Christian Hospitality as Intentional Vulnerability

ironically inhospitable church parking sign: welcome church visitors, all others park elsewhere, violators will be towed at owner expense True godliness doesn't turn [humans] out of the world, but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavors to mend it. ~ William Penn

Grounded in the restorative theology of the Church of the Brethren, I give a detailed outline of my proposed theology of hospitality as being “intentional vulnerability.” I then explore the practical application of that theology through my model of a queer bible study. I conclude by briefly encouraging churches to adopt this theology of hospitality as central to their work.

Within the Church of the Brethren, a "Christian practice" means doing the work of God: restoring the original, created sinlessness to the world by using our Christian freedom to dismantle sin. Our freedom was and is made possible by Jesus Christ's reinstatement of our pre-Fall nature to the whole of creation. Sin is the social structure or individual habit that separates us from creation, human beings, God, and ourselves. The reason that we have not yet been restored to connected relationship with all of creation and that the patterns of sin continued on after Christ's restoration is because we freely continued to follow them. Thus, to restore the earthly kin-dom of God, to recreate connected relationships among our kinfolk in God, we must use our freedom to dismantle sinful structures and habits.

Usually, a specific Christian practice is created to dismantle a specific sin. Hospitality, for instance, dismantles the overarching sin of hostility. For the purposes of this essay, I will define hostility as the refusal to see and honor the image of God (imago Dei) within all human beings. It is the practice of setting sinful and separating boundaries to meet the incorrect needs of individuals. Hostility leads communities to evaluate an individual based on their apparent differences rather than on their common imago Dei. These hostile communities then base the exclusion or inclusion of those individuals upon the ways in which they are different. They continue in the fear-based pattern of ignoring genuine needs and fulfilling artificial needs. Hospitable communities, on the other hand, seek to dismantle hostility. Christian communities dismantle hostility through the practice of what I will call "intentional vulnerability."

Some have noticed the close connection between hostility and hospitality and claimed that hospitality necessarily contains the seed of hostility within it. They claim that the setting of any boundary proclaims, "Not my people!" This is based on a definition of hospitality in which one welcomes the stranger, in which the boundary is fixed based upon fearful difference. My definition of hospitality as intentional vulnerability, however, has a different central acclamation: "My sister! My brother!" The fear of differences is overcome by the knowledge of our common createdness in God's image. The boundaries set by intentional vulnerability are based upon a caring commonality.

In order to be founded in caring commonality, my definition of hospitality sets boundaries that are both vulnerable and intentional. The hospitality of vulnerability acknowledges the imago Dei in each and every person. Because the imago Dei is obscured in a slightly different fashion within each particular individual, the boundaries of the community must be fluid, must be open to the correcting influence of a sister or brother whose imago Dei shines in a place where the community's is obscured.

The hospitality of intentionality, however, acknowledges the limits of finite individuals and their correspondingly finite needs. Intentionality leads to boundaries that have a purpose: the restoration of the finite individuals within the community. Thus, the boundaries of the community are not hostile; rather, they are equally hospitable to the needs of those within the community for rest and for strengthening. The boundaries of a hospitable community are created so that the members may be restored, both in their finite strength and in their likeness to God. Hospitality is the art of setting of intentionally vulnerable boundaries.

Hospitality is also the art of discerning needs. As both finite and in the imago Dei, we have many needs that must be met in order for us to be restored to wholeness. This discernment is accomplished through being completely vulnerable to a person, so as to understand as clearly as possible how the needs and the imago Dei within her/him are most wisely and completely fulfilled. Intentional vulnerability strives to meet genuine needs that strengthen the imago Dei and to dismantle artificial needs that obscure the imago Dei. Thus, artificial needs (e.g. the need to use life-destroying drugs, the need for a heterosexual norm), as well as genuine needs (e.g. the need for sustenance, the need for care from other people) must be considered. Intentional vulnerability leads to a greater understanding of both types of needs so that the hospitable community can meet genuine needs and can dismantle artificial needs effectively.

The meeting of genuine needs and the dismantling of artificial needs require power. Power relations, like any human interaction, can be used in ways that are virtuous or that are sinful. Power used sinfully leads to domination rather than equity, and fails to restore the kin-dom. Power used virtuously is based in God, in the restored imago Dei within us and in the support of the collective imago Dei within one's hospitable community. Our world has the sinfulness of power inequities built into its structures. Paradoxically, it is only through the giving-up of that inequitable power that equity can be restored. Virtuous use of power is found in the giving-up and sharing of power, in the equitable redistribution of power among all people. Because power relations exist at the levels of both individual and group interactions, hospitality as a restorative practice must address them at both levels. Thus, the key to the effectiveness of Christian hospitality in opposing the multiple levels of hostility is the creation of communities of hospitality, of hospitable churches.

During the past year, my church has been the Office of Religious Life at Emory University and my congregation has been the queer bible study that I facilitate through that office. Our queer bible study began in February 2004, as an effort to oppose the one-sidedness of campus discussion of Christian responses to homosexuality and the Bible. It was also an effort to meet the need I perceived for the creation of a safe space in which to build a queer religious community. I advertised the time and date on Emory's electronic conferencing system for a few weeks beforehand and those who showed up spent the spring semester studying the traditional "texts of terror" for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) individuals. We grew closer over the summer as we got together to bake bread, to watch movies, and to have potluck dinners. When the fall semester arrived, we acquired additional members through word-of-mouth and e-advertising about our queer study on the book of Job. I am writing this essay at the close of the fall semester, after our Job study has ended, as a reflection on the nature of hospitality as I came to understand it within our queer bible study group. Using this congregation as my model, I will explore the nuances of my definition of hospitality as intentional vulnerability.

For the next section of this essay, I will use my queer bible study as the real-life example of successes and failures of the virtue of intentional vulnerability at combating the vice of hostility. I will do this by exploring four artificial needs that hostility has created and which the queer bible study struggled with: homophobia, heterosexism, sexism, and religious parochialism. Homophobia is the fear of homosexuality and is hostile to people who are lesbian, gay, and bisexual. Hostility towards the same set of individuals also results from heterosexism, the fear of any sexuality other than heterosexuality. The third artificial need, sexism, values individuals based on their anatomical sex and the expectations of gender that are placed upon it; sexism fears those who do not conform to accepted standards and also leads to structures of domination over the less-valued set of sexes and genders. Sexism tends to promote hostility toward people who are biologically female, transgender (present a different gender from their biological sex), or are intersex (born with an anatomy that is not classifiable within the current standards of sex categorization as either male or female). Finally, religious parochialism is hostility to others' faith based upon a fear of losing one's own religious identity.

All of these instances of hostility are built on a shared fear: the fear of difference. This fear then creates within individuals the habits of being vulnerable only to those who are exactly like oneself. Hospitality, through recognizing the imago Dei within everyone, lessens that fear of our differences. Hospitable communities should foster distinctiveness, rather than seeking sameness.

Had we attempted homogeneity within our bible study, the imago Dei within our fellow congregation members would never have had the chance to shine so strongly in our lives. I would not have known the Hindu student whose questions encourage us to face the human condition (not just the North American, White, Protestant condition), whose position as devoted friend to a conservative Baptist individual makes our bible study and inquiry all the more pressing and real, and whose friendship has been a true joy to me. I would not have known the science major whose faith in others and in God is unfathomably deep, whose heart is as wide as the ocean, and whose love has strengthened me immeasurably. I would not have known the public policy guru whose pointed questions about assumptions and political realities have taken our conversations to a higher plane and whose partner bakes a delicious loaf of bread around which to gather. I would not have known the Jewish student whose ability to create beautiful and illuminating midrash preached truth to us all. I would not have known the evangelical minister whose willingness to be vulnerable to our group has given us the courage to be vulnerable in return, whose genuine, Christian love has been a witness to us all, and whose open conversation has rebuilt my trust in the promise of the Church. I would not have known the minister-in-training whose deep roots in the Black church brought to us the gifts of biblical knowledge and a faith that lives, breathes, and sings. We would not have known each other, would not have begun to see that-of-God shining within each of our distinctive selves, had we not made the intentional choice to be vulnerable to individuals who were not exactly like us in every way.

As previously noted, there are many specific instances of this general sin of being intentionally closed and exclusive. The most obvious areas of hostility that our congregation is aimed at dismantling are homophobia and heterosexism. We will now explore the ways in which intentional vulnerability can be applied to the artificial needs created by these twin sins.

The number of congregations that actually value their LGBTQ members as necessary to their growth into perfection is very small. There are a few congregations that tolerate LGBTQ people, a few that include them, but almost no congregations that wholeheartedly feel the lack in their own community if LGBTQ people are absent. Thus, the churches have created an artificial need among LGBTQ individuals for intentionally bounded religious space in interactions both internal and external to their congregations.

Ironically, there was still homophobia and heterosexism to be opposed internal to our queer congregation. Within the first few weeks, I was agonizing over whether I should reveal my own sexuality to the other members. As the chaplain of the group, I wasn't sure if my vulnerability was allowed. I was letting the heterosexual norm - so often found within the larger church's pastorate - dictate my closedness. When I did finally reveal my own queer identity, when I was vulnerable to my congregation, we were no longer so separated. In addition, the intentionally safe boundaries of our congregation, as a place in which we could be vulnerable about our sexuality, strengthened our practice of hospitality.

On the other hand, one might accuse the queer bible study, by its very name, of being guilty of heterophobia, of being inhospitable to heterosexuals. This is where the concept of intentionality within my definition of hospitality can be especially illuminating. Asking what purpose is served in each instance of meeting with others can lead to a healthy set of boundaries for a congregation. For instance, part of a congregation's central role in fostering hospitality is the creation of a bounded space within which its members can be completely vulnerable and know that they are safe. This necessitates excluding some individuals - temporarily. However, all heterosexuals have not been excluded from this particular group, only those around whom it would be unsafe to be completely vulnerable in the area of sexuality. This group has set its boundary in such a way that they can attain fearless vulnerability at certain, intentionally-located times and places.

At other times and places, however, the group encourages interaction with those external to the congregation who are vocally heterosexist or homophobic. We have even made an impact on the larger religious structures at Emory! Our group has been used in discussions to defend the identity of "queer Christian" as legitimate. Our congregation members have used the strength we've given each other to have intentionally vulnerable discussions with those who don't agree with us. We were invited to participate in a conversation on homosexuality and same-sex marriage with one of the evangelical Christian groups at Emory, and were intentionally treated with great attentiveness to our similar natures as children of God within the bounds of that conversation. Allies we had gained were even present to increase our ability to be vulnerable within that conversation. Thus, we also intentionally exercised our vulnerability externally to our congregation's safe boundaries.

The key distinction between these two types of interaction is their purpose within the group. The first, internal interaction aims at the building up, the strengthening of the congregation to oppose hostility towards their sexuality. The second, external interaction cannot take place unless the first succeeds. Likewise, the congregation cannot be genuinely vulnerable, truly hospitable, in the second interaction unless the individuals within the congregation have built up their inner strength within the first interaction. The aim of the second interaction, therefore, is to oppose the structures of homophobia and heterosexism at more of a social level and requires the individual potency developed in the first interaction in order to sustain virtuous habits within sinful social structures.

Closely related to the sinful hostility expressed in homophobia and heterosexism is that of sexism. Within many of the churches, those who are female, transgender, or intersex are excluded from full participation. Such churches are committed to an exclusive structure in which male equals masculine, female equals feminine, and those are the only set of options for every human being. This system of stark division also tends to give power to only one half of this equation, devaluing that which is not-male or not-masculine. Thus, the churches have created an artificial need among individuals for a religious space in which neither anatomical sex characteristics nor gender presentation determines an individual's worth or role.

Most of the individuals within the queer bible study are biologically female. Leadership by female and feminine individuals within our group has amplified our ability to be vulnerable, as vulnerability is a traditionally feminine habit. It has given us a strength that cannot be found in only masculine congregations. Thus, in our openness to diverse combinations of gender presentations and sex characteristics, we reinforce the idea that the imago Dei is found in everyone.

However, some of the power dynamics of domination/submission that one encounters in more masculine-centered settings were still present within the habits of our members. I, in particular, had domination firmly embedded within my habits of leadership. I attempted to be vulnerable to the needs of others and to facilitate, rather than control, the group's formation and process of growth. However, my habits of control, learned in an earlier, masculine-dominated congregation, spilled over into this one. I projected my artificial needs upon the group. This semester we studied the book of Job because I, the "expert", decided that it was a good book of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures for an oppressed group to study and with which to sympathize. I was inhospitable in my choice of text because I used power to force the congregation to meet my needs rather than our needs.

Due to my own internalized homophobia, I wanted our congregation to be like "normal" bible study groups. I wanted us to study a book of the bible in a deep fashion that did not necessarily require us to use a queer perspective. I ostensibly chose Job because it explored the "why do bad things happen to good people" question: one very close to the hearts of those who are queer Christians. However, because I ignored my own habit of homophobia, I was hostile to those who specifically needed to continue the discussion of sexuality and sacred scriptures. Had I been more intentional in discerning the artificiality of my need, had I been more vulnerable to the needs of the other members of the group, perhaps our group would have grown even closer to each other and to God during this semester.

This brings me to another area of hostility we encountered: parochial religiosity. Members of our congregation identify as Baptist, Jewish, nondenominational Christian - both evangelical and undecided, Hindu, Church of the Brethren, and agnostic. The overwhelming strength of our group has been this very diversity of religious tradition. By not continuing to discuss sexuality in light of non-Christian traditions' scriptures, a need the group had clearly expressed, my own sinful habit of Christian insularity was made tangible.

The corrective to this instance of hostility, of domination, is the equitable sharing of power. I could have facilitated the bible study in a more hospitable fashion if I had been intentionally vulnerable, if I had given over the power of text-choices to the group. However, as we have studied exclusively Christian texts to date, the suggestion of our Hindu member is a good corrective to this imbalance. Having made contact with a Hindu campus group, we will be studying the Bhagavad Gita with them next semester. In order for the requirements of hospitable equity to be met, we will be reading the Gita in light of an ethical theme that is common to many faith traditions, including Christianity. In this vulnerable offering of themselves by the Hindu group, their bright shining begins the correction of my smudged imago Dei.

In this essay, I have dealt with a few areas of distinctiveness toward which a Christian congregation should be intentionally vulnerable. There are still other areas of distinctiveness that also need to be discussed: age, national origin, occupation, language, race, relationship status, economic status, criminal history, etc. Exclusion based on any of these areas is the expression of an artificial need created by fearful hostility. No distinctiveness should cause someone to be excluded from full participation and inclusion in the church. In fact, that very distinctiveness is cause for their full inclusion, in order that the church be strengthened in its self-correcting ability.

In the preceding discussion of my queer bible study's struggle against artificial needs surrounding sexuality, sex and gender, and religious identity, I hope I have adequately illustrated the potential of intentional vulnerability to restore the church and the world to true kin-dom in God. Through vulnerability to difference and needs and through the use of restorative, intentional boundaries, we can create hospitable, rather than hostile, Christian communities. I encourage both individual Christians and churches to begin the godly work of deconstructing their own sinful structures and habits, as I have tried to begin in this short essay. By reclaiming the universal imago Dei, we can realize what was promised in the resurrection of Jesus Christ: restored relationships with our kinfolk and further growth into the image of God!

Originally posted January 11, 2005 at: