Hospitality and the Social Gospel

The last few post I’ve written have been building a path towards understanding what kind of people we must be for renewal to be a reality in the Western church. I want to remind us of the two borders that are holding the contents of our trail: peaceableness and justice. These are the foundational elements that help us structure our path so that it isn’t just a bunch of loose gravel being laid down with no purpose or order. With those as our outside borders, we can continue unpacking the contents that help make up the rock we are laying to complete our path, which has led us to the virtue of hospitality.

When some of us think of hospitality, the phrase “entertaining angels” comes to mind. Believe it or not, this idiom comes from the Bible. The book entitled Hebrews in the Bible says this in chapter 13, verse 2: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Entertaining angels, hospitality, can refer to the practice of treating all guests, whether they’re sojourners, kings, or common folk, as if they were visiting angels.

There is a movie that was made about Dorothy Day in 1996 called “Entertaining Angels.” Day was a Catholic social activist starting in the early 1930’s, and was the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, which began by Day (also a journalist) starting a newspaper called Catholic Worker. In the first issue, it was clear that the Catholic Workers chief aim was to get the word out that the Catholic church was there to help those who have suffered the most in the heart of the Great Depression. A famous line from the first issue by Day says this: “…the Catholic Church has a social program… there are men of God who are working not only for their spiritual but for their material welfare.”

This movement has been tagged in a negative way as a “social gospel,” meaning that they were “Christians” wanting to help the suffering without caring for their souls (sharing the gospel with them). I am not going to get into the theology of that argument for now, but I do want to use this analogy to build a case for hospitality.

When people seek to care socially for a stranger who is weak, suffering, poor, hungry, sick, or in some other kind of great need, we ought to be slow to write them off as merely activists with no care for souls. Scripture has many calls for hospitality that has been neglected by a vast majority of Christians who are too worried about being labeled a “social-gospel Christian.” May we be reminded briefly of our biblical call to social action, and that the gospel is thoroughly social and spiritual at the same time:

“Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” Hebrews 13:3.

“Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” Galatians 2:10.

“Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” Romans 12:13.

“Show hospitality to one another without grumbling” 1 Peter 4:9.

“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” Matthew 25:37-40.

We could go on and speak of Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, the rich man giving all he has to the poor, and on and on. Entertaining angels, hospitality, is meeting physical needs. When you see a stranger, welcome her in; clothe him, feed her, help them find shelter. Many people take this call to hospitality and put their own spin on it, and they say, “I only help those who want help,” or “It’s not right helping someone if they are going to take advantage of the system,” or “I will only help them if they’re willing to listen to me preach the gospel to them.”

Let me be clear, the gospel is word ‘and’ deed. The gospel is never detached from doing justice ‘and’ preaching grace. If we are to help a stranger, we do not have to try and cram the gospel into their brains, for the gospel is also seen and heard in our deeds.

As far as the concern of giving to those who deserve it, Jesus is clear that we are to give to strangers often, even before we learn if they are “worthy” of our help. This passage from Matthew 25 is clear that it’s the stranger that we are called to be hospitable to, because Christ is present in the un-welcomed “alien” and the naked stranger.

But still, hospitality is a very controversial endeavor. How far do we go to help the stranger? When does the stranger stop being a stranger and become someone who is known? After the first time you help them? Second time? What makes a stranger “worthy” of our help? Is there a litmus test to find out? Does giving to someone who is not “worthy” of help make someone a social-gospelist, on the verge of breaking down the Capitalistic structure of our nation? Many Christians don’t agree on what hospitality is, even though Scripture, throughout the Old and the New Testament is very clear.

I didn’t site any Old Testament references above, but it is filled with commands for Israel to display the heart and character of God through being especially hospitable to widows, orphans, and aliens. In the New Testament, Jesus modeled hospitality to a ragamuffin band of social outcasts, spiritual rejects, and political losers. Jesus showed hospitality to all of us by entering into our vulnerability and suffering and giving us an invitation to feast at his table. He, a God who knows us, came close to us in our despair, and made Himself knowable, touchable, and shared His resources when we were totally unworthy candidates, who selfishly took advantage of the system.

The late Henri Nouwen says that hospitality is welcoming the stranger and allowing him to “lay aside his strangeness and become a friend… That’s what true hospitality is all about, to offer a safe place, where the stranger can become a friend.” Reaching Out, 66.

Hospitality allows one to belong before they believe or behave properly. In our religious systems we often require right belief and behavior before someone is ‘allowed’ to belong. This is not God’s idea, but man’s. When we were strangers and alienated from God, Christ came near and was hospitable to us. Before we believed in Him or behaved properly, He showed us that we belong with Him. God created space for us to belong with Him; that’s divine hospitality, and church renewal depends, in part, on the hospitality of the citizens of heaven. Belonging precedes “right” belief or “proper” behavior.

We need more Catholic Worker type movements within our churches. We need more Dorothy Day’s willing to be persecuted and called social-gospelists because they are passionate about being hospitable to those suffering, even unworthy sufferers, or maybe angels who are looking to be entertained.

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Refugees, Immigrants, and the Accessible God

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It is often in the place of the dominant culture where freedom is most fully experienced. I know this may still be surprising for some, but in America, where we were established on the freedom and the right to pursue happiness, the freedom that was dreamt of only became a reality for those who had access, or for those of whom access was created for; and let’s be honest and clear… access was not created for all. And yet, there is a voice, a faint one, from the margins, of the lonely, tired, forgotten ones, crying out, “Love me…”

For those without access, alternative social communities had to be formed to give voice to the voiceless and powerless, to fight for the rights and freedoms that are experienced by the dominant culture, of which are usually the ones creating more boundaries around their freedom, in fear of losing power, prestige, or possession. Walter Brueggemann calls this the “religion of static triumphalism and the politics of oppression and exploitation” The Prophetic Imagination, 17.

The king (dominant culture), usually, does not want a free god, rather, he wants a god he can control, because if god would ever disagree with his rule, he can persuade and manipulate him to do as he wishes. The result is a god who is not free in the sense of being accessible to all. The god of the “royal consciousness” is absent to the minority, the marginalized, the immigrant, the refugee. We expect this to happen within structures and systems where a Christian worldview isn’t the prevailing belief, but when this “royal consciousness” resides within the Church, among God’s kin, His children, we begin to have some confusion within the family.

Again, I want to remind us that God is radically committed to giving access to those who have none (i.e. while we were dead and in sin, Christ died for us “so that” we could have access, so we could be included… to live!). When God’s freedom is limited inside feudal-type systems, especially these systems created from within the household of God, one could imagine the disconnect many have with Christians closing doors to those on the margins.

The God of the Bible is always moving to the margins, exploiting those who oppress the margins, bringing alternative ways of living for those on the margins, and making access for those on the margins to be included, to have space to belong. Indeed, it is from the margins that the thrones of false kings are overturned, and where the true King arises.

One could argue that much of the Old Testament is filled with God focusing “only” on the Israelites, making it about this “one” people. But to see this would be to neglect the thrust, or what some scholars would call, “the arc of the narrative of Scripture.” The arc of the narrative of the Old Testament is pointing “one” people who will represent the “many,” which will eventually, point towards one person from that one people group, who would make access for all peoples.

From Exodus (22:21-22), to Psalm (86:9), to Isaiah (Is. 60:3-4), to Malachi (Mal. 1:11), and all scattered in between, we read of God’s heart to welcome ALL the nations, to make room for the sojourners, the poor, or those running for their lives (Deut. 4:41-43). God’s heart has always been to unite the nations, that His name would be great among them, and a family reunion wold once again be realized by kin from across the globe.

And for “such a time as this,” in a day where there’s a plethora of corrupt leaders that are driving out humans from their land, evil gangs terrorizing, promising to slaughter and humiliate whoever stands against them, nations making profit off the poor, and powerful stakeholders trying to control world destiny, families are being displaced, seeking refuge and security, landing in cities all over the world. A very small percentage of these families are landing in the U.S., in a city near you. Even among those who are fleeing, there some wolves (real or perceived), pretending to be poor sheep running for their lives, only to infiltrate other nations to poison them. Yet, there is still a narrative arc that points towards love, acceptance, access, and belonging for those who are part of the household of God. It is terribly dangerous to live out of a Christian worldview, and sadly, few Christians are living into this.

I have found myself in many conversations with Christians who have called me foolish, lost, blind, naive, and the like, all because I think we aren’t opening ourselves up as much as we should as a nation to refugees and immigrants. But Scripture has a different understanding of being foolish, and so should God’s people. I feel we’ve protected ourselves from the suffering of these suffering sojourners through policy, fear of terrorism, nationalism, and good intentioned blog posts like this one :-).

As a nation, I can believe how we could feel protective and not intimately join in the suffering of the plight of brothers and sisters from other nations. I get it. We have a lot to loose in America. Freedom is under attack in new ways, threats that we’ve never faced are now before us, the economy is fragile, and the nation is divided.

It is a different way of live within the household of God. Our leader is rich, full of resources, is not trapped by geographic boundaries, is not motivated by fear, does not see death as losing, isn’t represented by one church or logo, and love and belonging are his weapons of choice, especially love and belonging for the widow, the orphan, the homeless, the poor, the sojourner. Sadly, within the household of God we spend a lot of time talking about loving our neighbors in crisis, and little time living it out. We’ve allowed the culture of our day to rub off on us so much that the fear of loss, self-protection, and discomfort from suffering has handcuffed us. I know this is not true for everyone in the house, but when the vast majority of the family members aren’t getting it, when is the proper time to call this a crisis of faith?

The family is in critical condition and in need of resuscitation. We’ve lost sight of our first love, and new gods have stolen our hearts and we don’t believe it when people tell us so. The “royal consciousness” of God’s people has been high-jacked by a lower consciousness that sees self-preservation as more important than sacrificial-love.

God creates access for all. This is what He does, and his household does the same. The fullness of God’s access is best seen through the lens of Jesus. The God-man, coming to remove the barriers we’ve made to access God, became human. Think on that for a moment, the God of perfect glory stepped in to the margins by becoming human. He was born to Mary, an unmarried teen mom, who soon after her birth became a refugee in Egypt. When it was safe to return home, He grew up on the wrong side of tracks, where nothing good ever came from, right? Never went to formal school, worked His father’s trade as a mason/carpenter, promising never to amount to much, except to be an honest tradesman (something that’s hardly valued these days).

At the proper time, He left the business, had no where to call home, and lived off the generosity of others, calling a ragamuffin group of shady characters full of pride and anger to follow him. He brought worth and value to the women who followed him and included them in his work which was risky, since he was single, right? He touched the untouchable leper and the outcasted bleeding woman, slowed down long enough to listen to the improper yelling blind man and offer him what he needed, stayed in the home of a single Samaritan woman who got around with the fellas, and welcomed the tears and treasures of prostitutes to be poured over his body, so that he might be anointed to die the next day on a tree that represents a cursed man, dying for a cursed people who cursed the Him, only to be marched outside the gates, in the margins, outside the city center, to be crucified and left to die.

Then he went to the most ultimate marginal place, death. Jesus went there too, only to convert the tomb into a womb, thus giving life, value, worth, dignity, and access to not just those on the margins, but those all the way to the palace too!

God went to the margins, because it’s there where everyone has access. The rich can go serve the poor, or fancy their favorite spot whenever they like. The poor do not have the same access to the rich man’s part of town and favorite places. If the God-man was born in a castle, only the powerful and privileged would have access to Him, but thanks be to God, He went to the margins, became a part of the margins, and invites us in our new life to follow Him into the margins. This is the God of the Bible I’ve come to know, and it’s why I’m persistently writing about and living and moving into the margins of our culture.

We present an inaccessible God when do not stand and fight for the suffering sojourners. When we neglect to see their plight and ignore their cries, we represent to them a God who does not hear and who is not concerned with lower-level dwellers who aren’t citizens of America. We don’t hesitate to call them illegal or terrorists, and never once have we slowed down long enough to acknowledge their stories, validate their pain, and cal out the injustice of the home situation that has left them desperate. This is a huge problem with in the household of God.

My prayer is that Christians in the church would be able to see this same God that moved to the margins and be challenged to move to the margins as well, however God might challenge them, especially in regards to the refugee and the immigrant. I pray that people within the household of God would prophetically create alternative social communities for the forgotten ones to belong.

“Crisis” is too small of a word to describe the state of humanity right now. The Church can’t do this alone, but surely the Church can lead out in it and be a display people modeling the love and movements of our leader and savior, Jesus. God help us live into the margins and learn to be radical lovers of our new neighbors, who many of them have been part of some of the oldest churches in the world. God has brought the nations to a country with freedom of speech and religion, and it has not been an accident. Now the Church is responsible to display the accessible God in word and deed.

A Refreshing Interaction

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“I used to have 27 inch handles, but I tore my rotator cuff and I can’t put my arm that high anymore.” I told him it’s a really cool bike. He said, “Some f*#@ers stole my old bike, but I like this one more.” For Kenny, this was his way of ‘looking on the bright side’ after his bike was stolen. Oftentimes, we are just looking for something that will make us feel better. A new or better bike, a change of scenery, a fresh perspective on life and existence.

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My interaction with Kenny was refreshing. His kindness was refreshing. His willingness to share a few minutes of life with me was refreshing. Our interaction caused me to reflect on the reality of how much we were created to know each other, and be known. Many of us will never experience a new of seeing things because we fight being known or truly knowing, because when someone’s life or experience becomes offensive to us, we shut off and stop appreciating their life, and in that moment, we feel superior. I’m praying for Kenny’s rotator cuff so he can ride a bike with 27″ handle bars again if he wants to.