“Cain went away,” we are told in the opening pages of scripture, fracturing the human race into “us” and “strangers” (Genesis 4:16). The division involved both geography and belief, and so violence spread like a cancer across God’s good earth (6:11). Thus a relentless pattern began, and ever since there have been strangers in our world, worshipping strange gods or none, adopting strange lifestyles, holding incomprehensible values, and following strange customs. “We have to distrust each other,” playwright Tennessee Williams observed. “It is our only defense against betrayal.”
Woven through this long tapestry of distrust is a thread that came to be called hospitality, where people sit face to face, break bread, ask questions, listen, and converse. Mere mortals like me know we cannot bring peace to the world but the grace of hospitality is within our reach. To despise it as too little given the global patterns of division, suspicion, and death is to mistake the significance of grace. Abram welcomed strangers with fresh bread, tender meat, and milk only to discover the Lord was actually present (Genesis 18).
As society has been atomized and urbanized, Christine Pohl notes, “hospitality as a term has diminished; it now chiefly refers to the entertainment of one’s acquaintances at home and to the hospitality industry’s provision of service through hotels and restaurants.” This is not all bad, for reasons Pohl goes on to discuss, but she is correct to insist that Christians are responsible to show hospitality to strangers. John Calvin, she says, “warned that the increasing dependence on inns rather than on personal hospitality was an expression of human depravity.”v
Hospitality to those unlike us—to strangers, to those outside our tribe—always ratchets up our level of unease. When we meet over some outside agenda—work, say, or a neighborhood project, or a political caucus—that agenda helps deflect our discomfort. When it is just the stranger and myself in my home, however, there is greater chance of misunderstanding, of giving offense, of embarrassment, of betrayal. Good grief, it can be hard enough to converse with a fundamentalist Christian (or mainline, or Catholic, or Orthodox—pick your poison) so imagine if we were to welcome a Muslim, a Hindu, someone of a different race, or a secularist.
The apostolic word to us is unambiguous: “extend hospitality to strangers,” St. Paul says (Romans 12:13), and in case that is not clear enough the writer of Hebrews warns, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (13:2). Discomfort and unease are good motivators for learning, and even betrayal did not discourage our Lord from fulfilling his calling. Given the context of these biblical imperatives, apparently not having time means we are too busy with unnecessary things.
I do not know what will come of our obedience in welcoming the stranger. I do know we can begin simply, be willing to learn, to experiment and make mistakes, and when necessary laugh at ourselves. Most of all, we can trust that God would infuse our feeble hospitality with some faint echo of the welcome he extended to us when he welcomed us—outsiders and strangers that we were—into his family. Who knows what we will learn or what will come of it?