The Gift of Hospitality

Published: October 16, 2015

Bishop MartynHospitality – a word that is bandied around a lot these days, but do we all mean the same thing when we use it?

Immanuel Kant famously spoke of hospitality as ‘the right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives in the land of another’. The philosopher Jacques Derrida drew on this essentially political understanding to contrast the laws of hospitality (for example the laws that surround immigration) and The Law of unconditional hospitality, the universal law of welcome to the stranger. We need them both, he says, but their relationship is highly complex.

As someone who has lived in a number of different countries, I can bear personal testimony to this tension. I have been on the receiving end of extraordinarily generous hospitality in countries that place a very high value on welcoming the stranger, while also enshrining profound prejudice in their legal system.

Perhaps one way for us to wrestle with this tension is to understand hospitality as a form of gift exchange, an exchange in which both parties give and both parties receive. So we will always find that the guest brings unexpected gifts, which elicit surprising responses within us. In Christian terms, these surprising responses can be understood as the work of God’s Holy Spirit, the One who works in the relationship between ‘the other’ and me. It’s in this interaction between host and guest, between giving and receiving that the Holy Spirit of God comes to us as The Gift.

The Bishop of Tewkesbury, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow

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