To Cross a Threshold: The Relationship between Hospitality and Place

Upon the arrival of their divine visitors, Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent, and Lot at the gateway of Sodom.[i] Both were ready, and, it seems, waiting, to welcome those “others” at the threshold of their dwelling places. It is there, at the threshold, the boundary of their home or residence, where hospitality appears to become possible. Only from that place can Abraham and Lot get up as hosts and greet the others as guests face-to-face.

There is an emphasis on thresholds and boundaries in the introduction of Judith Still’s work Derrida and Hospitality, itself a kind of welcome and opening up to the topic of hospitality, which synthesizes the thought of Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, and others. In the introduction, Still writes that hospitality in “theory and practice relates to crossing boundaries or thresholds” of a multitude of “overlapping territories.”[ii] These territories, she writes, range from the self and the other, the private and the public, the inside and the outside; territories that intersect but cannot be overlaid upon one another.[iii] It is because hospitality relates to crossing boundaries and thresholds that Derrida notes that hospitality is ethics “insofar as it has to do with the ethos, that is, the residence, one’s home, the familiar place of dwelling, inasmuch as it is a manner of being there.”[iv] While hospitality as ethics becomes complicated in relation to a politics of hospitality, a relationship of which Still and Derrida are mindful, less clear to me here is the relationship between hospitality and place, and the place of the threshold in particular.

As in Genesis 18 and 19, the threshold acts as the physical place wherein hospitality occurs or becomes feasible; conversely, it is also the threshold that can mark inhospitality—not all doors are open. Further, the threshold acts as a marker for the identities of the relations on either side of it: the host and the guest, the native and the foreigner, and, again, the self and the other. Still writes that hospitality, now as ethics, “regulates the relations” between the boundaries of those territories named above.[v] Hospitality may regulate the relations between those boundaries, but it also, according to Derrida, blurs those boundaries—blurs the boundaries of the spaces themselves, of the identities of those within them (e.g., l’hôtes), and of power and vulnerability.[vi] The threshold, then, becomes a place of transition and movement, an in-between, a crossing.

More than a few questions arise here. First, if the threshold is this place of transition, does it mark the beginning of hospitality? In other words, does hospitality begin at the threshold of the host? Is a delimited place, like a home, necessary for hospitality? Or, in contrast, does hospitality begin with the need of the other? Does it begin with exile? To offer an example of the thought behind this set of questions, in Luke 10, Jesus sends seventy disciples to proclaim the coming of kingdom of God. With nothing, they are to be the vulnerable others in need of hospitality; indeed, Jesus says they are to be sent “like lambs into the midst of wolves.”[vii] And yet, the disciples are also to be hosts of a kind, offering healing and the good news to those who welcome them. With this, does hospitality begin with the disciples’ commission, or does begin upon their entering a town or in the welcome of another’s home? Overall, where and how does hospitality take place and can hospitality be delimited?

Secondly, if a threshold does delimit hospitality, what is it that lies beyond the threshold and beyond the structure of hospitality? If hospitality blurs borders, as Derrida writes, what remains of the liminal spaces, of the identities and relationships in the wake of hospitality and the crossing of the threshold? Perhaps Derrida’s or Still’s answer to this would be that something like friendship would remain. If so, what would such friendship look like? How do we treat the difference that remains in the relationship? But, if not friends, what then?

Finally, to set this topic in a broader context, how might we consider the relationship between hospitality and place theologically? In her second chapter, Still quotes Louis Massignon, who writes that it is by hospitality, “and by this alone…that we cross the threshold of the Sacred.”[viii] For Massignon, Abraham, the Friend of God, modeled such hospitality. Yet, where else could we begin: Creation, Incarnation, Passion, Pentecost? What can we look to as thresholds of hospitality in the story of the relationship between God and God’s creation?  

[i] Genesis 18:1; 19:1 (NRSV).

[ii] Judith Still, Derrida and Hospitality: Theory and Practice (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 4.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Still, 7. Quoting Jacques Derrida, “On Cosmopolitanism,” in On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes (New York and London: Routledge, 2001), 16-17.

[v] Still, 11.

[vi] Still, 27. Quoting Derrida, HJR, 73.

[vii] Luke 10:3.

[viii] Still, 71.

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