This article was originally presented at the Connecting Families annual retreat, April 16, 2005, Ligonier, Pennsylvania. It has been slightly revised since the oral presentation.
The Biblical Importance of Hospitality
Introduction. I have three themes I want to discuss in this article. First, I want to share some biblical and theological reflections; second, to tell some stories; and, third, to point forward.
My overall concern is with reflecting on one question – why does the “gay issue” matter – especially for Christian communities, in particular for Mennonite churches?
For ease of expression, I will be using “gay issue” in my article – by this I mean especially the issues that have been swirling in our churches for some time now over how the church will treat men and women who love other men and women. Whenever I use this term, “gay issue,” I mean the so-called gay issue. As I hope will become clear in my comments, what I actually mean is the “anti-gay issue” or the “bigotry issue” or the “failure of hospitality” issue.
During the past 20 years I have found myself feeling a sense of urgency to try to convince others in the churches, those who don’t share my welcoming views, that we do have an important issue here in the sense that the status quo is unjust and needs to be rethought. What I have come to realize, though, is those who are comfortable with the status quo (or those who fear it changing) are best served by denying my sense of urgency, by working not to hear my concerns, by stifling conversation and debate.
However, I am realizing even more that the most serious basis for urgency is not that those of us unhappy with the status quo need to find some way to change it. Rather, I now believe that the urgency has to do with the very viability of my institutional church, the Mennonite Church USA. That is, when I think about why the gay issue matters, I am thinking not so much that it matters for gay people and their friends. It is not that this “issue” is an issue of whether gay people and their friends can somehow persuade the church to let us in and let us have a voice. No, I think more and more it is an issue simply of whether the church is going to retain its living connection with its lord and with its biblical roots.
So, let’s look at some things the Bible tells us about what a living connection between God and faith communities is about. I believe this living connection is most about hospitality. And, as I will try to illustrate in part two, the “gay issue” matters, at least in part, because it is where our church institutions are being severely tested – and too often found wanting.
God’s presence among human beings. One of my passions is to make the case that if we genuinely care about peace and justice in our world today, if we genuinely care about bringing healing among alienated human beings, if we genuinely care about being in solidarity with vulnerable people, then *we are on the side of the Bible.* The Bible, when read as a whole, is a manifesto for justice. The Bible does not belong to the militarists, the punishers, the homophobes, or even the bureaucrats who defend the status quo.
I believe the central message of the Bible may be summarized in this way: God loves the world and its people and grieves the pain and alienation that characterizes so much of human existence. God’s love finds expression when human beings love other human beings. God seeks to bring healing to the world through this love for people and among people. The main way God brings healing is by working through communities that know and share God’s love. We see this in the crucial story the comes early on – God calling Abraham and Sarah, promising that although Sarah has been unable to bear children, God now will give the couple descendants – and that these descendants will bless all the families of the earth. God creates this particular community of the promise in order to use it as a channel to bring healing to the entire world.
The rest of the Bible tells of this community of the promise – arguing throughout that God’s promise remains alive. The crucial point of interpretation of the Bible arises right here – why did God establish this community? Is it so that people who know the truth, who are the special elect ones, will be in paradise with God while those outside the promise will weep and gnash their teeth? Or, is it so that these people of the promise might be the channel for God’s love, God’s blessing to spread to all the families of the earth?
I believe the Bible clearly teaches, when read as a whole, that God calls the community of the promise not to be a place that excludes outsiders for the sake of God blessing the insiders. God calls the community of the promise so that in the end there will be no insiders and outsiders, but that all may know the healing power of God’s love. As self-proclaimed heirs of this promise, are our churches truly channels for healing?
The Bible provides us with pretty clear criteria for measuring our communities’ faithfulness. In a word, going back to Genesis, the central criterion of faithfulness is the community’s hospitality. Hospitality is themes measuring stick. Practically, in biblical times, human life in a largely harsh, unforgiving physical world was fragile. Desert people need each other; they rely on hospitality from others for their survival. Even more, hospitality takes on a profoundly spiritual dimension – our relationship with God is determined by our willingness to live hospitably. Faith communities that refuse hospitality are cutting themselves off from their life source.
I want briefly to trace this theme in the Bible, giving only a few obvious examples of what I believe can be found in detail throughout both Testaments.
I will start with a couple of examples that actually are a little ironic in relation to the “gay issue.” Both the Sodom story in Genesis 18–20 and the teaching in the Holiness Code of Leviticus 18–20 are concerned above all with hospitality as defining faithful living in relationship with God.
The Sodom story is actually a hospitality story that contrasts the failure of hospitality in Sodom with Abraham’s hospitality as the chosen channel of God’s blessing. First the angels visit Abraham prior to going to Sodom. Abraham models what Sodom should have done. He gives the angels a welcome, showing genuine hospitality. After their visit to Abraham, the next place the angels go is to Sodom. Rather than hospitality, they are threatened with rape.
This story, thus, holds up Abraham as the model of hospitality in contrast to Sodom. As part of this model, Abraham actually intercedes with God on behalf of Sodom – being so bold as to remind God of God’s loving and just character while pleading with God to show mercy to Sodom.
Leviticus 18–20 is a very different kind of literature than the stories of Genesis. These chapters are the heart of the Holiness Code in the Old Testament law. And at the heart of this section, in Leviticus 19, we get a picture of what holiness is, and, it is not God punishing those who violate the call to purity.
Leviticus 19 teaches. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (19:2). These are some manifestations of this holiness: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien” (19:9-10). “You shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind” (19:13b-14). “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (19:33-34).
At its core, holiness includes hospitality toward the vulnerable people in the community – the poor, the alien, the laborer, the deaf, the blind. Elsewhere we also read of the widow, the orphan, the daughter.
Later on, prophets raise voices of concern. Israel has lost its moorings, has departed from God’s will for their lives. A sure sign of Israel’s crises may be seen in the lack of hospitality, the disregarding of the concerns of Torah for the vulnerable members of the community.
Probably most forcefully, the prophet Amos makes clear that injustice and inhospitality are sure signs that amidst Israel’s apparent prosperity, something is rotten. A catastrophe is coming to the people of Israel, Amos cries, “because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (2:6-7). Amos goes on to assert that when the community is so inhospitable, their very worship is sinful. To tolerate such injustice and then turn to God as if it does not matter is the worst of blasphemies.
Catastrophes are visited upon the people. The great empires, Assyria and Babylon, bring ruin to Israel. According to the prophets, though, the deepest problem did not come from these outside enemies but from within. With its kings, its quest for prosperity, its disregard of the true meaning of holiness, the community had departed from its calling. The community was far, far away from being a blessing to the families of the earth – rather, it imitated the worst injustices of the inhospitable nations of the earth.
God keeps the community going, though. When Jesus comes onto the scene, the core issue of hospitality surfaces again front and center. For Jesus, the central criterion of faithfulness may be seen in the call to hospitality.
Jesus made a point of showing welcome specifically toward those considered “unwell” (that is, outside the circle of approved and “pure” religiosity). And this was not simply because he had a soft spot in his heart for strays. Jesus portrayed salvation itself as directly tied to such welcome.
One time, Jesus responded to the question about eternal life with an affirmation of following the commandments – which he summarizes as loving God and loving neighbor – quoting Leviticus 19. When pushed as to whom the neighbor actually is, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. This story packs an amazing punch when we realize that the kind of hospitality illustrated here (again, being linked directly with salvation) is risky, unconditional, and counter to any kind of boundary line that seeks to separate faithful insiders from outsider “sinners” – remember, the Samaritans were the worst of sinners to Jerusalem-centered Jews.
One other place Jesus directly connects salvation with hospitality. Matthew 25 tells a parable of the day of judgment, the separation of those who inherit the kingdom and those who are excluded from the kingdom. What is the criterion? “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (25:35-36). When did we do these things for you? “Truly, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (25:40).
The entire world, so rent by costly hostility, needs examples of healing hospitality. When God called Abraham and Sarah to bless all the families of the earth through the hospitable communities their children would form, this was why. And when Abraham and Sarah’s children instead form communities that reinforce hostility, that refuse hospitality, they become a curse rather than a blessing.
Jesus himself spoke directly to this choice, hospitality or hostility, blessing or curse: “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13).
To summarize, I am suggesting that the Bible teaches from start to finish that the authenticity of the communities that have professed their faith in Yahweh, the God of Israel, may be seen most clearly in the quality of their hospitality. By definition, this hospitality is tested most tellingly in relation to vulnerable people, the people who most need it, perhaps, we could even say, the people the communities have the most difficulty welcoming.
I will be going on to suggest that sexual minorities, gay, people whose affectional orientations do not fit into the narrow heterosexual mold, today offer our churches an opportunity – let us see how we are doing. How authentic to the biblical model are our communities? How much are we tending toward hospitality – and how much toward hostility? How truly are our churches serving as channels of salvation?
And I will speak from my own experience as a Mennonite over the past 25 years to reflect on some ways our Mennonite churches have fallen short.
How are Mennonite Communities Doing?
If we recognize that hospitality lies at the core of our faith, I think then we will also want to think about how we are doing – where are we most challenged?
My intent now is to argue that the “gay issue” among Christians serves as a litmus test concerning hospitality. I will do this by giving some illustrations – one question to think about as I am talking is how representative my illustrations might be. Is this in general the way our Mennonite churches are? Am I right in suggesting that we are facing a major spiritual crisis?
Another question, leading to part three, is what can and should we be doing about this problem? If hospitality stands at the core of our faith, if inhospitality toward gays signals a major spiritual crisis, where does that leave us?
Christianity’s hostility toward sexual minorities. That the Christian churches have failed dismally to offer hospitality to gays and lesbians is a generalization with all too much truth to it. These are a few paragraphs from Louis Crompton’s recent book, Homosexuality and Civilization.
“During the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas appealed to natural law and called all non-procreative sex acts treasonous rebellion against God. A contemporary English law decreed that ‘the inquisitors of Holy Church’ should seek sodomites to put them to death. These were not idle threats. We know of executions in Switzerland, in Spain, in the Low Countries, in France, and in Italian cities. In Spain, more than a thousand men were tried by the Inquisition for sodomy, and in some years more were executed for sexual than for doctrinal heresy.
“Executions also became common under Calvin and his successors in Protestant Geneva, and in the Netherlands a nationwide pogrom was launched so that, as the authorities put it, ‘God might not punish the iniquity of the land with his terrible judgments.’ Executions in England clearly result from centuries of campaigning by clergy who called upon the nation to ‘exterminate the monsters.’…”
I think we may say there are signs of progress in recent years. But make no mistake, we still have Christians in our society who would happily return to the practice of criminalizing same-sex sexual intimacy. The struggle is far from over. Working to make our faith communities places of genuine hospitality remains a challenge.
Mennonite hostility toward sexual minorities. How about the Mennonite churches? Based on my summary of the biblical message concerning hospitality compared to my experience in our churches, I think our tradition is in crisis if our standard for health is being a biblical people.
The signs of the crisis are not only official condemnations of gay Christians in intimate relationships. Remember, the official documents have balancing emphases. People of good conscience supported those documents because of the balance. Some of you may have noticed Elaine Summers Rich’s comments in a recent Mennonite Weekly. “When I voted for the resolution on sexuality at the General Conference Mennonite Church assembly in Saskatoon, Sask., in 1986, I thought I was voting for continuing to listen to one another in the search for truth. I never dreamed that the resolution would be interpreted as a litmus test for who could or couldn’t become a minister” (February 7, 2005, p.8) – or, members, we could add.
The biggest problem lies with how these statements have been used – the problem lies with process. Promises made in the 1980s that Mennonite churches would have open processes of dialogue and discernment have not been kept. I will give several examples of actual experiences that seem to me to reveal dynamics that, if widespread, would indicate that we are facing a spiritual crisis among Mennonites. I tell these stories with the intent of stimulating theological reflection more than focusing on these experiences themselves. I am trying to illustrate an underlying problem – that in our churches we tend to short-circuit careful, respectful process and mutual respect and discernment because of our blindness to the importance of hospitality. The “gay issue” is helping to make this failure more clear.
I will talk about three different types of experiences – complications over pastoral ordination, the ending of employment for gay and lesbian employees of Mennonite institutions, and the disciplining of congregations. My main point in telling these stories is to point toward the breakdown in processes, the lack of care and respect, the ways in which Mennonites have been so quick to short-circuit mutual, patient discernment. I am not meaning to emphasize unacceptable outcomes here, rather unacceptable processes that I am suggesting reflect a spiritual crisis as measured by failures in offering hospitality.
*(1) Ordination.* I will tell of three ordination crises.
I began my first pastorate in 1987, just after General Assembly approved the Purdue Statement on human sexuality. About a year later, the congregation requested of its Conference that I be ordained. I met with the conference leadership committee, and when asked about the Statement, I said it was good, I expected to use it in my work, I especially appreciated the call for on-going talk about these complex issues. When I was asked if there was anything I did not agree with, I said that I was not yet sure what I believed about the statement’s assertion that all same-sex sex is sinful. I was still in process, unable to say for sure if I agreed or disagreed.
One committee member then insisted that no one who was uncertain on this issue should be ordained. He would not budge, and thus began a three-year ordeal. Finally, I was ordained, but not before three conference pastors threatened the conference minister two days before the ordination to take their churches out of the conference if I were ordained. Later, these pastors engineered an attempt at the delegate session to have the delegates reject the Leadership Committee’s report, hoping such action would invalidate the ordination. That failed by one vote.
Even though the conference had ordained me, I was now suspect. This deep suspicion played a big role in my family’s decision to relocate to a different area.
My second crisis came when I added my name to the “Welcoming Letter” in the Mennonite Weekly in February 2000 challenging Mennonites to be hospitable to gays. I did not know this at the time, but I was the only ordained person in my conference to sign the letter.
No one from conference leadership talked with me about this prior to the following summer, when the conference began disciplinary proceedings against me. When informed of their action, I became a bit testy and asked how they could take such an action without ever talking with me. To their credit, they did relent and actually rescinded their action. During this time, I was pressured at my work to give up my ordination. I was told if the conference took my ordination I would be fired. I asked if it would matter whether the conference action were unjust. I was told most people who are disciplined think the action is unjust. Since my superior was not in a position to judge the justice of the action, he would have to act simply in terms of whatever action the conference took.
As it turned out, I did receive some support from high places within the conference. I had to meet for a year with a committee of three conference overseers to discuss the Mennonite Confession of Faith. These meetings were actually pretty congenial and at the end of the process I was endorsed by this committee and hence freed from further scrutiny.
My wife, Kathleen Temple, pastoring at the time, chose not to sign the Welcome Letter though she wanted to. She remained low key in the congregation. She withdrew from active involvement in our neighborhood welcoming support group. She met regularly with her overseer. She met with conference reps and promised not to commit “contrary advocacy.”
Even though the official conference position stated that the conference is forbidding “contrary advocacy” (that is, public expression of support for gays and lesbians) not asking for “full assent of mind and will,” it was made clear in her meeting with conference people that indeed their problem was with her beliefs. When her overseer realized that she was not going to change her beliefs, he reported this to the conference and they began action to take away Kathleen’s ordination – based totally at that point on her beliefs – as she had continued to avoid “contrary advocacy.”
The timing of events then served to hide that the conference was going to act based on her beliefs. Two friends who were having a union ceremony asked the two of us to be part of the service. We said we could not “perform” the ceremony, but would “participate” in ways that would have nothing to do with the actual vows and committal part of the wedding.
This provided the conference cover to claim that the action they were taking to revoke Kathleen’s ordination was because of this ceremony. She was told – resign your ordination quietly or you will have it taken.
Two huge ironies underscore the corruption of this process. First, throughout this whole process, Kathleen continually received affirmation from conference leaders that she was doing a very good job as our congregation’s pastor. So, what was the ordination about then, if it was not about her serving as our pastor? They said, you are doing a great job and we hope you continue pastoring, but we are taking your ordination away anyhow.
The second irony was that I, too, “participated” in the ceremony. When I was questioned by my overseer (a different one than Kathleen’s), I said that I had understood that what was forbidden was performing the ceremony, not participating in any way. I agreed to write a letter of apology saying that I had not realized the conference would have such antipathy toward even participation. With my overseer’s support, I submitted this letter and was exonerated.
More recently, I heard second-hand that a Conference leader expressed regret that they had not handled Kathleen’s situation very well and that he wished they had worked at a solution similar to what happened with me. Sadly, though, he has never told Kathleen this.
*(2) Dis-employment.* It seems now to be automatic for some Mennonite institutions to dismiss openly gay employees. In one case, a long term and successful employee was confronted and told immediately to resign. No due process, no assumption that the employee’s loyalty and quality of service deserved giving her the benefit of the doubt in resolving the situation.
In a second case, a recently hired employee was asked whether he was in a relationship with another man. He answers yes, but to conform to the institution’s stated policy (no sex outside of marriage) he and his partner had made a commitment to remain celibate while he was working at his institution. In this case, the policy was interpreted by administrators to mean no “relationships,” not no “sex,” and the employee was fired on the spot. Later, due to staffing needs he was reinstated to finish the semester, but only on the condition that he move out of his house for that time.
In a third case, another employee had let it be known that he was gay, but single (and would remain so as long as he worked at his institution). He spoke to a student group about his sense of his own identity as a gay man. A written version found its way into the hands of an area pastor, who complained to his administrators. This employee was in the midst of a contract review and up until this point had been given clear indicators that he was in good shape.
The first word from his supervisor he was not in “good shape” was when she informed him that he would be losing his job. The rationale was couched in other terms – but these “other terms” were vague and supported by little or no evidence. He was given no warning prior to his dismissal that these “problems” even existed and had no opportunity to try to address them.
One of the most obvious common links in all three cases is the extreme vulnerability of these employees. As sexual minorities they were up against the full weight of the institution with virtually no protection.
*(3) Congregational expulsion.* Broad Street Mennonite Church is a tiny congregation in Harrisonburg, Virginia. A few years ago, the congregation agreed to let a friend of one of Broad Street’s members use their building for her union ceremony, a ceremony in no way connected with the church. Then, an area pastor contacted leaders of Broad Street’s district demanding that the ceremony not be allowed in the church building. Ironically, within just a few weeks of his complaint (and in spite of the remarkably rapid response of the district to act against Broad Street) this pastor pulled his congregation out of the conference anyhow.
Almost immediately after the complaint, district leaders contacted Broad Street, demanding that they not allow the ceremony. The congregation refused to back out on their commitment, and in the course of the conversation admitted that even though the people who would be using the building were not connected with the congregation, the congregation did not believe it was wrong for same-sex couples to share life together in this way.
With breathtaking speed, first the district and then the conference moved to expel Broad Street. Almost exactly one year from the time concerns were first raised with the congregation, its expulsion was consummated. Once again, hostility trumped hospitality. Anxiety and fear trumped careful process. The benefit of the doubt went toward quick expulsion, not finding ways of working out differences while sustaining the fellowship.
The common thread in all these stories is power being used to push vulnerable people out. How representative are my stories? Are there others like these? Are these cases signs of a spiritual crisis in our church? How seriously should we take the norm of hospitality as the indicator of spiritual health? How do our churches stack up?
Seeking to Embody Hospitality
So, what do we do? Let me reflect on three ideas. (1) We need to embrace the full legitimacy of all communities of hope and resistance that do practice biblical hospitality; (2) we need to recognize that the institutional churches (including denominational structures and regional conferences) are fallen powers, capable of both great good and terrible evil, worthy of our critical support and efforts to improve them, but not worthy of loyalty that would cause us to hurt others; and (3) we need to do our biblical and theological work to construct a theology for inclusion, refusing to give up the Bible to the forces of inhospitality.
(1) Let us take seriously Jesus’ words, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among you” (Matthew 18:20). Let us embrace all gatherings where we come together to share life, to kick against the darkness, to encourage one another to take courage and keep the faith – let us embrace these gatherings as authentic expressions of the church of God.
In Powers of the Weak, Elizabeth Janeway writes of two core empowerment strategies for people who seem to be “weak” – gather together in communities of mutual support and cultivate a sense of disbelief toward the messages given by the powers that be.
Our various ad hoc gatherings are expressions of God’s healing strategy, direct heirs of the community God formed with Abraham and Sarah, essential parts of the Spirit’s blessing all the families of the earth. If the core mission of God’s people is hospitality, let us indeed make our congregations, conferences, and denominations as hospitable as we can, but let us also remember that any hospitable group joins in the line of God’s endorsed communities, not only “official” institutions. If the organized church is indeed deathly ill with the disease of inhospitality, let us build healthy communities wherever we can that will send green shoots up through the cracks in the rubble of the old edifices.
(2) The institutional church is a human institution like all others. I have become increasingly negative about traditional two-kingdom ways of thinking that assume that we have some kind of qualitative difference between “Christian” communities and institutions and “worldly” communities and institutions. One problem with this separation is that we end up not appreciating that life-affirming things happen in the world. The other problem with this separation is that it can blind us to the fallenness of our “Christian” institutions, including our churches.
Applying Walter Wink’s discussion of the principalities and powers to the church is helpful. The church is created good, is fallen, and is redeemable – all at once. We need organizational structures to sustain life and faith. I am grateful to the Mennonite tradition, the worldwide network of Mennonite friends we have established over the past twenty-five years, the long-standing peace tradition that continues to inspire and encourage me.
Yet our institutions have a life of their own – and like with other institutions, our church structures can tend to take God’s place as the focus of our loyalty. The big test always is the violence test – do our loyalties to our institutions justify hurting people? We must demythologize our church structures, recognize that they are fallen too, every bit as capable of separating us from God’s love as any other fallen human institution.
An amazing book, William Stringfellow’s An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, gives us profound insights into the principalities and powers. He states that while we do have evil people in high places, the most dangerous people are the “good, well-meaning” people who give their highest loyalty to their institutions. The sign of this kind of idolatry is, again, the willingness to hurt people for the sake of the survival of the institution. People in church institutions do this all the time.
Yet, as Wink insists, the powers (including the church) are also always redeemable. We can seek, with some basis for hope, to make our institutions more humane, more hospitable. I would say, for one example, we can seek to move the MC USA toward the old General Conference polity that allowed congregations essential freedom to act on their own discernment when it came to membership issues. If, like the old General Conference, it were simply impossible for conferences to kick churches out, we would all be forced to be respectful of our differences.
The key in working at redeeming the powers, though, is always to keep central our identity as people of hospitality. There are certain core elements of the identity of the authentic people of God that must never be compromised for the sake of any institution – and I hope I have made a persuasive case that hospitality toward vulnerable people is one of those elements.
I believe that as we struggle with sexuality issues and the needs of our institutions, we need to strive always to work with two givens, two certainties that we do not give up – one is that our institutions have legitimate needs and concerns and these must be respected, the other is that we do not hurt people in order to respect those needs and concerns. If we would strive to hold to both, we will be freed to be creative in ways we maybe cannot imagine right now. Unfortunately, as long as hurting people is allowed for (even, supposedly as a “last resort”) we tend to short circuit our creative processes and take the easy way out.
(3) I have tried to show how we might utilize the Bible as a resource for inclusion. It takes work to study and apply the Bible as such a resource, and to frame our convictions about hospitality, inclusion, compassion, and resistance to oppression and violence in overtly biblical and theological terms. However, I believe more every day that doing so is not twisting the Bible to our own agenda but actually keeping faith with the truest biblical message.
Certainly, all who live for hospitality and resistance to oppression are to be celebrated. Nor do I even mean to hint that only biblical people have a legitimate basis for such convictions. But for those of us who have thrown our lot in with this particular tradition, we have a resource of tremendous power in this book with its stories and instruction. And, the thing is, this tremendous power can also be a power for oppression and inhospitality, as we know all too well. We simply can not give up on this struggle for the heart and soul of the Bible.