Church, State, and Hospitality

Throughout Pohl’s work, balance stands out as a strength: she considers multiple dimensions of hospitality (e.g., provision and recognition), the needs of both host and guest, and the challenges different sorts of hospitality may pose, among other things. One challenge to Christians in particular is the need both for “maintaining distinctions” and “protecting difference” (82–4). Benevolence must not require conformity to Christian belief and practice, particularly in times of danger for potential guests, because Christians have a responsibility to welcome the needy and persecuted. Yet the Christian community must remain free to define itself with distinctively Christian beliefs and practices (83).

Considering this challenge of Christian responsibility, Pohl recalls Christian hospitality to Jews during World War II in Le Chambon and notes that original Christian thought on hospitality related to such provision of safety to the persecuted and endangered. But for her, “Today hospitality, rights, and entitlements are separate, and they should be” because material needs and protection should not depend upon one’s commitments and beliefs (83). At the same time, human wellbeing requires not only these things but also connection and belonging, without which one remains “anonymous and vulnerable.” Thus, Pohl concludes, we need complex interactions between “bounded communities” that provide connection and belonging and “a larger community with minimal boundaries” that offers basic provision and protection (83). To that end, though the former sort of community can be found in churches, families, etc., “the more anonymous care of the state is essential” to protect basic human rights from the impact of “more parochial hospitality which chooses its guests and the needs it will meet” (84).

I find this claim disconcerting. On the one hand, I wonder if “more anonymous care” is indeed essential, and if whatever such care uniquely provides must come from the state. If the answer to either is yes, what does that say about the role of the church in providing for human needs? Must the church depend on the state as the church promotes human wellbeing? On the other hand, I wonder if it is realistic to view the state as securing the needs Pohl suggests it secures. Can the church depend on the state as the church promotes human wellbeing?

A charitable reading of Pohl might suggest she is working descriptively, not prescriptively. The fact that “many social groups find it very difficult to accept people different from their prevailing membership” drives her claim about the state (84). Perhaps following one prominent strand of political theology, the state in this view limits certain evils, even if it cannot fully lead humankind into the good. It is certainly a strength of Pohl’s vision that it accounts for human sinfulness in the forms of exclusion—a risk not only to human belonging but sometimes to provision and protection—or coercion. Still, however, it is a prescriptive claim to say hospitality, rights, and entitlements should be separate. And to say that the state serves a certain function is not to say it must serve that function. Pohl’s understanding of our fallen nature’s impact on hospitality and human wellbeing should be accepted, but there may be other ways to address problems posed by our fallenness.

To this end, my knee jerks away from relying on the state. As Pohl’s own history attests, the state quite often (and in many forms) does not protect basic human rights, and when it has failed, the church has often stepped in to protect them. We see that still today as the right to live and work is denied to migrants by their deportation under the U.S. government, and many churches have responded by sheltering immigrants. Beyond skepticism of the state as an able protector of rights, I am also more optimistic that the church can provide the provision Pohl thinks must come from more anonymous groups/organizations without coercing those provided for. Difficult as it may be, difference within the church seems to be of God’s design, as evidenced by the Gentile inclusion and eschatological visions of a highly diverse church gathering to worship (E.g., Isaiah 60, Revelation 7). The church’s community of belonging is meant to be heterogeneous. And it seems plain to me that though not all whom the church takes in will follow Christ and participate fully in its life, even a difference of faith does not preclude belonging in all forms; still the church can recognize and provide for the other rather than eventually casting others out to preserve the church’s distinctiveness. Perhaps as a sort of bounded community exists around faith in Christ, common identity as God’s creatures, which Pohl notes at other points, can constitute something like the larger community she calls for, freeing the church’s support of universal human wellbeing from necessary dependence on the state.

The eschatological church is not the church we see today, however, and the multitudes of Revelation 7 are homogenous in at least one feature: their worship of the lamb. Even if the church can and should offer belonging, provision, and protection to all, many who do not worship Christ will choose not to receive these things from the worshipping community, whether or not the church pressures them to join in the praise. A dose of Pohl’s pragmatism seems necessary. The church is universally called to promote the wellbeing of the other, and in a fallen world, perhaps that can best be done with help, through the interaction of bounded and larger communities, including but not limited to the church, Pohl commends (83). This need not depend on the state—NGOs, charities, and community organizing, among other things, can provide for and protect the endangered and the needy. Where ecclesial hospitality seems ill-fitted to provide for certain individuals or groups, perhaps the church can call upon other communities and share its resources with them. I remain doubtful that the church can or should depend on the state in its work for human wellbeing, but it need not deny the difficulties of hospitality in a fallen world or the sorts of contributions of others to human wellbeing that Pohl identifies.

One thought on “Church, State, and Hospitality

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *