, ‘Practising hospitality in an era of new forms of migration’.[7]

For church-based refugee activists such as these, hospitality is one of three key beliefs shaping their work. Hospitality finds its way into public statements and protests because it is the significant popular metaphor for refugee activism that is nurtured in church communities.[8] The metaphor has a long tradition of use by churches,[9] and its potent connotations translate easily from passion into action.[10]  For these reasons, in every Christian liturgy on refugee-ed people that I have come across (from a variety of denominations), this language of hospitality forms the core of the call to action. Let us look more closely at this metaphor and its influence on church-based activism.

Dinner party

Strangers Hosting Strangers: The Textual Basis for Prophetic Hospitality

Church communities find a basis for the metaphor of hospitality in a number of scripture passages, which provide narrative context for the ethics of hospitality. Two are used particularly often to back up claims that the church is called to be hospitable to displaced people. The first is: ‘Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it’ (Heb 13:2). The allusion in the verse is to Genesis 18, when Abraham and Sarah welcome three strangers, without any social status or mutual relationships, into their home only to find out the visitors are angels, bringing a message from God. If any person could be a messenger from God, so the logic goes, every person should be welcomed and treated with generous hospitality. The Hebrews text suggests that hospitality was a key activity of the newly established church. Even more than an activity, hospitality was a core identity marker: ‘Early Christian writers claimed that transcending social and ethnic differences by sharing meals, homes, and worship with persons of different backgrounds was a proof of the truth of the Christian faith’.[11] Further, the early church to which Hebrews was written deliberately tried to show hospitality in ways that contrasted with their surrounding culture. Instead of hosting in order to create beneficial connections with powerful people, they were focused on hosting those who could not host back.[12]

         The second story, told in Luke 19, is of Zacchaeus, a hated tax collector who gouged the people he collected from. One day he set out to find and listen to a man whose public teaching had been causing quite a stir in the region. Because he was short, he had to climb a tree to see over the crowds and satisfy his curiosity about what the famous teacher, Jesus, looked like. As Jesus walked by the tree, he looked up and called Zacchaeus by name, asking him to come down and show Jesus the way to his house. Zacchaeus ‘welcomed him gladly’ (v6). Jesus ate with Zacchaeus, even though his life of fraud and greed was compromising Jesus’ reputation. Somehow over the course of their conversation Zacchaeus came to a point where he wanted to promise to give half of what he owned to the poor and give back to people everything he had stolen—multiplied four times.

         Loren Balisky is the director of Kinbrace, a community that provides housing and support for asylum claimants in Vancouver. He writes this about the Zacchaeus story: ‘Jesus turns hospitality on its head.  He invites himself as guest, but subversively becomes the true host, welcoming Zacchaeus into a place where his identity is renewed and secured—a “son of Abraham”’.[13] Pohl elaborates on the same point, writing that the ‘intermingling of guest and host roles in the person of Jesus is part of what makes the story of hospitality so compelling for Christians. Jesus welcomes and needs welcome; Jesus requires that followers depend on and provide hospitality’.[14]

The stories of Abraham and Sarah and Zacchaeus are examples of prophetic hospitality. I use the word ‘prophetic’ in the tradition of Walter Brueggemann who says, ‘the task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the conciousness and perception of the dominant culture around [it]’.[15] To practise prophetic hospitality is to reclaim an understanding of hospitality that we know to be at once Biblical and Kingdom-shaped and also deeply countercultural. This could be contrasted, for instance, to ministering through points of connection with culture. Prophetic, countercultural practices require particular strength of vision given the powerful influence of dominant cultural perceptions and practices to shape us.

Brueggemann names one of the important characteristics of prophetic practice as having a ‘long and available memory’.[16] So what are some of the prophetic elements of Christian hospitality through history? In both of the scripture passages mentioned above the act of hospitality is a radical equalizer. In both cases, the person hosting is a powerful person who offers a no-strings-attached welcome. Somehow in that act of hospitality, the person hosted becomes the host and the original hosts find themselves changed. ‘The guest becomes the host’s host’.[17] Church-based refugee advocates extrapolate from this story the command to see the divine in every guest and to offer self-sacrificial welcome to people regardless of their standing in the broader culture, including whether or not they have legal status. More importantly the message is that hospitality, as a prophetic act, goes two ways and that the power relationship intrinsic to hosting and being hosted must be equalized so that no one is disempowered by hospitality. Christine Pohl calls this phenomenon ‘strangers welcoming strangers’.[18]

A look at church history and the major texts cited in theologies of hospitality[19] shows that ‘Christian hospitality has always been partly remedial, counteracting the social stratification of the larger society by providing a more modest and equal welcome for all’.[20] The remedial and socially grounded nature of a Christian conception of hospitality maintains a prophetic character without taking on the impossibility of Derrida’s absolute hospitality, in which hospitality is ultimately antinomian. In the work of church-based activists with displaced people in Australia, Balisky’s and Pohl’s hospitality could translate into welcoming the participation and leadership of displaced peoples in both civic and social communities.

At the borders, though, is where prophetic hospitality finds its greatest challenge. Allowing the government to choose whom we host and then being generous with the chosen guests is one level of prophetic hospitality. Churches often cling to the personal rather than political connotation of hospitality in order to wash their hands of the responsibility for those political choices. Advocating absolute hospitality by letting go of the idea of powerful host and grateful guest at a national level and offering hospitality to any displaced migrants who ask for it requires a greater level of sacrifice and trust—understandably since hospitality has had great cost in past centuries. Pohl cites ‘more extreme cases of political and religious persecution’ such as the American underground railroad and the European sanctuary tradition, which have ‘sometimes made the difference between life and death for those fleeing danger….In its resistance to the dominant powers, this kind of hospitality has cost some hosts their lives’.[21]

Contemporary Limits on the Metaphor of Hospitality

Despite what appears to be a radically egalitarian basis for the metaphor of hospitality in church-based activism, when the metaphor is used at a popular level in relation to welcoming asylum seekers who have not been approved yet by the government or the UNHCR, the power of the metaphor’s contemporary connotations often wash out its prophetic possibilities. If one were to ask me for a contemporary example of hospitality, I would most likely remember the dinner parties I have hosted lately for friends, the lack of customer service I received from the hotel I paid for last month, or the kind friends who put me up while I vacationed in their city. Hospitality in its current usage has to do with either private hosting of close friends or payment for public hosting services. Within this contemporary use of hospitality, we might ask what happens when the person we invite into our home puts the dishes back in the wrong place, changes our routine, or even takes something that we treasure? Staying civil with a family member, let alone a stranger, becomes difficult, and the host’s sense of ownership might result in ejection of the guest. Our national humanitarianism often proves to be this anemic as well.

When it comes to providing a framework for church-based activism, hospitality, as generous, private hosting of well-mannered guests, becomes too tame a metaphor to counteract the kind of reactionary nationalism that claims a nation can only take in so many strangers before it is overrun. For church-based activists, the metaphor of hospitality provides a powerful motivation for Christians to be self-sacrificial in their welcome of strangers and a powerful critique of the cold lack of welcome demonstrated by Australia’s concern for security and by narrow international definitions of ‘deserving’ refugees. The limitations of this metaphor for framing church-based activism come to the fore, though, when a church community or a person using the metaphor does not comprehend the prophetic nature of hospitality and instead uses the metaphor in its dominant, contemporary sense. The work of welcoming then works hand in hand with the security agenda of contemporary Western nations.

When hospitality to refugees is seen as a task that the church does within the confines of national goals and regulations rather than as a prophetic way of life that challenges the self-preservation of national asylum seeking policies, church-based activism can be co-opted more easily into those national goals. In an article on mission and migration, Pohl writes ‘as citizens of privileged nations and as members of comfortable churches, it is easy for Christians in the West to become wary of the large numbers of refugees and migrants. We become fearful of refugee flows that might overwhelm limited resources and interrupt our valued ways of life’.[22] My conviction that hospitality as a metaphor for church-based activism needs to be revitalized to gain its prophetic edge comes from: numerous conversations with Christians committed to both national prosperity/security and to limited hospitality, sermon illustrations and worship-leading that subtly affirm the rightness of powerful hosts and grateful guests, and Christian students who argue for a limit to generosity for the sake of middle class standards of living. Pohl’s answer to the fearful attitudes of Christians in the Global West is to urge a prophetic (not necessarily oppositional) stance for churches:

We will not be able to resist this instrumental valuing of people if we do not maintain some distance from the world and its institutions of status and power. Without some sense of our own alien identity and our connections to God’s kingdom, we will find it difficult to see people from God’s perspective and to offer generous welcome without concern for seeking advantage.[23]

Pohl’s call to the church to distance itself from powerful institutions is much needed as a corrective if prophetic hospitality is to be enacted.

The Kinbrace Community in Vancouver, mentioned earlier, is a part of Salisbury Community Society, which published a newsletter of short opinion pieces written by its community, collectively critiquing contemporary limits to hospitality and calling for prophetic versions of Christian hospitality. Their writing came out of their experience of communal living and the interaction of citizen-ed and refugee-ed members in the house. After several essays nuancing the limits of hospitality as a metaphor for their work, Balisky asks the question in his piece, ‘How can we maintain a posture and practice of welcome to the world’s refugees?’ His suggested answer is: ‘Hold lightly the gift of being citizens in this country. By what merit are we given so much power? We share our power of place on this earth with those who have none’.[24]

The presumption of one’s own power as host and the assumption that citizenship decides a person’s legitimacy or non-legitimacy for civic participation are subtle but dangerous ways of thinking for church-based refugee activists. Prophetic hospitality can be developed when churches acknowledge citizenship as power and as an undeserved gift and when citizen-ed and non-citizen-ed members work side by side at welcoming asylum seekers regardless of legal status. Experiences of this kind of migrant activism, in the words of Donald Senior, ‘challenge the false ideologies of unlimited resources, the myth of unchecked progress, the idolatry of unconditional national sovereignty, and the absolute claim to individual satisfaction that so plague our contemporary world and choke its spiritual capacity’.[25]

Conclusion: Hopeful Signs and Directions

            Much is commendable about the discourse of church-based activism:

  1. The Christian belief that our economic gain should never be the motivator or arbiter for national assistance to displaced people is a position urgently needed in today’s economic climate.
  2. The Christian insistence on hope is a breath of fresh air in a cynical climate. The gap between knowing about inequality or suffering and acting on that knowledge is often created by a sense of hopelessness in the face of overwhelming issues.
  3. The Christian veneration of Christ and his theological portrait as a stranger offer the potential for displaced people to be honoured and for refugee activism to be conceived of mutually as strangers welcoming strangers.

At the same time, the strength of faith-based discourses means that church-based activists must be vigilant in making space for ‘discursive redemption’.[26] Continued partnerships with ecumenical groups and with non-faith-based organizations assists churches in being accountable fortypes of exclusion to which they are not sensitive. Those partnerships also open up the opportunity for historically established discourses to be challenged and shifted where needed. In particular, church-based work is often polarized between calls to compassion and calls to justice. The insistence that justice and compassion work together has the potential to correct apolitical pity with the language of civic solidarity and to humanize the strident call to rights.

The challenge for Christians who believe in the biblical call to radical hospitality as a way of life is to find ways of nurturing a community of hospitality through their own fields of study, areas of work, and networks of influence. As a scholar of literature, I see the immersive process of reading fiction about refugee experiences as one possible way to retain a capacity for self-reflection and discursive change.[27] Fiction about refugees has the potential to both humanize the political concept of a refugee through its representation of suffering and also demonstrate the capability and resilience of refugee-ed people as fellow civic participants. In fact reading fiction about refugees and asylum claimants may be a good first step in reclaiming our spiritual capacity as Christians committed to hospitality as a way of life.

[1] J. Derrida and A. Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality trans. R. Bowlby (Stanford UniversityPress, 2000), p135.

[2] Ibid., p83.

[3] (accessed 5th March, 2014).

[4] (accessed 5th March, 2014).

[5] ‘A Call to Conscience: A Statement on Refugees from Faith Communities of Canada’, June 27, 1995.

Inter-Church Committee for Refugees files, Toronto, Ontario.

[6] Mary Jo Leddy, At the Border Called Hope: Where Refugees Are Neighbours (Harper Collins, 1997), p276.

[7] (accessed 5th March, 2014).

[8] For other studies linking hospitality with migrant activism see D. G. Groody and C. Campese (eds.) A Promised Land, A Perilous Journey (Notre Dame, 2008), esp. articles by Stephen Bevan; Patrick Murphy; and  Donald Senior. L. Bretherton, ‘The Duty of Care to Refugees, Christian Cosmopolitanism, and the Hallowing of Bare Life’. James K. A. Smith (ed.). After Modernity? Secularity, Globalization, and the Re-enchantment of the World (Baylor UP, 2008), pp143-64. S. J. Nawyn, ‘Faithfully Providing Refuge: The Role of Religious Organizations in Refugee Assistance and Advocacy’. (Working Paper 15, University of California, San Diego: The Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, 2005). C. D. Pohl, ‘Biblical Issues in Mission and Migration’. Missiology: An International Review Vol.31 no.1, Jan 2003, pp3-15.

[9] For more on hospitality in Christian church history and theology, see chapters 2 and 3 of Pohl’s Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, 1999): ‘Ancient and Biblical Sources’ and ‘A Short History of Christian Hospitality’.

[10] For a generally positive view of the way faith-based organizations in Australia have developed and executed political interventions on asylum issues out of an ethics of hospitality, particularly in their offer of extended community care as an alternative to detention, see Erin K. Wilson, ‘Much to be Proud of, Much to be Done: Faith-based Organizations and the Politics of Asylum in Australia’. Journal of Refugee Studies Vol.24 no.3, Sept 2011, pp548-64.

[11] Pohl, Making Room, p5.

[12] Ibid., pp16-23.

[13] Loren Balisky, ‘Radical Hospitality in a World of Suspicion’. Servants to Asia’s Poor. Web. January 2008.

[14] Pohl, Making Room, p17.

[15] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Revised) (Fortress Press, 2001), p3.

[16] Ibid., pxvi.

[17] Derrida, op. cit., p125.

[18] Pohl, Making Room, p27.

[19] See also, Exodus 23, Matthew 25, Luke 10, Luke 14, Romans 15.

[20] Pohl, Making Room, p63.

[21] Ibid., p64.

[22]  Pohl, ‘Biblical Issues’, p11.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Loren Balisky, A matter’, p19.

[25] Donald Senior. ‘“Beloved Aliens and Exiles”: New Testament Perspectives on Migration’. Groody and Campese, op. cit., p29.  The prophetic critique can go even further. The recognition that citizenship is an arbitrary marker of power and legitimacy most often leads Christian activists to call for an extension of that power and legitimacy. Certainly in many cases an extension of state-sanctioned legitimacy or legal status is the kind of action that is desired. However, indigenous studies point us also to the desires of displaced people who reject the offer of citizenship. Citizenship is not always a gift. It can be an imposed burden or a reminder of a history of dehumanizing, forced inclusion, of paternalistic gifting. Australian colonial history must remain forefront in Christian discussions of refugee activism as a corrective to absolute loyalty to the nation-state and to the implicit celebration of citizenship.

[26] The phrase was coined by J. Habermas in ….

[27] See Erin E. Goheen Glanville, ‘Storied Displacement, Storied Faith: Engaging Church-Based Activism in Canada with Refugee Fiction and Diaspora Studies’. Open Access Dissertations and Theses, Paper 7225, 2012.

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.