Ambivalent about Hospitality

by Andrew Lunn.

There is an etymological link between ‘hospitality’ and ‘hostility’, linking back to common roots in a variety of Indo-European languages.[1]  Jacques Derrida reflects philosophically on a contradiction he identifies embedded in the idea of hospitality in his lecture titled Hostipitality.[2]

That contradiction, he says, is faced in every situation of hospitality.  It takes shape practically in a conditionality in all hospitality which lies in the host’s power–in the unspoken rules of the household—but also in the guest’s or stranger’s unknown difference—the unexpected values or ways of behaving which they bring with them.  We never know what we are going to get when we invite someone in, or when we turn up as a guest at someone’s door.  The guest, or the host, may be generous and open; but there is always the potential for something other, which could lead to hostility.

Derrida is not arguing against the practice of hospitality.  He sees it as a significant human practice, but one in which we always confront the possibility of its opposite which can paralyse us.[3]  So there is always a need for a ‘going beyond’.  ‘We cannot know’ he says ‘what hospitality is.’ (6)  ‘Hospitality … gives itself to thought beyond knowledge.’ (8) It ‘holds itself out to its chance beyond what it is.’ (14)

That contradiction, or we might say ambivalence, which we face when we consider the possibility of hospitality, requires a leap of faith—a readiness to make ourselves vulnerable, whether as host or as guest.  Often we might find a cheap hospitality, when we limit it to close friends and to those who are like us; in such circumstances we do not allow ourselves to become aware of the ambivalence.  Costly hospitality is different, because it involves that going ‘beyond’ what it is.  (Is there something eschatological about it?)

God-in-Christ’s presence as both host and guest[4] reflects that ‘going beyond’ inherent in hospitality.  As host Christ teaches of God’s banquet.  We are guests in God’s created world, vulnerable before the One we fear, subject to God’s grace, even while we celebrate God’s inclusion of us—and of many who are not like us.

Yet also Christ comes through incarnation to take the role of guest, becoming vulnerable to those who ‘did not accept him’ (John 1:11), even to the point of the hostility of the cross.  His practice was to repeatedly take the role of guest, with Matthew, Simon the Pharisee, Martha and Mary.  Openness to hospitality here becomes a trope through which we can understand the self-giving of Christ.  In this divine interchange[5] God allows hospitality to ‘go beyond what it is’.

This should help us to consider the way we should relate to hospitality as a missiological church.  This understanding of hospitality as costly, and always involving vulnerability—hospitality which ‘goes beyond what it is’—always risks hostility.  It requires of the church two things:

First, a truly radical hospitality, which doesn’t invite people into church just to accept our rules and to become what we are.  The guest to whom we are open in a costly way will change us, and change our practices.  Hospitality of this kind involves inviting people to come, but at the same time this must not be a hospitality ‘paralysed on the threshold’ (as Derrida puts it) which delimits and restricts what the guest can be and bring to us.

Second, that missional reversal in which the church itself comes to be guest.  Emulating Christ in this way means we should recognise that the most potent possibilities for mission lie where we are able to step into the spaces which others own and define.

Both of these take courage, and the second perhaps more than the first.  Would it be true to say that the contemporary church will only grow, spiritually and numerically, when it is able to accept the costliness of hospitality as a nexus of costly grace?

[1] If you’re interested in the etymology there’s a good OUP article by Anatoly Liberman here:

[2] Jacques Derrida (2000) ‘Hostipitality’, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, vol. 5, no. 3, 3-18

[3] Derrida’s hostipitality neologism has been picked up by a number of people writing about Britain’s asylum and immigration practice.

[4] Luke Bretherton has set out the way in which the roles of ‘host’ and ‘guest’ are simultaneously part of Christ’s presence to the world.  Luke Bretherton, Hospitality as Holiness, (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 135.

[5] ‘Christ is identified with the human condition in order that we might be identified with his.’ Morna Hooker, From Adam to Christ: Essays on Paul, (Cambridge: CUP, 1990), 26.

2 thoughts on “Ambivalent about Hospitality”

  1. This cheered me on a rather dismal morning, Andrew. We often use the phrase ‘radical hospitality ‘ carelessly, thoughtlessly, far too easily and you give me food for thought. The Church on our terms or amenable, even ready, for others to help shape? What should be the boundaries, if any? Thank you.


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