Posted January 23, 2007
Book: I was a Stranger: A Christian Theology of Hospitality
Author: Arthur Sutherland
Abingdon Press. Nashville, TN. 2006. Pp. 100
An Excerpt from the Introduction:
The goal of this book is to present hospitality from the point of view of systematic theology. The framework is the passage I Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the sheep and the goats. In this passage Jesus pictures the Last Judgment as a time in which the Son of Man will answer interrogatives about why some will be accepted into the kingdom and others will be banished. The answer he gives is that admission is based on care for th hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. In this book, I connect several of those terms (strangers, enemies, guests, and prisoners) with particular theological doctrines (Christology, reconciliation, ecclesiology, and eschatology) and with a select group of theologians and social philosopher. I want to show that hospitality is not simply the practice of virtue but is fundamental to Christianity’s understanding of God, self, and the world.
An Excerpt from the Book:
Bonhoeffer’s comment is:
If beyond his neighbor a man does not know this one who is furthest from him, and if he does not know this one who is furthest from him as this neighbor, then he does not serve his neighbor but himself; he takes refuge from the free open space of responsibility in the comforting confinement of the fulfillment of duty. This means that the commandment of love for our neighbor also does not imply a law which restricts our responsibility solely to our neighbor in terms of space, to the man whom I encounter socially, professionally or in my family. My neighbor may well be one who is extremely remote from me, and one who is extremely remote from me may well be my neighbor.
Bonhoeffer (through Nietzsche) is very persuasive. His point of view encourages us to be engaged with those farthest from us by seeing that we are called to serve. Yet, Barth’s contribution helps us even more. Barth makes sure that we understand that fellowship with the stranger is not done in view of where the stranger lives but on the basis of what the stranger is for us. He correctly points out that the stranger helps us understand ourselves by showing us our common humanity. How does this occur? The answer lies in Barth’s imaginative use of the image of concentric circles to represent the reality of human coexistence.
The circumference of any circle acts as a border that both includes and excludes. The border limits the number of objects, ideas, or in this case, people, that are part of a common set. Is it permissible in theology for us to speak of a circle whose borders are so fixed that it effectively constrains membership in another wider and concentric circle of humanity? Barth refutes this through an analysis of language, geography, and history. We should not believe that language represents an ultimate border, because we already know that dialects and regionalisms show our commonality in the midst of difference. We should not suppose that geography makes strangers, because geography only indicates a spatial relationship between peoples. There is nothing in the ground or soil from which we abstract an independent theology or ethics of place, home, and motherland. Nor can we say that any people have had such a pure and uninterrupted history that allows them to posit that they are somehow really different from others. Barth has the racial policies of Germany’s recent past in mind when he writes:
“To-day, of course, there is no people — not even in Asia and Africa, let alone Europe and America – which can boast that its present members derive from the same families or clans and therefore constitute a unity of blood and race. It is impossible in practice to trace back the historical differences of peoples to natural causes, for in practice the majority of peoples have for centuries been physical mongrels, sometimes within the great types, sometimes cutting right across them. In most cases the different peoples derive from very different divisions and unions involving the strangest and most diverse physical mixtures. None of us has pure blood in any strict sense, nor does it seem helpful or necessary to have it. “
Table of Contents:
1. “Poor, Wayfaring Stranger”: Christ, Thurman, Du Bois and the Spirituals
2. The death of hostility: Strangers, enemies and reconciliation
3. “She laid it on us”: Guests and hosts in feminist perspective
4. “Remember my chains”: Hospitality and eschatology in prison life
5. Hospitality: The practice by which the Church stands or falls?