‘Then we’ll welcome even angels as guests’

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Recent months have been a great uncovering. During this somewhat “apocalyptic” time, communities constituted on the basis of faith have been forced to explore different forms of existing as a network of believers. In addition to navigating this time of uncertainty, given the novel coronavirus, faith communities have also been forced to deal with injustice – particularly the #BlackLivesMatter movement, police brutality and the gender-based violence protests.

This moment, therefore, calls for pause and reflection by and for the church. Critical reflection, of course, requires unarmed truth; that allows hypocrisy to give way to honesty. In this time, clergy and lay leaders alike have realised the ways in which our faith communities are not truly hospitable. The leadership of women continues to be treated with suspicion; our spaces of worship are ableist, presenting an immense challenge for persons with disabilities; the homo- and transphobic battle continues against the celebration of LGBTI+ people. These and other reasons make it painstakingly clear: The church is quite inhospitable.

In the article “Public morality and the need for an ethos of hospitality” (2003) Robert Vosloo considers the communal grammar of morality, and the need for its deepening in our time. Critiquing an abstract notion of community, instead advocating for a real community, Vosloo writes: “Without an ethos of hospitality it is difficult to envisage a way to challenge economic injustice, racism and xenophobia, lack of communication, the recognition of the rights of another, etc.”

In our time of crisis, we are plagued more by piercing questions, than comforted by stable answers. Given this, an ethic of hospitality may be most helpful in our framing of these questions. In the article Vosloo offers five remarks, which in this time I take to be questions posed to our faith communities. Hospitality challenges our conceptions of rigid identity. Hospitality asks questions about how we embody space and time. Third, hospitality requires that we reimagine our use of language. Hospitality uncovers the politics of institutional life. Finally, quite important in this time, hospitality prioritises both lament and hope.

Reflecting on the role of the church in his day, the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued that “the church is Christ existing as community.” While we are redefining the form of this community, it is important to do so centring an ethic of hospitality. Doing so, we – the communion of saints – will welcome even angels as guests.

Ashwin Afrikanus Thyssen is a PhD candidate and tutor at the Department of Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology at Stellenbosch University.