Not at-home: rethinking hospitality and homelessness

This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in memory of the homeless from our area who had died. Gathered in the early dark of the winter solstice, a group comprised of homeless persons, service providers, and local residents read from a necrology, including twenty names new to the list this year. As we were asked to remember these lives, one of the speakers asked us to remember also that Jesus Christ had been born homeless.

This certainly wasn’t the first time I had heard this remark. In my experience, discussions about Christ’s homelessness usually concern his poverty with heated arguments about the amount of property appropriate for a Christian following shortly thereafter. Although these kinds of debates are meaningful, I would like to discuss Christ’s being without home in philosophical terms, specifically in relation to Jacques Derrida’s configuration of hospitality.

I.  Invitation

As both shelter from the world and threshold open to the world, the concept of “home” encapsulates a tension between inside and outside. In some sense, the self finds (even makes) itself at home. For Jacques Derrida, it is from the shelter of home that we exercise our sovereignty as host by filtering and selecting.[1] In this way, home introduces the concept of hospitality. In hospitality, inside (I as host) and outside (negotiating threshold) weigh against one another. The guest is expected in as far as the guest is invited. In this way, invitation is an exercise in self-assertion; the host employs the power of hospitality to limit openness to the world.[2]

But it is on this point that Derrida questions whether hospitality is accomplished in invitation. In accepting invitation, the other enters my home, my place, and, subsequently, comes under my power. In fact, the word “invitation” finds its origins in a Latin root that can also mean “incite” or “challenge.” Likewise, the root of guest (hostis) includes not only “stranger,” but the more threatening “enemy.”[3] In this way, the words most closely associated with hospitality shape the threat to the self at-home and so expose hospitality’s potential problems. When the performance of hospitality becomes unbalanced by perceived threat, the result is an overemphasis on self-assertion to the near disappearance of receptivity.

Derrida, for his part, is aware of this quality hospitality. Appealing to the flexibility in the French word hôte, Derrida attempts to fundamentally subvert the power of the host by making the host dependent on the arrival to the guest.

 “So it is indeed the master, the one who invites, the inviting host, who becomes the hostage—and who really always has been.  And the guest, the invited hostage, becomes the one who invites the one who invites, the master of the host.  The guest becomes the host’s host.  The guest (hôte) becomes the host (hôte) of the host (hôte).”[4]

When hôte greets hôte on the threshold, it is difficult to determine which is poised to enter and which is welcoming in.

What is left unaddressed by this subversion of host and guest is the question of home implicit in hospitality. More accurately, being-at-home shapes a self haunted by the specter of aggressive self-assertion. However, Christ’s homelessness presents a way of unthinking the allure of home as shelter and refuge complimentary to Derrida’s formulation. Christ models a homeless hospitality, a hospitality centered on visitation rather than invitation, a hospitality that goes out instead of welcoming in.

II. Visitation

In Scripture, Jesus is rarely depicted at-home. As I was reminded at the memorial service, Jesus was born in a barn after his mother was turned away from more traditional shelter (Luke 2:1-7). Shortly thereafter, Jesus was exiled to a foreign county (Matthew 2:13-18)[5]. In his adult life, Jesus refuses the comforts of home, the institutions of his religion, and even the homeless isolation conventional for a prophet. Instead, he wanders throughout the countryside in the company of others. Finally, Jesus is arrested and executed while in Jerusalem on pilgrimage.

More importantly, homelessness shapes Jesus’ interactions with other people. In a cultural where hospitality was central to relationship building, Jesus’ homelessness refuses to allow the practice of hospitality to be inscribed at-home. While sometimes he visits a person in their home, more often Jesus meets people in public spaces. Jesus welcomes a Samaritan woman at a well. (John 4:1-42).  On the way to Jairus’ home, he cures another woman of an illness, blessing her as “daughter.” (Luke 8:40-48) Jesus feeds a crowd that has gathered in the open to hear his teaching. (Mark 8:1-10) In going-out rather than being at-home, visitation rather than invitation, Jesus creates a new space of welcome beyond the confines of home.[6]

III. An example

The calling of Matthew is an illustration of the way Jesus’ homeless hospitality compliments Derrida’s subversion of hôte. According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus takes notice of Matthew at his place of business, a tax office. Although taxes are nearly universally disliked, taxation in this context was not merely an annoyance, but a symbol of Israel’s oppression by the Romans. Therefore, when Jesus meets Matthew at his tax office, he is, in some sense, meeting the threat of the enemy.

Jesus invites Matthew: “Follow me.” At first glance, it would appear that Jesus is functioning as host. However, as we have seen, Jesus is without home of his own. In point of this fact, Jesus’ invitation leads Matthew back to Matthew’s own house. Ostensibly, Jesus has invited himself over. But this is precisely what Derrida is trying to describe when he writes:

“…the master of the house is at home, but nonetheless he comes to enter his home through the guest—who comes from outside.  The master thus enters from the inside as if he came from the outside.  He enters his home thanks to the visitor, by the grace of the visitor.” [7]

Jesus’ hospitable visitation has inaugurated Matthew as host. However, there remains a final subversion that Derrida’s description does not quite capture.

After having entered his home, having been crowned as host, Matthew then quits his home.[8] He leaves in order to follow Jesus to the only habitation Jesus can offer, himself. The hospitable visitation of Christ at once blesses home and eliminates its necessity. Christ, the visitor, becomes the only suitable home.

IV. Conclusion

In Jesus’ homelessness, we find ourselves impossibly hospitable and capable of welcome in way that captures Derrida’s best intentions. The model offered by Christ decisively intertwines guest and host in an embrace from which they cannot release one another.  In this way, hospitality exceeds the tensions inherent to in invitation and include a going out in visitation toward others, celebrating their position as host, and occupying together, even for a time as brief as a church service, a new space of welcome.

 


[1] Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality, transl. Rachel Bowlby, (Stanford: Stanford Univerity Press, 2000), 53-4.

[2] Derrida, Of Hospitality, 53-4.

[3] LATdict, http://www.latdict.com/info/word/24669.html, 2008 Kevin D. Mahoney, 12/7/2008.

[4] Derrida, Of Hospitality, 23-5.

[5] Jesus’s exile to Egypt presents interesting possiblities.  He is exiled and made foreigner with the double irony of being made a stranger on returning to his own country.

[6]While this article is too brief to feature his thoughts here, Rowan Williams, in The Truce of God, paints a compelling picture of Christ’s homeless in terms of a radical exposure and attentiveness to the world. Rowan Williams, Truce of God, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).

[7] Derrida, Of Hospitality, 125.

[8] It is also worthy of noting is that it is at this point in the story that Matthew receives his name, having formerly been referred to as Levi.

  • Dorothy K Pierce

    Nice work, Bryne! Thanks for sharing. Much to think about -

  • http://www.jrforasteros.com JR. Forasteros

    Love this vision of Christian hospitality. We tried to do some of this with our Oct-Dec sermons.

    I think given Israel’s status as Exiles-at-Home, they were in a real sense Homeless even at Home. So I love Jesus incarnating that in front of them.

    Also, it’s interesting (though maybe tangential) to note that even when he was IN homes, Jesus wasn’t exactly the perfect guest. I think of Jesus with Simon the Pharisee and with Mary & Martha, for instance.

    I’ll be chewing on this for a while.

    • brynelewis

      JR, thanks for your comment. I especially like your point about Christ not being a perfect guest. Philosophically speaking, I think that puts Jesus in a more hostile relationship to host. The thing I like about the homelessness model is that Jesus assumes a position of risk and then makes welcome in that space. I think it more thoroughly defuses the tension inherent in the guest-host relationship.

  • Meigan1cameron

    The word ‘Hospitality’ simply means the practice of being hospitable. But when we add the prefix ‘Christian’, it transforms into something for which the people in this cruel world today thirsts for. Hospitality is one of the fundamental cornerstones of Christian faith.
    CHRISTIAN HOSPITALITY

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