Civility Project: Philoxenia vs. Xenophobia

Each year, releases its word of the year. The choice comes from data collected based on the words people look up through the website. According to a report on Time Magazine’s website, “In 2016, one word that spiked time and again reflected a recurring theme in the year’s news, their editors say: ‘fear of the other.’ And that’s why the outlet’s word of the year is xenophobia.”

The two primary definitions of the word, according to are:

1. fear or hatred of foreigners, people from different cultures, or strangers.

2. fear or dislike of the customs, dress, etc., of people who are culturally different from oneself.

There will be differences of opinion on the extent to which xenophobia has been directed by mainstream media and culture and the extent to which media and culture are reflections of xenophobia. Either way, the perception is that xenophobia is alive and well. Unfortunately, the Evangelical community is perceived to have passively, if not actively embraced xenophobia in its support for Donald Trump in the recent presidential election. Again, opinions will differ over the extent to which this perception is fair, yet it is indeed a very real perception.

Christianity simply does not allow for such thoughts, beliefs, or behavior to be part of its people’s faith and practice.

Whether it’s the perception of xenophobia or if it’s realized xenophobia, in light of the attention given to the term and its connection to Evangelicals, followers of Jesus have work to do. There is a word that captures what such work requires: Hospitality.

In a chapter that discusses love for each other, St. Paul reminds his audience of the necessity to be hospitable to outsiders.

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. – Romans 12:10-13

When teaching on this passage, the common response from folks is to quickly point out to me how friendly they are. Friendliness isn’t the point. Hospitality is. There is a big difference between being friendly, and being hospitable. Friendliness is easy … friendliness is even lazy. Why?

Because friendliness implies familiarity; we’re friendly with people we have decided are  already like us. They are predictable, so we are comfortable. Hospitality, however, is different. It’s unknown and unpredictable because it’s extended to strangers, to those on the periphery, to those who are new.

In the passage above, Paul is not calling for friendliness, but for something far more risky, difficult, and powerful; making family out of strangers. And it’s not a suggestion, it’s a command.

Christine D. Pohl expounds on this in her book, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition when she writes,

“Hospitality is not optional for Christians, nor is it limited to those who are especially gifted for it. It is, instead, a necessary practice in the community of faith. One of the key Greek words for hospitality, philoxenia, combines the general word for love or affection for people who are connected by kinship or faith (phileo), and the word for stranger (xenos). Thus, in the New Testament, hospitality is closely connected to love. Because philoxenia includes the word for strangers, hospitality’s orientation toward strangers is also more apparent in Greek than in English.”

Pohl’s book suggests that in order for healthy community to be created and sustained, we must re-define and re-envision how we see others, and practice hospitality based on that renewed vision. What does that mean in a practical sense? It means that hospitality is more about how you receive those you didn’t invite than those you did.

It is about the choice to actively and intentionally display love.

Walter Hooper,  who would become C.S. Lewis’ personal secretary, recalled his first meeting with the author. He was so excited about the meeting that he arrived very early. Lewis saw him and rather than making him wait, insisted that he come in for tea. Hooper writes of the experience,

“We were drinking so much tea that eventually (I’d only just arrived in England and I didn’t know that in England the bathroom and the lavatory were separate rooms) I asked like almost all Americans, ‘Do you mind if I use your bathroom?’ And he said ‘Certainly not!’ And he took me to his bathroom, which had nothing in it except a bathtub. And he got out several tablets of soap and several towels, a real exaggeration, and said of all of that stuff, ‘Now do you have enough for your bath?’ Anyway, he left me in the bathroom, and I was wondering what on earth I was going to do. I was really uncomfortable. Anyway, I went back in and I said, ‘Actually it wasn’t a bath I wanted.’ Well of course he knew that, he was laughing, and said, ‘That will cure you of those American euphemisms. Now let’s start over again. Where do you want to go?’ Well, it made me love him, you know? It broke the ice and I felt at ease with him and that was a very important thing for him to do. It might have backfired with somebody, but it didn’t with me. I liked him all the more.”

It was this sort of good-natured, open-hearted hospitality that informed Lewis’ understanding of the practical and volitional nature of love in his collection of essays known as Mere Christianity, “The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”

This is the kind of intentional presence of love that can overcome both the perceptions and practice of xenophobia. It’s when we see the other not as one to be feared, exploited, or avoided, but as one to be valued, engaged, and invited into a relationship of love. This embodies Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as you love yourself, “yourself” being your own person as well as referring to your own people; your family. Don’t forget that Jesus ties this love for neighbor directly to one’s love for God.

Hospitality then is an essential expression and demonstration of divine love. It is through philoxenia that the agape love of God overcomes xenophobia.

Let’s get to work, then!

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