Beyond Hospitality

The Dilemma
[1] In my last congregational ministry, prior to my election as a synod bishop, the congregation I served was standing on the brink of a crisis faced by hundreds of ELCA congregations now. We were a vibrant, growing, intergenerational, mission-driven, middle-class, white, English-speaking faith community, living and working in a mission field that was 40% to 50% Latino/a, many people Spanish-speaking immigrants with second generation children in the school system. Many of them were citizens or residents on a path to citizenship. Many others were undocumented and living in the half-light of public anonymity, many living as part of a rising middle class. Many others were chronically poor, working poor, or carrying a burden of obligations to loved ones left behind.

[2] In the last months before my unanticipated departure, the leaders of the congregation began active engagement with the question of how we were called to respond to our changing community, and we started serious conversations with a Spanish-speaking ELCA congregation also serving in our extended neighborhood. In almost every case, the conversation was centered in “welcoming the stranger” that is the moral imperative of hospitality.

[3] So the discussion was largely shaped by the need of our congregation to be gracious hosts and to open our house to them… and then their need to be respectful guests by treating our property the way we wanted them to treat it. We tried bi-lingual worship, which ended up making everyone feel like a guest and no one feel quite at home. Then, in time, we were arguing about whether a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe had a place in our worship space and who would use the kitchen and fellowship area when, because even though we wanted to be generous hosts, we should certainly expect them to be appreciative guests. Before long it became clear that the important Judeo-Christian value of welcome for the stranger was, at one and the same time, the engine that drove the conversation forward and the barrier that stopped it from advancing.

[4] In part, this dilemma arises from the fact that the concept of hospitality reflected in scripture does not translate well into our modern North American cultural context. Hospitality, in our society, is regarded as a matter of decency and politeness rather than a moral imperative. And as the society moves relentlessly toward disregard for all conventions of civility or “good manners,” grounding our attitudes toward immigration in etiquette progressively loses compelling authority.

[5] Another important weakness in using hospitality as a primary norm or principle for our discourse on immigration is that it necessarily focuses our attention on the virtue of the host rather than the inherent worth of the guest. In a condition where the privilege and entitlement of the host culture are presumed, it is difficult to imagine how hospitality ethics alone can be adequate to address the deep power imbalances that maintain the host-guest relationship as a patron-client, landlord-tenant, insider-outsider, or have-have not relationship.

Reframing the Conversation
[6] I believe the time has come, perhaps in a special way for us as Lutheran Christians, to reassert the fact that our attitudes toward the stranger, and toward all who are vulnerable or marginalized, are a matter of primary confessional theology rather than being a question of elective etiquette.

[7] So, we begin where all Christian conversation should begin, with the power of the cross – the cross upon which Jesus died for the redemption of the whole creation; the cross by which the curtain in the temple, which separated the holy from the unholy, the clean from the unclean, the privileged caste from the outcast, was ripped open from top to bottom (Mark 15:38). For in that rending of the temple curtain, all barriers of exclusion from access to the fullness of God’s grace, abundance, freedom, hope and possibility were rendered, forever and always, obsolete. From a confessional vantage point, all curtains, whether of cloth, iron, stone, concrete, wealth, civil law, social privilege or self-righteousness, become permeable membranes, which, in the reign of Christ, are “adiaphora;” that is, matters which may or may not be useful for good order, but which, in the eyes of God, are matters of indifference.

[8] For St. Paul, the power of the cross was to join us to Christ, in whom there is a new creation, neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. For everything old has passed away and everything has become new (2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 3:28).

[9] Thus, the power of the cross shattered a deterministic philosophical framework, in which the past ultimately and universally determines the future. In its place the cross tells us that the past NEVER has the power to determine the future. The cross calls us daily to remember the past by embracing its gifts and releasing its brokenness, and then to walk forward, freely and courageously, into a completely open future.

[10] The power of the cross is the power to call creation into the hope and life of understanding that every human being has been called by God to be someone, to go somewhere, and to do something on Christ’s behalf, as Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5), utterly unencumbered by bondage to who you have been, where you have come from, or what you have done. And if this is true, then our vision of a just society, is one in which every child of God is free to respond to his/her unique vocation to be who they are called to be , to go where they are called to go, and to do what they are called to do. The ethical construct of “justice” derives its meaning from the primary theological assertion of Christian freedom for Christian vocation.

[11] When the social structures of sin, therefore, prohibit some individuals or groups from responding, in freedom, to that call to be, to go, and to do, a condition of systemic injustice exists, and the community of the baptized (the Church) is ethically compelled to stand against those social structures. For freedom Christ has set us free; we dare not again submit to the yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1). For immigrant people, the freedom to be and to do is inseparably joined to freedom of place.

[12] For us as Lutheran Christians, there is another element of confessional urgency in this, now. It is clear that in the current situation, in a growing number of states, anti-immigration legislation has gone farther than merely inhibiting immigrants. These laws, and the way they are being enforced, have created a condition of persecution. In the tradition of Article X of the Formula of Concord, unjust persecutory legislation pushes beyond “adiaphora.” These laws now represent a denial of the Cross and the gospel of universal freedom for vocation, and, thereby, drive the issue, for Lutherans, toward Status Confessionis, meaning that silence, compliance and indifference become apostasy.

Bringing it Home
[13] The theological and ethical framework suggested here implies that, on every level, the Church is compelled to respond to the immigration crisis in the United States from two directions simultaneously. We are called to Assistance and Resistance.

[14] Assistance approaches the challenge positively by building structures that set people free to follow their calling. On a most basic level, this means building Christian community across the boundaries that usually separate us. But our cross-cultural community building must be centered less in charity than in our essential unity in Christ. This calls all of us to embrace and celebrate the gifts that everyone brings to the table, including the gifts of language and culture. Proclaiming the freedom to lay down the unwanted baggage of the past also means proclaiming the freedom to enjoy and share the treasures of the past. And in this open sharing, differences are transformed into a force that binds us more closely together. The intentional construction of cross-cultural prayer communities can have the same effect. A prayer circle consisting of people from different cultures and language groups is an extraordinarily powerful witness to our human commonality around hopes, dreams, doubts and fears, as well as bringing us into a fresh encounter with Christ’s transcendent companionship in our lives.

[15] Beyond these primary community-building activities, congregations planted in North American soil are, and must continue to be, actively engaged in tutoring and ESL programs, scholarship resource development, creating employment opportunities, “path to citizenship” support, and the meeting of subsistence needs for food, clothing shelter and transportation. Stretching the boundaries of the local congregation, this assistance may take the form of community organizing for opportunity, employment, or emergency support structures. Refugee resettlement work is also a very effective and constructive way to draw congregations into deeper awareness of the hardship regularly faced by migrant people. All of these simple and seemingly ordinary activities can play a very significant role in setting people free to follow vocation in the world.

[16] As relationships and understanding grow, many will be called into advocacy for public policy that opens educational opportunities for immigrants, that preserves the integrity of families, that facilitates or demands respectful and compassionate treatment for immigrants in detention, and immigration reform legislation that opens the walls that artificially prevent people from following their call across national boundaries.

[17] Resistance approaches the challenge negatively by dismantling or refusing to participate in the structures of injustice that deny people the freedom to pursue their vocation. This work also begins locally through anti-racism training, community organizing against slum housing conditions, employment discrimination, or the uneven geographic and demographic distribution of high-quality groceries. Resistance may come in the form of community resistance to violence, crime and gang activity that disproportionately impact immigrant communities.

[18] Resistance, however, is also the approach that most quickly escalates into divisive controversy in communities and congregations. Action, even the non-violent action of civil disobedience, often leads to tension with civil authority and resistance to civil law, which is dangerous as well as divisive in a society where the “rule of law” is the highest recognized common authority.

[19] Congregations, for example, that choose to resist unjust immigration laws by providing sanctuary for undocumented immigrants potentially face not only the loss of their tax exempt status, but the loss of their corporate charter and even legal prosecution. Resistance of this type demands a careful process of prayer and discernment involving the entire congregation. The decision to take up the cross brings real pain, and it should not be done casually or carelessly. Even kings going into battle count the cost.

[20] Congregations and communities that seem most effective and most fulfilled in their response to the immigration crisis are those that thoughtfully engage both positively and negatively, through places of assistance and places of resistance. Starting with assistance invites people into engagement, and the places where resistance is needed often emerge as our freedom to respond positively is limited by the barriers of systemic injustice. Assisting in the construction of just laws now, after all, is still the best way to avoid the need for resistance to unjust laws later.

[21] Regardless of the specific strategies or tactics that Christians may use to face the challenge of immigration, it is important for those of us who serve as teachers and leaders of the faith to call our people beyond good manners, or even good works into a reintegration of faith and ethics, which are joined, as they have always been in the life, death and resurrection of the Jesus who gave his life so that we might live as one.

Wayne Miller

Wayne N. Miller is Bishop of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America​