“Hospitality is the welcoming of strangers” (John McKnight & Peter Block, The Abundant Community)
As we strive to build up a Zion community, we must be careful not to become too insular. We must not close our doors to strangers and outsiders, regardless of how self-sufficient and bonded we feel as a family, a neighbourhood or a ward. Doing so would be denying them the opportunity to share their gifts with us, and to benefit from our gifts.
This applies to people who come to Church and who look unfamiliar to us. As Australians we tend to be mistrusting of strangers, we fear that their intentions may be selfish or downright evil, and that their intrusion into our tightly-knit community may disturb our peace and cause problems.
We want to wait until we know people really well before we trust them enough to do anything with them that could lead us to know them really well.
Consequently our relationships with one another tend to be superficial. We don’t develop deep friendships unless we are thrown together by unplanned (and usually unpleasant) circumstances. We feel physically close to each other, but emotionally and spiritually isolated. We don’t feel like we belong. We don’t feel like a community.
The scriptures, and particularly the New Testament, teach us to welcome strangers in our lives and homes.
“Use hospitality one to another without grudging.” 1 Peter 4:9
“Let brotherly love continue. Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Hebrews 13:1-2
“I was a stranger, and you took me in…” Matthew 25:35
“Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another. Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer; Distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.” Romans 12:10-16
“And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:33-34
“And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee. Take thou no usury of him, or increase: but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee. Thou shalt not give him thy money upon usury, nor lend him thy victuals for increase.” Leviticus 25: 35-37
Welcoming strangers in our homes requires us to take a risk. But it’s a calculated risk: we value the gifts of the strangers so much that we are willing to take the very unlikely risk that they may cause harm to our family.
Our unwillingness to take the risks associated with welcoming strangers in our home has led to the corruption of the word “hospitality”, which is now mostly a synonym of entertainment in the sense of providing guests with food and drink for a fee. We have outsourced our hospitality to hotel chains. This makes our neighbourhoods and wards less welcoming, and undermines our sense of community.
What is the basis for our mistrust of strangers? Most often it comes from three sources:
- the warped view of the world presented to us on television, which suggests that most people cannot be trusted;
- our lack of experience with meeting new people and discovering their gifts; and
- our prejudices and stereotypes, which blind us to the goodness and gifts in people around us.
As we become increasingly xenophobic (literally “afraid of strangers”), we are
less and less inclined to be helpful to others,
less likely to make new friends or to establish meaningful relationships with others,
more and more justified in our prejudices,
increasingly unsafe in our neighbourhoods, as we know few of our neighbours and are unable or unwilling to look out for each other’s well-being
more and more prideful, as we assume that the only people worth associating with are those who are like us
Even if all a stranger had to offer was a different view of the world—which all people have—that would be reason enough to welcome him into our home, especially in the absence of any evidence that he intends to do us harm.
False assumptions about friendship
Conventional wisdom in Australian society dictates that relationships should be created only between people who share many interests and attributes, such as ethnicity, age, gender, and economic status. This is based on a number of faulty assumptions, such as these:
Conflicts of opinion are bad and should be avoided
Friendships can be established only upon a foundation of common interests and values
Conversations between strangers need to begin with mundane, superficial topics about the things we have in common
Let’s look at each of these in turn, to justify why they are faulty.
First, conflicts of opinion are not only good, but they are necessary for any meaningful relationship to develop. What we mostly fear and avoid is the discomfort of considering the possibility that our current point of view is inaccurate or downright erroneous. This discomfort can lead us to feel threatened, which can trigger reactions of defensiveness or even aggression towards the other person.
That is certainly not a desirable outcome, but it is not the only possible outcome of a conflict of opinion. Instead, we can accept the discomfort, have the humility and courage to explore a new way of thinking or a new belief, and accept that the other person probably feels just as passionate about their views as we do about our own. This approach makes it possible for both parties to be enriched by the other, and establishes a foundation of mutual respect and trust that will make future dialogue even more rich and open.
Secondly, although common interests and values can bring people together and help initiate connections, they are not a sufficient basis on which to form friendships. As interests come and go according to fads and life circumstances, so do these types of friendship: they are transient and shallow. Once our “friend” no longer shares the interest we once thought defined our friendship, I find myself with nothing else to justify our association and I lose interest in our relationship.
True friendship develops as we spend time doing meaningful, satisfying, and productive things with someone. It requires frequent sacrifices of time and effort. Most importantly, it develops as we seek out the gifts in each other, overlooking whatever “problems” may be obvious to us. Within each person that crosses our path lies a universe of experiences, values, memories, skills, hopes, fears and points of view, almost all of which is foreign to us. Singling out a single interest, experience or possession in a person truly devalues that richness, and prevents any depth of friendship from developing.
Thirdly, our ability to initiate a conversation with someone else has arguably declined with each generation since the early 20th century. Chit chat is useful for getting eye contact with someone, and mundane introductions have their place, but nowadays our conversations tend to stay at that shallow level, as if we were afraid that talking about “deep” topics would somehow put us in an embarrassing situation. I argue, as others have done, that deep conversations can begin very early in the process of meeting new people. Indeed, the longer we wait for these conversations to begin, the more likely we are to become comfortable in the shallow water of small talk, and to miss the richness and depth of the other person.
This situation is familiar to me, especially in relation to my brothers. We have grown up having conversations centred primarily around entertainment, and today whenever we are together it is almost impossible to initiate any deep conversations, as we all feel much too uncomfortable doing it. This is why it’s much easier doing so with complete strangers, who then are more likely to become true friends.
Our willingness to welcome strangers in our homes and lives, our hospitality, plays a crucial role in the health of our families and communities. It helps us keep our minds unfettered from the burden of stereotypes. It keeps us humble and open to new experiences and points of view. It introduces frequent new ideas to us, helping us live a richer, more fulfilling life. It helps us stay curious about the unexplored, while learning to value the little we know and can do by sharing it with others who need us at least as much as we need them.
So, when can I come over for dinner?