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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Thoughts About Justice and the Christian Life…

There is no peace without justice while we are living “east of Eden.” If shalom (universal peace and flourishing ) is the end goal of all of creation (human and non-human), then peaceableness is the top floor of shalom and justice is the bottom floor, the foundation; they are book ends if you will (read my thoughts about peace here).

So what is justice? In the Greek culture, justice most likely referred to the Greek goddess Dike, who would have been the personification of the virtue. This is where the Greek (and biblical) word díkaios would have come from, which means, “to be just, or right.” In the biblical sense, the word justice would imply not only the just execution of the law of goodness, but right living on behalf of those who cry out for justice.

The words “righteous” and “justice” seem to go hand in hand in the biblical narrative, and they actually could be defined by the term justification. In salvation terms, to be justified, is to be declared “right and good” before God and having been justly acquitted of one’s rebellion and brokenness because Jesus paid for what we deserved (justice) with his sacrifice.

So justice, in part, means to be free and forgiven of one’s inner and outer brokenness, and empowered to do what is right based on the freedom one has received. This is the long and difficult way of simply saying: justice is that state in which everyone receives what is rightful and appropriate. Since humans are created with certain rights (food, clothing, work), then a society is just when everyone in the society enjoys the goods that everyone has rights to. But a society is also just when there are consequences for those who have disregarded or kept others from these certain rights as well. A city that is just is a city that respects the dignity of every human, especially within the Christian worldview that believes that every human is created in the image of God.

At the least, in the talk of renewal, justice is absent whenever basic needs go unmet. This means that liberation from in-justice and repairs made because of the wrongs done are at the very core of justice. If one skimmed the Old Testament to search out who were some of the people whom God had special concern for in view of justice, you would see that it is the most vulnerable of society: widows, orphans, aliens, sojourners, the homeless, the naked, the hungry and the afflicted. And this justice was never a nationalistic priority that made one nation or one people group more important than another. Actually, we can see in the narrative of Scripture, when Israel took their nationality too seriously, or saw themselves as more important or elite and selfish, correction swiftly followed. Humans, universally, who are a part of the demographics of God’s special concern are to be an integral part of our every day relationships.

If we followed this theme throughout the Old Testament, it would be hard to ignore the loud and clear message that justice happens when the marginal ones are no longer marginal. And this Old Testament understanding of justice is fully embodied in Jesus, who was very concerned with those who were on the margins of society, those who were vulnerable and exploited by people who had the power, and in many cases, Western Christendom has been more about law and power than justice and service.

This can also be teased out to include all who have ever come to Jesus for salvation (the forgiveness of one’s sin and being declared right before God). We are all marginalized because of our brokenness, cut off from God, but because of God’s mercy and love for us, Jesus became one of us, to once and for all, deal with the rebellion and tyranny that we created, both internally and externally. God brought justice to humanity through the advent, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The righteous demands of the law, or in other words, the legal expression of God’s justice, were satisfied when Christ was put to death and suffered the torment of separation from God, in our place. In simpler terms, it is because the “just” paid for the “unjust,” that we can be granted mercy and grace as people on the margins, and be brought near to God (no longer making our home in the margins).

This is justice, which flies in the face of a Western view of justice, condemns all of us, if we indeed held ourselves to the standard of justice that we hold others to. Justice does not make sense to a world committed to the four P’s: power, progress, profit, and pursuit of happiness, and within this world view, many forms of churches in the West have been engrafted.

When we see injustice happening in our city, it usually means that we will have to miss out on one or all of the four P’s if we’re going to stand against it. There’s no money in it for those who want to plead the case of the widow, feed and clothe the naked, or stand against oppressive systems and structures that abuse and exploit the weak. Actually, downward mobility is to be expected if one is going to give their lives to this kind of justice, and it’s hard to build a church when downward mobility is one of the chief engines of church growth. This new ethos must be present in the renewal of the Western church.

The result of living a life of justice in the biblical sense in our 21st century Western society, most of the time, means that we lose ground on the four P’s of our culture and this is not very attractive, at least not long term. To see renewal happen in churches then, I am convinced that we will need an uprising of men and women who are willing to not be controlled by the P’s within the old institutional church model, and begin courageously living as an alternative community in the midst of our over-indulgences and commitments to the bottom line and financial sustainability of church business.

This will not be an easy lot for the pioneers of renewal, but justice has never been an easy virtue to live by. After all, justice on God’s part was very costly. The promise of comfort is very seductive, especially when faced with needed changes in lifestyle to begin standing against injustice. Ultimately, justice will always prevail, with or without us, but we do have a choice to get in on the fight for “justice.” It’s not attractive nor easy these days to stand for what is just and right, nor is it always clear what we should be fighting for.

I hope in this short article I gave you the beginnings of a blueprint with which to pray and meditate about what justice looks life in your life and among those around you. We are living within a contemporary Christian culture that has lost much of the ancient orthodox faith that has painstakingly been passed down to us and made Christian worship more about events, projects, and business, but not justice. I believe this “norm” must be renewed to have not just a biblical view of justice, but a biblical life of lived justice.