We have received so much hospitality in these days of Seminar and Board Meeting, for which I am very thankful, and decided to give some thoughts to hospitality as an important resource and reference for ethics.
1. Hospitality is survival: in the ancient world travellers were received as an issue of honour, but also to ensure nothing harmful would occur to the host – after all, the desert is a place of high exposure and vulnerability. Every traveller coming by had the right to at least four things: water, fire, orientation for continuing the journey, and a place to stay and sleep. Hospitality was also the social media of the time: the traveller brought news and the host could learn about what was happening out there. So hospitality, after all, served both, host and guest. Also today, for many, hospitality is survival, and to welcome those who seek hospitality out of need, besides the risks and the strain involved in it, is always an opportunity to learn and to grow, for both host and guest.
2. Hospitality is given freely: although what happens in hostels and hotels as we know and use them today is something that comes with a price, the tradition of hospitality is that it is given freely – also because today I might be the host and you the guest, but tomorrow you might be the host and I the guest. We think about hospitality usually in reciprocal terms. But what about those moments when hospitality is called for and nothing can be given in return? This can be a challenge both for the host and for the guest. If can be difficult to extend such hospitality freely, expecting nothing in return, it can also be difficult to accept such hospitality knowing you can give nothing in return.
It is interesting that in Latin, at first only the host was called “hospes” – whence the word hospitality – and the guest was called “hostis”, which also stands for “enemy” – whence the word hostility. This implies a strong asymmetry between the powerful host and the powerless guest, meaning the guest was in a subordinate role he had to comply with. When the notion of hospitality became more equal, both host and guest would be called “hospes”. Now that can lead to a kind of hospitality that only considers equals, friends, family, people we consider to part of “us”, that would invite each other to stay for some time. But it also has the potential for an understanding that equality is not a given in specific group, but it is established through inviting a stranger to sit at your table and to do the most humane of things: to share food and drink, something we all need, but whose sharing goes much beyond sheer need. To sit at the table together, even to shake hands is a sign of peace, because when you sit together or greet, you do not have a drawn weapon in your hand. And indeed, in the Middle East, the greeting is “Peace be with you”, in biblical times as today: Salaam, shalom.
3. Hospitality often happens at the limit: the Didache, the early teaching of the Apostles, says guests can stay no longer than three days, and by that, you can even recognise true Christians – if they abuse or not of your hospitality. After three days, the stranger has two alternatives: either create a new relationship and be integrated into the household, collaborating with what he can, or leave. Now, then as today, for some such a provisional status can become quite permanent – let us think of the millions of refugees (only in 2015 Germany accepted 1 millon of Syrians, a remarkable act of humanity and, of course, an enormous challenge) that remain in often precarious and insecure status. Earlier this year, in a former US army barracks in Bamberg, Germany, I could see how hospitality can be organised in a deliberately deterrent form – technically, all needed was given, but there was very little attitude of hospitality, little warmth, and a lot of abandonment were it not for private initiatives to provide a least a glimpse of true hospitality.
In early times, the Christian tradition, very prominently Basileios the Great of Cesarea in Cappadocia (Asia Minor, today Eastern Turkey, 330-379), with its growing international network of communities, provided houses that served as a hostel, a home for poor people, and a hospital in the moulds of monastic life. The understanding was that the poor, the stranger and the sick could meet God there, and this had to be fostered. I imagine many of them remained in a status where they could neither leave nor change their status. But in all the precarity and provisionality of their life, they found protection, accommodation, food, and welcome before God: hospitality.
4. In hospitality, we encounter God in humans: this is what the author of the biblical letter to the Hebrews says to his fellow believers: “Let mutual love [philadelphia – brotherly/sisterly love] continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers [philoxenia], for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13,1-2) God may come to us in human form, in fact it is in the moments of life, in the most joyful ones as in the most suffered ones that God can enter our lives through human beings. They become messengers – which is the meaning of angelos, messenger, whom can bring good tidings as in eu-anggelion, the good news, the gospel – from and to God, and that means we get in touch with the creator through creation, human creation, and in other ways also non-human. The Letter to the Hebrews continues (13,3): “3 Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” It is a call to identify especially with those who are suffering, in whom we may encounter God – and we hope the same would happen should we once be in such a situation. To receive God in others – Namasté: “I bow before you”, “the divine in me greets the divine in you” – and to be received by others in God is what links us both concretely and in the underlying deep structure of reality we may call God, transcendence, brahman… And that encounter happens prominently in persons we might not naturally receive or invite into our houses, but who are in need of our attention, our love, our care. In many stories and tales around the world, from different traditions, we find that we can be hosting an important person under disguise and that we should not be driven by appearances, but by love for human beings, whatever their position and situation.
An ethics of hospitality, of welcome, of support, of free giving and receiving, of recognising life at the limit, of respect for the Divine in and through the human and all of creation seems to me to be a pertinent resource and challenge for today of which I believe Globethics.net, our partners and many others could benefit greatly.