Although we often think of hospitality as a tame and pleasant practice, Christian hospitality has always had a subversive, countercultural dimension. “Hospitality is resistance,” as one person from the Catholic Worker observed. Especially when the larger society disregards or dishonors certain persons, small acts of respect and welcome are potent far beyond themselves. They point to a different system of valuing and an alternate model of relationships.
Today, some of the most complex political and ethical tensions center around recognizing or treating people as equals. Recognition involves respecting the dignity and equal worth of every person and valuing their contributions, or at least their potential contributions, to the larger community. Struggles over recognition also encompass questions about what it means to value distinctive cultural traditions, especially when a particular tradition has been tied to social disadvantage and exclusion. Central to discussions of recognition and dignity are concerns about basic human rights and identity.
For much of church history, Christians addressed concerns about recognition and human dignity within their discussions and practices of hospitality. Especially in relation to strangers, hospitality was a basic category for dealing with the importance of transcending social differences and breaking social boundaries that excluded certain categories or kinds of people. Hospitality provided a context for recognizing the worth of persons who seemed to have little when assessed by worldly standards.
Because the practice of hospitality is so significant in establishing and reinforcing social relationships and moral bonds, we notice its more subversive character only when socially undervalued persons are welcomed. In contrast to a more tame hospitality that welcomes persons already well situated in the community, hospitality that welcomes “the least” and recognizes their equal value can be an act of resistance and defiance, a challenge to the values and expectations of the larger community.
People view hospitality as quaint and tame partly because they do not understand the power of recognition. When a person who is not valued by society is received by a socially respected person or group as a human being with dignity and worth, small transformations occur. The person’s self-assessment, so often tied to societal assessment, is enhanced. Because such actions are countercultural, they are a witness to the larger community, which is then challenged to reassess its standards and methods of valuing. Many persons who are not valued by the larger community are essentially invisible to it. When people are socially invisible, their needs and concerns are not acknowledged and no one even notices the injustices they suffer. Hospitality can begin a journey toward visibility and respect.
From Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition
(Christine D. Pohl, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 61-62