The rules of hospitality

There is a saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin that runs: “Houseguests are like fish – they start to smell after three days”. Hospitality is a tremendously important concept and practice, and it is one, I believe, that is much richer and more workable than ‘tolerance’. After all, what does it mean to ‘tolerate’ something, especially in the home? There are always bounds to what is considered to be acceptable behaviour, on the part of both host and guest. Indeed, there is much delightful and occasionally pointless ritual that surrounds the nature of giving and receiving hospitality. I greatly admire those of my friends who are swift to send small cards of acknowledgement after having stayed with me – I’m getting better at that, but would still only mark myself as slightly better than terrible.

This process of offering hospitality has tremendous cultural weight. I recently watched the celebrated author Neil Gaiman give a reading of one of his stories at the Barbican, called ‘The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains’. This is a dark and forbidding story set in Scotland before the time of the highland clearances, and a key plot moment hinges on a claim to hospitality. In an environment which is inhospitable – as the highlands in winter very much are – to be able to claim hospitality from a stranger in their shelter meant the difference between life and death. For those of you who have been watching Game of Thrones, I need simply say ‘Red Wedding’.

The same seriousness was given to hospitality in the Ancient Near East, as is witnessed to many times in Scripture. The most notorious rejection of the cultural norms around hospitality was the infamous city of Sodom. Their perversions had very little to do with sexuality. That our culture thinks that their sin was sexual simply reveals our own distortions. If the sin was sexual, why does Lot – the man portrayed as honourable – offer his own daughters to be raped by the mob (Genesis 19.8)? No, the sin being portrayed in the story of Sodom centres on the need to show hospitality, and the rules and rituals associated with it, which are hugely more important than sexuality. If only the Church of England gave as much attention to the issues around hospitality as to sexuality we might be less tied up in knots.

Jesus himself sees the sin of Sodom through the lens of hospitality. When he is telling his disciples to go out and proclaim the Kingdom he says that those who do not welcome them – who do not give them hospitality – will suffer even more for that rejection than Sodom and Gomorrah. As so often, sexuality is not on the horizon of his thinking. More than this, the famous Biblical teaching “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” is likely a reference to the experience of Lot in Sodom.

Hospitality, then, is an immensely important concept. Where I believe the concept differs most crucially from that of tolerance is to do with the boundaries of what is acceptable. There is, in Scripture, no sense that the offering of hospitality leads to any burden upon the host to change their patterns of life, especially their patterns of worshipping life, in favour of that of the guest. There is, rather, an immense emphasis on the profound wrongness of doing so. There are many examples of this throughout the Old Testament, but one of the clearest is to do with Solomon, who is shown as losing his way because he is led astray by his wives, who worship different Gods. As a result of this sin the Kingdom of Israel is split into two, and never again regains the authority that it held under David and Solomon.

Biblically, then, there is no room for what is presently called ‘multiculturalism’. There is a clear emphasis upon the rights and obligations associated with hospitality, which were seen as immensely significant, literally matters of life and death. Yet an equal weight is given to the insistence on keeping the patterns of home-life and worship stable and faithful.

Why do I discuss these things? It strikes me that our disputes about immigration would benefit from this understanding of hospitality. Where there is a clear risk to life – say, as with the Jewish population of Germany in the 1930s – there is an equivalently clear obligation on a Christian community to offer hospitality, to provide the means of life to those who are in a vulnerable position. There are many contexts today where the offer of hospitality might mean the difference between life and death.

However, it seems equally clear that there is something reckless and self-destructive about changing our own inherited patterns of life, including all the rights and rituals around hospitality, in order that other cultures might be established. There is a difference between a host culture which gradually changes in order to absorb and assimilate the gifts which different cultures can bring, and a host culture which is itself radically undermined by a revolutionary change brought about by mass immigration.

I am aware that this is a sensitive issue, to say the least, and I am sure there will be many reflex responses along the lines of ‘fascist!’ ‘bigot!’ ‘racist!’ and so on – the usual litany used to close down the conversation. I want to argue that we simply need a much better discussion around these issues, one which will command a widespread cultural assent from all who live in these islands, one which preserves our capacity to give a hospitable welcome to those in need whilst also preserving our own domestic patterns of life. We need to form a new consensus about what patterns of life can fit within a right sense of hospitality, and what patterns cannot do so.

After all, we too have a right to continue as a distinct culture and community, just as much as any undiscovered tribe in Papua New Guinea or any other exotic locale. It is not a mark of wickedness to try to defend our own way of life, our own inherited norms of freedom and community. It is not in and of itself wrong for a discussion about such matters simply to end at the point of saying ‘well, this is how we do things here, this is who we are’.