These days there is a lot of talk of hospitality in the field of theologies of religions. Some time ago I presented a paper at the global congress The World’s Religions after September 11 on the concept of interfaith friendship as a bridge for peace. As I read and reflect on the use of the term ‘hospitality’ in theologies of religions I find myself wondering if the term hospitality is used where I would use the notion of friendship? Hospitality, it seems to me, may be the first step in creating peaceful and just societies, but is it enough ? As I see it, we can offer hospitality without commitment to one another. Friendship, on the other hand, offers a kind of glue that has more staying power than hospitality. After all, what is the point of the invitation, the welcoming of the guest, if not to explore the possibility of further deepened relationship?
Hospitality serves as the bridge to develop a friendship, but it does not bind us to one another in any concrete way. It may give us the window to discover and begin to understand each other as religious communities, as tribes, as different cultures, as nations, but if things get tense or uncomfortable there is nothing holding us in relationship, nothing that makes us return to one another. Consequently, hospitality can function in a purely utilitarian engagement with one another, even be exploitative. We accept hospitality as a means to gain something for our own ends – even better understanding of the other may have only a utilitarian function, serving our own goals, rather than being rooted in genuine care and compassion for the well-being of the other. In hospitality, one remains the guest of the other – each has a kind of power that in the end does not require mutual submission beyond what is comfortable or expeditious to their interests. Friendship, on the other hand, creates a kind of bond, that if it has any integrity, generates a desire to not simply tolerate or accommodate differences for a curious moment of the excitement of the new and exotic about one another, but rather a bond that means we hang in there with each other when the differences become irksome, inconvenient, and even seem like barriers. Without friendship as the glue, something stronger than good will, how can we imagine interfaith relationships, dialogue, and hospitality as capable of building peace?
Religions may give us the impetus to come together, they might inform our duty or joy at risking the invitation to one another, but our character is what becomes the relationship factor and agent that sustains us for the long haul. Our character is what makes friendship possible or impossible. Religion, properly understood, is the fundamental place for our character formation. Consequently, peace building depends on religions doing their work at shaping our character, and creating the kind of people who are capable of genuine friendships – the kind that have a depth that can negotiate the deep and turbulent waters of hurt, misunderstanding, even overt conflict.
Hospitality matters, to be sure. It is the necessary social space in which friendships most often take root, but in and of itself, hospitality cannot mend the world – that requires a deeper, more reliable quality of relationship. I would argue that this pertains to intra-denominational brokenness and unrest, and extends to international brokenness and unrest. In hospitality inequities, injustices, and unbalance can remain unnoticed, or unheeded, for the relationship encounter is short-lived. The guest can come in and be astounded by the beauty and generosity of the host, and proceed to receive the host’s full offering of hospitality without realizing they have eaten all the food intended for the children and family for the week! And while the guest may be appropriately humbled and grateful, the inequality– the ignorance of the significance of their engagement with their host, remains. In friendship however, a deeper level of knowledge and understanding develops, and the friend, when a guest receiving hospitality, recognizes the sacrifice being offered them, and receives it humbly and gratefully without consuming what was never really theirs to consume in the first place. They know who their host is – they know their host’s duties and customs in hospitality. They have learned the clues indicating how to graciously receive without exploitation and ignorance. They know what gifts to offer in return, what real needs their friend has that they can offer. There is a true “gift sharing” and not simply an exchange of pasalubang (obligatory gifts) that satisfies the cultural formalities and fills the shelves with kitsch.
If the religions understood that their obligation, their task, was to form the kind of people whose character can develop healthy friendship bonds– life long commitments to and for the good of one another, and not simply temporary hospitality skills — the hard work of mending that we need for peace-building would have the possibility to take root and grow. I am reminded of how Jesus called us his friends, not his guests. While he did have an itinerant ministry, was the recipient of much hospitality, he also formed lifelong bonds with his disciples, and their give and take moved beyond the polite encounters of guest and host. There were times when he hosted the meal, and there were times when he was the guest. There were times when he received the questions and misunderstandings put to him, and there were times when he asked the hard questions and challenged the attitudes and behaviors of his circle of friends. This is the nature of friendship: a mutual give and take that does not avoid conflict, does not eliminate differences, does not demand uniformity – but it does demand a mutual engagement and a stick-to-itiveness over time. It is the kind of relationship that forms our character, shapes who we are and who we become.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.