Hospitality precedes covenant
Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024 - Toleration and Hospitality p/d 1 of 3
Then [Jesus] said to his host, “When you are having guests for lunch or supper, do not invite your friends, your brothers or other relations, or your rich neighbours; they will only ask you back again and so you will be repaid. But when you give a party, ask the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. That is the way to find happiness, because they have no means of repaying you. You will be repaid on the day when the righteous rise from the dead.”—Luke 14:12-14 REB
Good morning! In this first devotion in our new “Toleration and Hospitality” series, we examine the recent covenant between Macon’s Black and white First Baptist Churches and the hospitality that lead to their covenanting. We also explore hospitality’s unexpected and unsettling gifts and its way of creating public space in unlikely and unjust settings. Click here for the concluding devotion in this series.
There are two First Baptist Churches in Macon, Georgia. The original First Baptist Church, established in 1826, counted both slaveowners and their slaves as its members, as was common in the antebellum South.1 But in 1845 the church created a second First Baptist Church for its slave membership. These two churches, First Baptist Church of Christ, which is still white, and First Baptist Church on New Street, which is still Black, have sat on nearly adjoining properties from 1887 through the present. For almost a century and a half, they had little contact.2
But in 2014, their pastors met. They soon decided to work together to try to heal their churches’ divisions. They started with a joint Easter egg roll, and soon they invited each other to potluck dinners. They began to share their lives and their perspectives, and they honored “the act of observing and making space for” important ritual differences in their respective traditions.3
A year later, at a joint communion service on Pentecost Sunday, the two churches entered into a written covenant committing themselves to racial justice and healing.4
Complications came, some unasked for and some sought. Three weeks after the covenant, in Charleston, South Carolina, a white supremacist gunned down nine Blacks at a church Bible study. Not long after that, historians found records indicating that FBC of Christ likely paid for its new building in 1855 by selling twenty members of FBC of New Street.
Some four years after those unsought-for complications, members from both churches traveled together to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, where they witnessed and responded to evidence of over 4,400 lynchings of Blacks.5 It was a tough trip.
In all this, their covenant shook, but it stuck.
Both churches attribute their covenant’s halting success to potato salad. When they were first getting to know each other, the churches didn’t swap pulpits or issue joint communiques. Instead, they relied more on “holiday potlucks, shared programs for children and youth, and service projects,” according to historian Robert P. Jones.6 They had one another over for dinner a lot, and they showed respect for one another’s cultural differences before they entered into covenant.7
Hospitality often precedes covenant. Abraham and Sarah demonstrated this progression, showing hospitality to the Lord and to two angels who showed up at their tent in the guise of three strangers. When the strangers had eaten, the Lord affirmed his covenant to Abraham and his seed, telling Abraham that Sarah would bear Isaac a year hence.8 Likewise, Rahab the harlot hid Joshua’s two spies in her Jerico home—a courageous act of hospitality—before they covenanted to spare her and her family when Israel attacked Jerico.9
The writer of Hebrews may have been thinking of Abraham when he admonished us “to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.”10 Luke Bretherton, a professor of theological ethics, finds in this admonition the suggestion “that strangers may be the bearers of God’s presence to us.”
When he recounts the Bible’s angelic guests, though, Bretherton finds the hosts experiencing turbulence: Sarah’s laughing dismissal of God’s promise, Jacob’s wrestling with his identity and destiny, Mary’s incomprehension of God’s promise, and Zechariah’s unbelief, for instance, all come in the context of hosting angels. By extending hospitality to a stranger, the host opens themselves to the stranger’s gifts, some of which may have kept guest and host apart before.
In all four of these biblical examples, God’s kind of hospitality precedes the institution or elaboration of covenant, and that institution or expansion involves the hosts’ displacement of sorts. Bretherton points out the loss of the familiar that we grieve in displacement:
The kinds of mutual transformation that just and loving hospitality involves necessarily entail loss, as the familiar and what counts as “home” are renegotiated. For new forms of common life to emerge, a process of grieving is necessary, as both guest and host emigrate from the familiar.11
This emigration and grief happened to Tim and Cathy, members of FBC on New Street and FBC of Christ, respectively, as they sat together and cried among the National Memorial’s columns for lynching victims:
The racial complexity of this moment . . . was thick for Tim. He later confessed to Cathy that he couldn’t help but think about what the evidence all around them demonstrated: that the simple physical proximity of a white woman and a black man was precisely the catalyst for the torture and murder of many a black man remembered on the columns suspended above them.12
For Tim and Cathy, hospitality to one another was slowly replacing distance, and it was painful.
Hospitality always acknowledges inequality. While the guest may later become the host, as Jesus did in Emmaus,13 guest and host never meet on equal terms. Hospitality “refuses the fantasy of neutral ground on which all may meet as equals,” Bretherton says. Instead, hospitality is “a way of framing how to forge mutual ground in a context where the space—be it geographic, cultural, or political—is already occupied and no neutral, uncontested place is available.”14 In other words, in an unjust setting, hospitality creates public space where no public space seems possible. Inherent in hospitality, then, is the movement from injustice to justice.
The best is coming! Gain new perspectives for your own thinking and inspiration for your public heart by reading today’s devotion in the context of this series’s later devotions.
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Jones, White Too Long, 200-201.
The early-modern political philosopher Johannes Althusius, who based his federal system on the biblical notion of covenant, knew that a covenant wouldn’t work without personal relationships among the parties to the covenant. “For Althusius, as for all proper covenantal thinkers, covenants are not enough,” according to scientist Daniel J. Elazar. “There must also be a covenantal dynamic, as symbolized by hesed [Hebrew for covenant love] and re’ut [Hebrew for neighborliness], which is ‘nourished, sustained, and conserved by public banquets, entertainments, and love feasts.’” Elazar, Covenant & Commonwealth, 318, quoting Althusius.
Hebrews 13:2 NNAS.
Bretherton, Christ and the Common Life, 282.