Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Permanent Guests: The Impossibility of Hospitality

Hospitality is all over the map.  Everyone needs it or does it or wants to do it.  There are lots of really good books on the subject in Christian thought.  I've written on it with respect to religious pluralism at the Journal for Lutheran Ethics.  The problem of inviting, having, and keeping a guest is so prevalent and part of our world it has its own tv trope, called "The Thing That Would Not Leave" for the Saturday Night Live sketch of the same name.  One of my favorite movies, What About Bob? is in part about the host-guest and patron-client relationship.  That's good chicken, no?

As more writers have gotten into the hospitality business and as they've looked back at the history of human problems of managing and balancing hospitality, there's two basic problems that have emerged, embodied in the phrase "make yourself at home."
A person cannot make herself at home without making your home into hers.  This estranges your home for the sake of the other.  You cease to offer a welcome since you cede your own domicile.  You become a stranger in your own home!
Welcoming the stranger into our home makes you part of us and you cease to be a guest or stranger.  You cannot be a stranger (an other) and be part of our house.
Hence the humor and prevalence of the permanent guest as a horror story.  And the proximity of this conflict of laws (antinomy) to how couples and families negotiate marriages and partnerships, blending homes and traditions and histories.

Anthropologists have noted that hospitality is about creating temporary spaces to tolerate this law of conflicts, about letting a guest in on what's going on at home in order to let the guest decide if she wants to join the domicile.  But that upholds the antinomy, the conflict between these two laws.
Hospitality in this sense is radically intolerant because it either wants to reject the stranger (get that guest out of here, or at least into a room above the garage, like the Fonz) or to domesticate the stranger.

Christians have been laboring hard to overcome or mitigate the difficulties in this bind.  It seems impossible to welcome a stranger without domesticating them.  At the very least learning to identify how a community practices welcome and how it domesticates goes a long way toward resolving this problem.  

These questions arise, for me:  How many strangers can one host?  Can one give up the domicile for the sake of the other?  Christians should be able to welcome this problem.  After all, they are a community where the faithless and hypocrites are welcomed and love is reserved for the enemy.  None of these are good for communities, in an ordinary sense.  But they are marks of the friends of Jesus and his welcome.


Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity
Jacques Derrida, "A Word of Welcome" in Adieu to Levinas

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