Radical Hostipitality

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

In “Hostipitalité” (the English version can be found here), Jacques Derrida plays on the tangled roots of the words ‘hospitality’ and ‘hostility’.  I won’t pretend to track with all the intricacies of his dissection of Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace, but what I found most interesting is the notion that hostility is always present in hospitality.

Where a host welcomes a guest, the host invariably has authority and sets, at least implicitly, the terms and boundaries by and within which hospitality can be enjoyed.  For this reason, the invitation to make oneself at home is impossible as a guest of a host.  If a guest were truly at home, she would be free to set the terms and boundaries herself.

In the English-speaking corners of contemporary Christendom, cutting across Evangelicalism, Catholicism, and conservative and mainline Protestantism, the modifier ‘radical’ gets applied, gets misapplied, and in many cases serves only to make things sound edgy.  “Radical hospitality” pops up in various corners – Catholic authors wrote a book about it based on a section of the Rule of Benedict where monks are called to receive guests as if they are Christ; there are fiery lefty sermons about it.  In these contexts, it can be about quiet, self-sacrificing love of the other or about extravagantly loving one’s neighbor, or fighting tirelessly for the wellbeing of the stranger.

From my purposes, I want to use ‘radical’ as what’s inherent or essential (in the generic sense) about something: at the root of hospitality are a couple of tricky etymons, hospes (guest) and hostis (enemy, stranger).  Present in all the words they begat and that their begotten begat is this tension that Derrida was getting at.  A host can welcome and shelter, a host can be the victim of a parasite, a host can be Christ sacrificed and represented in the Eucharist, a host can be a multitude of hostile forces or heavenly ones.  In hotels, hostels, hospitals, and hospices people depend on and are vulnerable to other people.

The picture of hospitality and hostility (hostipitality) that emerges from this family of words is one of relationships within power structures.  I started writing this post months ago in response to my frustration with how I and the communities I belong to and the layers of government that represent me respond to inequality, injustice, and crisis.  With everything going on in Ferguson, Missouri and in West Africa and the other unnamed miscarriages of justice and failures to act in my city and in my own neighborhood, I feel now more than ever the seeming paradox that I must do something, but cannot do anything.

I think that that paralysis is predicated on a hospitality model of engagement with injustice, one where people with power (to include the kind of power we hold as members of a group) reinforce and belong to a system that benefits us and say to those who are suffering from injustice, inequality “come into my home, into my system where I am comfortable, where I set the rules, the terms of engagement and we will examine and address your issues”.  We as Christians, or we as white people or we as men or we as any other identity that depends on a system or structure in place that privileges almost always fail to leave our ‘homes’ to deal with issues that disproportionately impact others.  Even when we travel abroad as humanitarians and missionaries to live among people we so desperately want to help, we often bring our own systems and structures with us and try to build foundations for them on the backs of those they may already be oppressing.

What if Ephesians read differently, “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hospitality?

I do not take the implications of this lightly because, like so many other people, I want the moral satisfaction of solving other people’s problems at no cost to myself.  What if not expecting people who are victims of injustice and oppression to play by my house rules is messy?  What if, God forbid, I am somehow wronged in the process of their search to set things right for themselves?

And I don’t know what exactly the most effective way to get out of my ‘house’ is yet.  I know that feeling sorry for myself that I’m not transforming the world by retweeting new stories isn’t going to cut it, but I also know that there’s this feeling of being too busy that serves as an excuse.  “If only we had more time, more resources, but alas.”  And listening is a start, but listening to, say, a person of color on an NPR story isn’t listening.  I’m not sure I know what to do to listen properly.

Maybe one small pickaxe I can take up to chip away at things is to confront my expectation for a politics of niceness that is inherent in this hospitality dynamic.  These expectations can often lead people to say things like, “well, if all those black people in Ferguson would just behave like model citizens in expressing their anger over a member of their community being murdered, we could have a civil conversation about it and maybe find some reconciliation” are especially egregious.  It’s almost like going out and murdering someone and then inviting their bereaved family members and friends into your home for tea expecting a quiet conversation.  ‘National conversations’ and dialogues are fine starting points, but unless they lead to action, to substantive changes in the dynamics of the systems that produced the tragedies and injustices begotten by them, then they are more than worthless, they are perpetuating injustice by being a ruse where we confused acknowledging that someone has something to say, but limiting it, restraining it, and removing its capacity to change anything.

So in sum, I don’t have the solution.  I’m looking for the courage to be less hospitable, to get out of my house.  My prayer would be that our hospitality would be put to death in order to create a new humanity, a humanity that doesn’t wound under the guise of us listening to and caring for each other.



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