Prophetic Hospitality and Social Justice

We live in an increasingly polarizing time. In politics and church life, many people are on hair-trigger alert, ready to retaliate at the slightest provocation. Disagreements lead to division and governmental and congregational gridlock. Even proponents of diversity often launch attacks on those who hold more conservative positions on immigration, global climate change, and marriage equality. It is clear that our times call for prophetic action. We need to present imaginative alternatives to injustice, environmental destruction, and prejudice. But, in our quest for social and political justice, we need to find ways to nurture Shalom practices that include our opponents as well as those for whom we advocate. If we are to be true to our progressive and prophetic ideals, we need to treat the opposition with the same care that we treat the oppressed.

Historically, win-lose and us-them ideologies lead to further division and, dare we say, violence. The freedom fighters adopt the same tactics as the reactionaries and when they take power perpetrate the same violence as those whom they have deposed. We silence opponents rather than let many voices be heard.

What we need is “prophetic hospitality.” On the one hand, our calling is to confront injustice and ecological destruction in all of its many forms. Whatever destroys the deepest values of humankind and creation goes against God’s vision of Shalom. On the other hand, we need to develop a spirituality and practice that embraces “otherness,” most particularly the otherness of those who hold contrasting political or social positions.

Hospitality involves welcoming of diversity in all its many forms. Hospitality embraces and includes apart from any qualifications of those whom we welcome. It may even involve the embrace of those who challenge our deepest values. This isn’t easy, nor does it condone violence and abusive behavior. It takes all the spiritual energy we can muster, but it is ultimately the only way to achieve our inclusive values. As A.J. Muste once asserted, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”

Every day we are forced to choose between prophetic hospitality and alienation. As I was writing this piece, I took a Facebook break. The first image that confronted me was an article that noted “Vast Majority of Republicans Don’t Believe Obama is a Christian.” (http://www.forwardprogressives.com/new-poll-vast-majority-republicans-dont-believe-president-obama-christian/) My initial response was amazement and anger. My internal dialogue went as follows: “These people are idiots! Don’t they remember how rabid they became about the President’s pastor in the 2008 election? How can we trust such fools to lead our country?” Now obviously these people are misinformed and judgmental and their ignorance needs to be exposed. They need to be invited to see the world from another perspective. But, demeaning and belittling them will only lead to further defensiveness on their part. In such moments, I ask myself, “How do I avoid polarizing and hating myself?” I know there is a better way – the way of Jesus, Gandhi, and King. That is the heart of prophetic hospitality, the recognition that even those who perceive themselves are God’s beloved children and need our respect and affirmation.

The Gospels tell the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. Jesus notices a man of small stature, sitting on a tree limb, and invites himself to his house for a meal. Is Zacchaeus’ stature a matter of height or spirit? Was Zacchaeus’ spirit cramped as a result of his focus on money and his alienation from his own people? When Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house, the crowd was scandalized. How can the Holy Man go to a sinner’s house? How can Jesus accept this evildoer? Shouldn’t Jesus judge and condemn him? Yet, Jesus was just as willing to address the needs of the oppressor as he was of one who had been marginalized and defined as a result of illness, lifestyle, mental illness, ethnicity, gender, or behavior.

The story is told of Abraham Lincoln. As the Civil War was winding down and the South clearly defeated, Lincoln was asked, “What will you do to the Southern states after the war ends?” His questioner expected vindictiveness and punishment. Lincoln replied, “I’ll treat them as if they’ve never left.”

Prophetic hospitality sees the possibility of transformation in ourselves and those who oppose us. It moves from “opposition” to “contrast” in its attitudes and language, recognizing our own fallibility as well as the fallibility of those with whom we contend. It challenges, but refuses to demean or demonize. It reaches across the divide, looking for common ground and our common humanity and identity as God’s beloved children. It is the pathway of “Selma” and Calvary and the soul force of Gandhi. It is the way of Jesus that appeals and brings forth the best in others and ourselves, and lets the “better angels,” as Lincoln said, come forth to create a more just, welcoming, and beautiful world.

 

Bruce Epperly is pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, Massachusetts, and the author of over thirty books, including “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God,”“ Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel,” “A Center in the Cyclone: Clergy Self-care for the Twenty-first Century,” and “Finding God in Suffering; A Journey with Job.” He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com.

Review & Commentary