Hospitality: Subversive, Radical, Political?

“Hospitality is a subversive, radical, political, act.”

That’s the provocative claim of Dr Jayme Reaves, a Dorset-based public theologian who is running a day course in Sarum College on Friday 14 September entitled Beyond Tea and Biscuits: Extending Hospitality.

“It’s not that providing tea and biscuits to guests isn’t important. It is. But it’s that hospitality is so much bigger and has much deeper implications. By welcoming someone to your table, you are recognising their worth and equality. Hospitality is radical by definition.”

Assuming we mean more than just putting the kettle on or having friends over for dinner, what exactly do we mean by “hospitality” and what role does it play in a faithful, ethical life? The day session will look at the theology of hospitality and focus on biblical, historical, and contemporary examples of its practice.

Jayme’s exploration of hospitality was informed by living Bosnia in the years after the end of the civil war, and then in Northern Ireland as the peace process embedded in the late 2000s. Her experiences in Bosnia led her to explore not only the Christian practice of hospitality, but what Christians can learn from Jewish and Muslim perspectives, especially their etiquettes in relation to honour, and how that can help Christians recover their own deep roots in hospitality.

From that came both a PhD thesis and a book, Safeguarding the Stranger: An Abrahamic Theology and Ethic of Protective Hospitality (Wipf & Stock, 2016). Her research is at the root of the short course running at Sarum.

“Broadening hospitality will always be messy and scary”, says Jayme, “As long as we are interacting with people who are ‘others’ to us, it is a given that we will offend and we will be offended at some point along the way. There is no way to practice hospitality perfectly.

“An important question for Christians and for all who want to live an ethical life is whether we are inviting the people who are not otherwise invited? Are we prepared to take the risk of violation by the stranger at the door? To intentionally practise hospitality does involve undertaking some risk, indeed it proceeds from an ethic of risk.

“While extending hospitality is risky, it’s not naive. It’s important to maintain boundaries, and the more radical the hospitality, the clearer the boundaries need to be. A free for all is not hospitality.

“Hospitality requires a host as well as a guest. The host, by definition, starts from a position of mastery over space, of knowing who he or she is, of therefore of maintaining boundaries. It can be as risky to accept hospitality as to give it.

“Welcoming the ‘other’ presents risks to the host’s ‘purity’ or potentially even survival. There is nothing wrong with wanting to preserve either of these, so practising hospitality means being clear about what your priorities are – and what your negotiables and your non-negotiables are.”

Jayme will explore hospitality’s faith-based foundations as seen in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which she believes merit greater theological attention.

“I’ve lived and worked in places where quite a bit of harm – and evil – has been done in the name of religion”, she explains, “and I know other instances where religion and faith have motivated people to do intensely good things. When you boil it down, hospitality (or the lack thereof) is usually at the root of those actions. A peaceful, well-functioning society requires a welcome and care for the ‘other’, whoever the other might be. I want to help people explore that further and find some ways we can foster those acts of good for those under threat who need others to stand up for them.

“My PhD case studies were of examples of hospitality to the ‘other’ being practised on the grounds of faith in the midst of the Bosnian Civil War, where risk was acute. Examples included the Jewish community in Sarajevo, a Muslim & Serb Orthodox village in the mountains, and a Franciscan priest who reached across religious divisions and so saved lives.

“The theological literature around hospitality to date has primarily been around either the theoretical questions of why we should welcome the other or has been around the practical expressions, limited mostly to food and drink or providing accommodation. No one has really spent any significant time looking at the inter-religious dimension or its role in conflict and peacebuilding.

“So, I sought in my book to take it further: to consider the common imperatives in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to welcome and protect the unexpected guest; to rely upon specific theological and hermeneutical approaches – feminist and liberation theology – to construct a space to consider the issue; and to meld together both the theoretical and practical in order to inform thoughtful, transformative practice going forward.”

The day course, through facilitated discussion and presentations, will be an opportunity to explore, interrogate, complicate, deconstruct, and re-define what we mean when we talk about welcoming the other.  This session will encourage practical application, especially to those involved in interfaith dialogue, immigration, community development, peace and reconciliation, and political approaches to theology and ethics.


Beyond Tea and Biscuits: Extending Hospitality runs from 10am to 4pm on Friday 14 September, and costs £60, which includes lunch and refreshments. To book telephone 01722 424826 or email courses@sarum.ac.uk.

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