From Hostility to Hospitality by Gregory Thompson
This is the sixth article in a series of articles called A People of Repair; a series devoted to an urgent question currently facing every American Christian who seeks to live faithfully in this world: What do we do when we realize that the forms of Christianity we inherited are either insufficient for—or opposed to—the Christian mission to which we are called? As I have wrestled with this question over the past 20 years, I have come to believe that the church in America, if it is to truly be a people of repair, must deliberately undergo a number of shifts in both the substance and the structure of its life.
In previous articles, I explored the shift from Dominion to Communion, a shift in the purpose of our faith, the shift from Myth to Truth, a shift in our interpretation of the context in which we live out our faiths, the shift from Victimhood to Servanthood, a shift on our identities, and the shift from Being Right to Being Good, a shift in our formation. In what follows, we consider the shift from Hostility to Hospitality.
From Hostility to Hospitality: A Shift in Neighborliness
By the time I was in elementary school, my understanding of the world largely consisted of an epic, binary struggle between good guys and bad guys. I suspect this perspective had many sources: family members with a penchant for grievance, long afternoons playing the soldier games of boys, the apocalyptic blockbuster films that ruled the theaters in the 1980s, and Sunday sermons warning of the dangers of everything from two-piece bathing suits to back-masking records—all set against the backdrop of a Cold War that had not only divided the nations of the world but that constantly threatened to destroy it. Whatever its sources, this perspective shaped not only my understanding of the world but also of what it meant to live meaningfully within it.
This perspective, firmly ensconced by the time I was in high school, proved to be fertile soil for my encounter with the Christian faith. Through the kindness of friends, I found belonging in a church that had the unexpected distinction of being led by one of the finest preachers in the world at the time. His sermons were masterworks—elegantly weaving together Scriptural interpretation, cultural critique, and philosophical argument—and I was immediately enthralled. Even before I embraced the Christian faith, I spent months attending two Sunday morning services per week, just so I could listen to him again. Part of what drew me to his sermons was the skill with which he rendered the struggle between good and evil—the struggle that structured my imagination—in terms that were not only sophisticated in substance but also cosmic in scope. And so week after week—and for years that followed—I did my best to pattern my mind after his, devoting myself to the work of understanding the ideas of atheism and the forces of secularization that seemed to be undermining the credibility of the Christian faith in our time.
Looking back now, I see that even as these seeds of theological curiosity were sown into my imagination, two other seeds were taking root as well. First, the tendency to view my neighbors largely as expressions of a “worldview”; as little more than embodiments of ideas that were, more often than not, hostile to the Christian faith. Second, the tendency to view Christian faithfulness as the call to critique those worldviews and to police the borders between their ideas and my own with tedious zeal. In saying this, I do not in any way wish to suggest that this is what the preacher believed in his own life, nor that this is what he would have wanted me to believe in mine. In fact, I think it would make him sad. Even so, the truth is that these seeds not only took root but flowered into a vision of the Christian life that bloomed in me for years.
I am not alone in this, of course. As I noted in a previous post, it seems to me to be more than obvious that a great number of Christian leaders—and those who follow them—appear to believe that the work of Christian faithfulness largely consists of some combination of philosophical pugilism and theological border patrol. One of my concerns—as I noted there—is that this has led not only to an overemphasis on the cognitive dimensions of the faith but to a correlative under-emphasis on its moral dimensions. But one of my other concerns—and the real burden of this article—is the way that such a vision leads us to conceive of our neighbors. Specifically, this vision of the Christian life has led so many of us—as it led me—to conceive of our neighbors in both reductive and oppositional terms; to, in short, see them as little more than our ideological enemies and to conceive of our lives with them primarily in terms of war.
At some point, I am more than grateful to say, that this way of conceiving of my neighbors began to lose its shine. Partly because I myself grew weary of the endless tedium of being unfairly reduced to an object of war by others. Partly because I began to spend real time with my actual neighbors and to see that my reductive accounts of them and their lives were largely false— constructs of a theological system that had little contact with reality. And partly because I simply began to be—how can I say it—utterly creeped out by a religious community led by insufferable know-it-alls whose chief defining characteristic seemed largely to be an absence of questions. Not to put too fine of a point on it. And so, my largely hostile account of my neighbors began to melt away and I began to search for another to take its place.
To find that account, I look back—once again—to those early days in that first church. As marvelous as the preaching was, the truth is that it was not the sermons that drew me in. It was the love of families in the church who treated me as their own. Men, women, and teenagers who saw me at my worst (My dad’s summary of me at that point in my life was “often wrong but never in doubt”), and went out of their way to know me, to include me, to nourish me, and to give me a home. It was, in other words, not their hostility to their neighbors that drew me in, but their hospitality to me. In thinking of these years—years spent scooching to make room on pews, laying extra plates on tables, piling together on trips, having vulnerable conversations on walks—I found a shift taking place in my approach to my neighbors, a shift from policing the borders to setting the table, a shift from hostility to hospitality.
It is difficult to overstate the impact of this shift on my life. In one respect it was a shift in my imagination, a movement away from viewing the world through a lens of conflict and toward a lens of conviviality. In another respect, it was a shift in my disposition, a movement away from critical fear and instinctive withdrawal, and toward something like curiosity, delight, and embrace. And in still another respect, it was a shift in my practices. We moved into the heart of our community. We hosted all of the major parties in our neighborhood. We had people live with us. I made myself handy with a cocktail recipe and a chef’s knife. And, in time—and perhaps most importantly—it became a shift in my understanding of the Christian life itself. I began to see God as host: the welcoming community at the heart of all things, the one who feeds the world with every good thing. I began to see my neighbors as guests; their presence and the pleasure of their company were not only desired but pursued by God’s grace. And I began to see the church as a servant, as a community whose entire reason for being is to go out into the world and welcome our neighbors into the mysterious joys of the table.
Of all the shifts that I believe the Christian Church needs to make in America, this is among the most important. For it is here—in setting aside our hostilities—that we not only tell the truth about who God is, and not only embody the truth about who we are, but also demonstrate the truth about who our neighbors are: creatures made with love, endowed with honor, worthy of pursuit, and welcomed into the kitchens of the new world.
Thompson will explore more shifts needed to repair the world in the weeks to come.