Sunday, March 04, 2007

This is some more of it

(The book, that is. You can tell where it breaks down into notes I haven't completed yet. I'm working on a brief lecture I will give this morning [Sunday] about the central paradox of hospitality as the core of Christian practice and understanding of God, which is the paradox that makes us both host and stranger simultaneously. I'll try to present that later.)

Hospitality is not about guests; it’s about strangers. That’s the first lesson.

Hospitality is not about people you know; it’s about people you don’t know. Hospitality is about people you never know, because there is always a stranger, a person you have not yet met. Which isn’t to say that hospitality requires you to go out into the world, seeking out strangers and making them friends. Hospitality doesn’t require you to go out into the world at all. And it has nothing to do with making friends. Making friends is up to you. And wherever you are, the world will find you; the world will come to you. What you do then, is the concern of hospitality.

Let’s begin with Abraham. Everything begins with Abraham. We’ll have occasion to say that over and over again as we go along, because it is so fundamentally true. Everything begins with Abraham. He is the patriarch of Israel, which is to say of the Jews, which is to say of Judaism. Moses liberated the slaves and gave them the law; Elijah and then Isaiah and the other prophets gave them the vision; Scribes and Pharisees and then rabbis down through the ages have given them the guidance; but there is only one Abraham, and no one calls themselves a child of Moses or Elijah. For the Jews, everything begins with Abraham.

As it does for Christians. Open the Gospel of Matthew, the first book in the canon of the New Testament. The first name in the list of the geneaology of Jesus the Christ, the son of David, is Abraham. Luke starts there, too. And even Islam traces itself back to the father of nations, through his first son, Ishmael. Abraham is the patriarch and physical founder of three of the most important religions in human history, of all the people named by the Koran “the people of the Book.” From this fountainhead a great deal of human activity flows. Everything begins with Abraham.

So it is fitting we should start there, in a discussion of God and hospitality. Because hospitality requires three things in order to be seen, in order to even be known. Hospitality requires a host; and a guest; and most importantly, hospitality requires a home.

Hospitality is first an offer. It is an offer of something, and it is an offer consciously made. The offer has to be made by someone, but it cannot be made simply by anyone. If the servant makes the offer of hospitality, it is understood that the offer is made in the name of the master. If a servant presumes to make an offer of hospitality without authority, it is a breach of etiquette, of the social rules that govern any culture’s standards, and it is understood to be an empty thing. I cannot welcome you to the home of another; the offer is not mine to make, the hospitality of the place is not mine to extend. I have no authority there; my act is a nullity. While an offer appears to have been made, nothing in fact is extended, and you the guest are given nothing to receive.

So hospitality requires a host, a person authorized to make an offer. But what is the offer that is made? It is the offer of the comforts of a place; without a place, no offer is possible. Just as I cannot welcome you to a house that isn’t mine, neither can I welcome you to a public building where I am equal to you, where we are both guest or strangers. It may be socially convenient to play host to my city’s museums, but I cannot truly offer you comforts that are as equally yours as they are mine. The comforts of my home are mine; to share them with you is to sacrifice what is mine so that it can be offered in equal, or preferably unequal, measure with you. The comforts of a public building are as available to you as they are to me. Perhaps I can guide you, explain customs and manners to you, be a good guide and in the broadest sense a welcoming “host.” But I cannot really host you in a place that is not mine, in a place where we are equally strangers and stand on the same footing with regard to access to amenities. I can be polite, helpful, reassuring; but hospitality requires something more, to be in existence.

Hospitality requires sacrifice. Not a life threatening sacrifice, but a small one, an accommodating one. It is a sacrifice for a host to accommodate a guest; it is a sacrifice of time, or material, or food, or space. It is a sacrifice of privacy, or privilege. In showing hospitality, something is given away, something that is not expected back, that, indeed, cannot be given back. In showing hospitality, the host has to freely give away what he or she would keep, has to surrender to the other what is the host’s alone to give. That is the duty of a host; to give; just as it is the duty of the guest, to receive.

So the host must give, and to be able to give must give of what is his alone to
give, what she alone controls and has at her command. Hospitality, then, requires a home, requires the host’s home, in order for the offer to be made, for the transaction to take place. And more obviously now than in the beginning, our definition of hospitality requires a guest to receive these things. Without a guest the offers are not possible, are not even required. The guest, then, prompts our hospitality, even requires it of us. Without the guest, no hospitality is called out of us; without the guest, hospitality isn’t even possible.

Which is the paradox of hospitality, because the guest must always be a stranger. If the guest is someone known to you, it is no longer hospitality you offer, but friendship, courtesy, a social convention that takes place within an economic circle of exchange. To show courtesy to your friends, even to an acquaintance, is to make an offer because it is foreseeable that it might be reciprocated. If the guest is not a stranger, an act of courtesy is always an exchange, a payment made that can be repaid at some time in the future. All courtesies take place within a system of exchange. You treat others as you yourself would be treated. The slightest courtesy can be repaid in kind, can even be repaid immediately. I smile at you; you honor my offer by smiling back. I extend my hand; you honor my offer by extending yours, and we shake hands. But hospitality is not merely courtesy. In an act of hospitality I do not make a simple offer of societal conventions, expecting a response in kind. In an act of hospitality I, as host, offer you, as guest, as stranger, my place, and all the comforts that my place can give to you. I make this offer without even expectation that you accept it. If you do not or cannot, my obligation as a host is to make you whatever offer I can that meets your needs. The host’s obligations are to put the needs of the guest above the needs of the host, to offer the best of what is within the host’s power to give.

What is the best is defined by the needs of the guest, and the limitations of the host, and of the place. A host cannot offer more than he or she has, but if the host can meet the needs of the guest, hospitality is only satisfied, is only truly known, when the host has done so. But if this is done with the expectation that such an offer will be repaid, either in kind or better, then it is not hospitality, it is a mere exchange. The stranger who comes to you may be a king disguised as a pauper. Or the stranger may be a pedophile, a rapist, a murderer. Either could repay your hospitality in a coin out of all measure to the hospitality you have shown; but not every anticipated payment is also a desirable one. Just as we imagine the king would repay us generously, we imagine the murderer would repay us by taking something away. Even though the king has as much power of life and death as the murderer, and the murderer as much capacity to be generous as the king. Still we imagine that once we know who the stranger is, we know what the stranger will do. But hospitality functions in that area of “unknowing,” in that point in time where the stranger remains a stranger, and all possibilities are still open. Hospitality functions, then, at the very moment of our greatest vulnerability.
“Never cease to love your fellow-Christians. Do not neglect to show hospitality; by doing this, some have entertained angels unawares,” the letter to the Hebrews reminds us. But (setting aside for the moment the narrow restriction of this advice to only one’s “fellow Christians,” and so to Christians entire and alone) the converse is what we are more often aware of: by doing this, some have entertained monsters unawares. Our experience and the news of the world around us, indeed, makes us more concerned that we will entertain the former rather than the latter; from one we expect sympathy; from the other, we fear assault. So hospitality requires vulnerability; but it has to be a vulnerability clear-eyed about the danger, not focussed solely on the hope of extravagant reward. To entertain angels, after all, would be to entertain God. But to live by the hope of entertaining God, one must live with the risk of showing hospitality to the Devil.

So it is no simple matter, this matter of hospitality. It requires a host, a place, and a guest. And the place must be the host’s own, his alone and entire, a place from which the host can ban strangers, in order to be a place where strangers can be welcomed. Without the power to control access, the host cannot offer the comforts of her place, her home, to a stranger. And unless the stranger is absolutely unknown to the host, unless there is an absolute risk that the stranger is a monster or an angel (not yet to speak of “as well as,” for the monster and the angel share one common characteristic, that of being wholly other to the host), there is no hospitality. Being absolutely unknown, the stranger must be, as a stranger, in no apparent position (at least) to repay the host; because in a position of commonality, there is also a position of exchange, and the offering of the host is merely one of economy, one that may be repaid either by the guest directly, or by the guest indirectly. Hospitality must stand outside the economic circle of offer and exchange; it must be an offer without hope, without thought, without chance, of repayment. It must be a gift, but a gift given knowingly by the host, where the host sees only the offering and receipt by the stranger. This makes it, in the strict sense, not a gift at all. But receipt of this gift is not the same as acceptance. Whether the guest receives the gift, it is enough that the host offers it; indeed, the host cannot expect an acceptance, since such acceptance would indeed constitute a payment, an exchange, the offer repaid in the coin of gratitude. But it is not my purpose to make hospitality seem, or even have to be, impossible. It is enough to show that hospitality requires sacrifice; and one sacrifice required is the expectation of an exchange from the host’s offer. It is enough for the host to truly make the offer required of hospitality; how that offer is received is beyond her control, and in the truest sense none of her concern. Her actions are measured by what she has done, not by how others respond to it.

So we begin with Abraham, just as God did. God invites Abraham (without appearance, without preamble, without so much as an apparent introduction) to a place God will show him, to a place of God’s that God will share with Abraham. The story of Abraham begins with the story of God as host.
“Leave you own country, your kin, and your father’s house,” God says to Abraham, “and go to a country that I will show you.” Immediately God sets two patterns for God’s followers: the call to leave, and the call to follow. One makes us strangers and aliens on the earth; the other promises an end, a goal, a place as our destination. Aliens and strangers are always guests dependent on the hospitality of others; those with a home are always hosts to the alien, the one without or, for the moment, away, from home. So we are not either/or; we are both/and.

Hospitality is an “either/or.” Unless the offering of the place to the guest is whole and absolute, unless all the comforts of the place of the host are made available without reservation to the guest, there is still no hospitality. The host may meet the simple courtesies of the time and culture, of the larger place within which the place controlled by the host is situated; but the host will have failed completely to show hospitality. The offering of hospitality must be without boundaries as to the place. Which is not to say the offering is without boundaries as to what is in the place; there are understood limitations even in the phrase “mi casa es su casa.” My house is offered to you as your house; but my possessions remain my possessions. The offering of place while it remains the possession of the host is what draws the line between hospitality and surrender of the premises and all its contents. The offering is not a whole offering (“all that I have is yours; take it away from me”), but an offering of sacrifice. The “first fruits” of what is mine, I offer to the stranger. What is taken, what is received, is the offering only, and whatever physical substance embodies it: a chair, a table, a bed; food and drink; a place to bathe. These things are not taken away; they are not removed. But their use is taken, and received, and made the possession of the other, of the unknown guest, the stranger. It seems like an over-drawn distinction. But in that distinction is all the glory and blessing of hospitality.
Because the host cannot offer a place that is not hers to offer; and a host cannot offer the comforts of the place that are not hers to give. And hospitality is merely the offer; it is the relinquishment of use of what is mine to another, to the stranger, while the possession remains mine, remains under my control; and therefore, remains with me. This keeps the stranger with me, too. The stranger must be in my place to accept my hospitality. The stranger and I must remain close, in contact at least proximally if not physically. I may do good works, I may give money or goods or things to charity, I may assemble boxes and deliver food to the hungry, blankets and clothes to the naked, transport the homeless to shelter; but while these are all acts of great kindness and much to be encouraged, while these are blessings and even fruits of the kingdom, the basilea tou theou, they are not offerings of hospitality. No thing of mine is offered, because all that is given is given away. When I give the money, when I donate the goods, when I deliver to the hungry or transport the homeless, the moment I release the money, the goods, the time, they are no longer mine. They leave me, and become the possession of someone else. I do not put myself in the possession of another when I provide transport; I give away my time, perhaps even the use of my vehicle. But the moment I release anything, whether I give it away or sell it, it is not longer mine to control; and by delivering the goods, handing over the money, or driving the car, I am only carrying out the obligation I have already agreed to fulfill. Once decided on, only the act remains to conclude the agreement; but the act is the final sinecure, the last remaining function to make official what has already occurred: the possession and I have already parted. The act itself then, is symbolic; it completes a transaction that is already done.

But hospitality is an action that requires me, and me alone. I alone can be the host to my place; I alone can welcome the stranger across the threshold into my domain. I alone can offer the comforts and amenities that are mine to offer, and I alone can witness to their use by another, a complete stranger, to whom I make the offers of a dearest friend. If another does this for me, I am no longer the host. If my goods go in my stead, they were no longer mine the moment I agreed to let them go, and nothing of me goes with them. Hospitality is an offering of what I still have, not of what might have once passed through my hands. So hospitality is not a gift, nor entirely an offering; it is something else entirely.

God gives Abraham and his descendents the land as early as Genesis 12:7. But this gift is always understood as an offering, as a gesture of hospitality. It is given by the Creator, who cannot give away Creation, who cannot severe, or be severed, from a relationship with the Creation, from the position of originator. A position that corresponds with, but is not the same as, ownership. The land is God’s to give possession to, but God does not give the land over to, transfer title and all rights and responsibilities appurtenant thereto. The place remains God’s, who gives its use to a guest. But for the host to give over all connection with the place to the guest, is to change the status of both guest and host, and so eliminate the issue of hospitality. When the host severs all contact, all possession and responsibility for, the place, she is no longer host to that place. For God to sever all contact, all possession, to even a portion of the Creation, is to sever contact with all of Creation; and it is for God to no longer be God. The revelation that begins the story in Genesis is that God is the Creator. If God is severed from that relationship, then that revelation is meaningless, and God’s relationship ab initio to Creation and its creatures, is negated. It is literally null and void, just as it was before the Creation. The whole of the revelation is undone on that point, and falls away.

But the Creator cannot be severed from the Creation. So the Creator is also host, and intends to extend through Abraham a blessing on all humanity: “I will bless those who bless you, and the ones who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

It is an ongoing relationship, the relationship between Creator and Created, between guest and host. Hospitality is always present so long as the guest and host are present. After the Exile to Babylon, trying to reconstruct their society and their covenant with the Creator, the people of Israel are told to annually remember that what they have, beginning with the land, comes from the God of Abraham, so they will not lose it again. Deuteronomy 26 opens by restating the understanding that Israel is given the land to occupy, not to own; land they have only recently recovered: “After you come into the land which the Lord your God is giving you to occupy as your holding and settle in it, you are to take some of the firstfruits of all the produce of the soil…and…go to the place which the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for [God’s] name.” (Deuteronomy 26:1-2, REB) The land, like the offer of hospitality, is always provisionally given. Hospitality involves what gift giving does not: a risk.

Now we are ready to begin with Abraham.

So Abraham is sitting outside his tent at the oaks of Mamre, and three strangers come up. It is the Lord, the narration tells us, but Abraham has no way of knowing that. “Lord, when did we see you?” becomes a plaintive cry when we put ourselves in Abraham’s position, and consider how we have welcomed strangers coming up to our door. It is the common humanity of Abraham that he doesn’t know any more than we would; but it is the wisdom of Abraham that he doesn’t need to.

[Because the guest must always be the stranger, in order for there to be hospitality. the wisdom of Abraham that he doesn’tThey stop at his tent, which makes Abraham look up. Their presence demands his attention. A small enough thing to give, but even this offering entails obligations. For Abraham, it is starkly the obligations of a fellow traveler. He has settled in the land that God has shown him, but Abraham is still a pilgrim in life, still awaiting the goal of children as numerous as the stars in the sky, as uncountable as the grains of sand by the sea. Abraham is still on his journey, and he understands that it means to be a traveller. So Abraham looks up, and immediately invites the strangers to take a meal from him.

“If I have found favor with you,” he says, by way of opening and offering. It is the most humbling statement he can make. How can they have found favor with someone they have not yet even met? But Abraham, of course, treats nothing as accident.
It is shown or not shownbased only on one hope. overly optimistic about
I do not make a simple offerThe guest must always be the unknown person, [develop this, along lines Derrida would use for developing the strictness of the idea of “gift”. “Guest” is not a stranger who invokes hospitality, any more than a gift is truly a gift when an exchange is possible. Hospitality toward friends is mere reciprocity. Speak of it in terms of “economy,” where “hospitality” is that which breaks the economy. This is the lesson of Abraham at Mamre, or Jesus at the table of Simon. Indeed, especially Jesus, who is always accepting a hospitality he cannot possible reciprocate (“Foxes have holes,” etc.), but also offering a hospitality (the unnamed prostitute) that cannot, in its same terms, be reciprocated. Don’t neglect the importance of the terms of the reciprocity. In fact, exploit that; there is hospitality between social unequals, where one is actually shamed because he/she cannot return the favor of the other. Think of “Howard’s End.” There is a generosity, a hospitality, that embarrasses, that shames, because it so breaches the economy of reciprocity. Howard’s End is the example to cite there. Focus on this question of breach, because the stranger is always the one who breaches the economy, the enclosed sphere, with something that cannot be accepted nor repaid. In fact, hospitality does not always have the intended result. As Howard’s End illustrates, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. {with the best of intentions, the younger sister befriends the poor clerk, which eventually costs him his job and finally his life. We offer hospitality at great risk to the other, especially when we offer more than can be accepted, more than we can ourselves convey.) Again, the blessing of Abraham that makes Sarah laugh, because she cannot accept the news from the strangers. She laughs, and hides her laughter (being a good hostess), but she does not accept what is given to her, what breaches her sphere and gives her something wholly new and wholly unexpected. It comes anyway, but not with her acceptance.)

[With Abraham, God takes a risk. God the omnipotent, God the all-wise, is an assumption of the Greeks, not the Hebrews. Perfection is the ideal of Hellenistic thought; reason is its avatar. The God of Abraham is the Creator, not the Perfecter nor its perfect origin. It is God’s sufficiency that is praised by the Psalmist, not God’s embodiment of the Ideal Attributes. As we will see, God plays the host in many of the Biblical stories; and hospitality always involves risks. Without the risk, there is no hospitality.](develop that theme as well; cf. Moriah. Not an example of hospitality, but an example of God testing the risk, to be sure the person God has invited, understands what is required. This is outside the bounds of hospitality, but not all that God does, nor all of our lives, are lived strictly within the requirements of hospitality. Like God, our relationships begin there. Like God, our relationships are infinitely too complicated to long remain there. Note here the double risk, by God and by Abraham. Both risk all in this gamble, this offering and accepting of a home, of a place be at home.)

Hospitality is not necessary unless there is a guest involved. In fact, hospitality is

[include an analysis of the Prodigal Son; an example/parable of the extremes of hospitality, where true hostility has been shown to the host, and the host actually gives away what is not his to give. Hospitality presumes upon the boundaries we draw, and forces us to erase them, or at least face having them erased. How we respond is then mystery, truly mystery, because it is up to us. And THAT is the mysterium tremendum, the thought that makes us tremble because we know it has already happened. How do we know? We have been told. “Lord, when did we see you?”]

[Another paradox of hospitality: it requires boundaries. Hospitality requires space. We can’t separate hospitality from space, from location, the physical. Hospitality is not merely a “state of mind.” Without action, hospitality does not exist at all. Without space in which to perform hospitality, it does not come into existence. So hospitality requires space; but not limitless space. It requires place, and place must have boundaries. Place must have limitations. Boundaries between persons are ineradicable. But God is boundless. How do we invite the boundless into our bounded space? Having done so, what have we done? Boundlessness persists in the parables. Prodigal son is one example. Last Judgment is another. “Lord, when did we see you?”]

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