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I was chatting with a good friend the other night and he made an interesting statement.  Having spent the last 20 or more years seeking to practice hospitality by sharing his home with others (i.e. he was living in a ‘new monastic’ community, long before that term was coined), he has become increasingly dissillusioned with the efficacy and value of this model.  Instead, he and his wife will be selling their home and will begin living below the poverty line (perhaps in a squat, or in a van, or somewhere else).  When reflecting upon this, he stated that he has come to the conclusion that hospitality can only be practiced within the context of justice.  Living as we do within the context of deeply rooted injustices, he concluded that hospitality is not possible.  Therefore, we agreed that talk of hospitality needs to be reframed around the concrete practice of mutuality, just as talk about charity needs to be reframed around the concrete practice of solidarity.  I think such a reframing has potential.  Any other thoughts?

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  1. Sounds a little bizarre to me. If I had no choice but to live in a van I would think it was ridiculous that this person was choosing to do so. Not only that, but I think it might be more friendly to the environment if he lives in a tree. Actually, he should probably check to make sure that the tree was not planted by a logging company that had previously exploited the land.

  2. I didn’t expect you suburban ding-dongs to understand that part. 😉
    I was more interested in hearing thoughts about the contrasts: hospitality/mutuality and charity/solidarity.

  3. I’ll show you my suburban ding-dong…
    All I know is that I put the “hospital” in “hospitality”.
    P.S. And the “mute” in “mutuality” and the “chair” in “charity” and the “SOLID” in “solidarity”.

  4. I think context plays an important role, but dont think hospitality can be defined so narrowly. Its a Grace that can occur anywhere in many diverse contexts. But we all know theres a difference between palatial hospitality from diplomats and the kind you would receive in the barrio’s or the favellas.
    The “real” Monastics completely separate themselves as a community from the rest of society, yet receive anyone, rich or poor as though they were Jesus himself and provide a very gracious hospitality, though they still remain separate, even while you are staying with them as a guest.
    I once had the crazy idea of remaining in my job packing shelves at the supermarket ( which I did for 8 years) and asking the boss if I could do 12 hour days for the same pay, as an act of “solidarity” with the “working class” in the end that job played a part in me having a break down. And left me full of anger, rage and long term depression which I am still dealing with.
    My point is really that you can define Graces like hospitality and solidarity with too much rigidity that crushes all spontaneity and joy and even your own life!! They are special gifts which can be given and received in a moment or over a lifetime in many different places.
    I personally would not like to receive the gift of hospitality ( especially in its humblest forms) from someone who was doing it from purely ideological conviction. If I was offered hospitality from someone who actually had to live in a van and work in a supermarket, that would be potentially humbling and life changing. If I was offered the same hospitality from some one with a PHD in social ethics who lived in a van, that would be kind of insulting. Especially if I was packin’ shelves 12 hours a day, 6 days a week!!
    Of course, not intending to make judgements on your friend. Graces are unique and diverse and living in a van may be theirs. I wouldnt mind doing it myself.

  5. I think that both jude and urbanmonk are on to something: that this move can be seen as really patronising by people who are economically vulnerable through no choice of theirs.
    Also, there might be a time dimension to both your ideas. After years of interaction, hospitality has the potential to become mutuality, and charity has the potential to become solidarity.
    In my own experience, sometimes this has worked amazingly well, a bit like the Bonhoeffer idea that you can never love the poor or your enemies, because the moment you do, they are no longer “the poor” or “your enemies”.
    In other cases this has been a complete and utter disaster, people read nothing but patronising and condescention in my behaviour, and suspected me of acting out of a need to satisfy my own need to feel righteous in my own eyes.
    But even then, I should have perservered. With Cavanaugh, I believe that the vulnerable are often blissfully welcoming and unresentful, even despite a few hiccups at the start.
    Given that, at the end of the day, it is us that desperately need access to the grace they embody, maybe our goal should be to beg THEIR hospitality, and THEIR charity, something which your friend seems to be doing just fine, provided he’s not too self-righteous.
    Also, I think it would be great to define ahead of time what the poverty line is going to be. You can establish that it would be the level of a welfare recipient who doesn’t work, as some neomonastics have decided to do. This prevents the ridiculous everyday nitpicking of “if I buy a DVD for myself, it means I don’t love God and my neighbour enough” sort of BS.
    This said, my mum is visiting right now and I can’t even offer decent hospitality to her because she s**ts me to no ends, so maybe I should keep the advice giving to a minimum :-).

    • “Hostipitality” is a term coined by Jacques Derrida. He is combining the notions of ‘hostility’ and ‘hospitality’ in order to try and demonstrate the aporetic nature of all our acts of hospitality.
      What he is doing, is problematizing the facile ideas we have about hospitality, and is thereby demonstrating our our hospitality can also be a major means of exercising (and maintaining) relationships of unequal power, of producing debts, and so on (think, for example, of the book I mentioned awhile back — Foucault’s book, Madness and Civilization. What Foucault does is demonstrate that a lot of things that were previously admired as altruistic acts of hospitality — the rise of country homes for mentally ill people, the birth of clinics and so on — were actually means of marginalizing, disciplining and controlling a certain population of people and were thus simultaneously acts of hostility).

      • I see this all the time in the hospital. Some times people who are uncooperative ( ie: dementia) while having CT scans are strapped down, put to sleep and artificially respirated just so the doctors can get their pictures. Its the same with anyone who shows any hostility. They are strapped down or put away in a room, or sedated in the name of public saftey.
        This is the trouble I have with this Dan. I am about to embark on a nursing course which is no doubt a “better job” than stacking shelves in a supermarket where I languished for 8 years under the yoke of oppressive retail multinational giants. By the time I left I was so depressed, self medicating with alcohol and bereft of hope that its taken me nearly three years ( two of those unemployed) of weekly therapy and medication and hard work to be in a place where I am actually feeling like I can do some good in the world.
        Have I been duped by the powers again?
        Now, given my previous comments about the “hostile” and oppressive practices towards the marginal in hospitals and the “caring professions” does that mean that I should reject the opportunity to become a nurse, which will kit me out with some skills that will be of REAL benefit to vulnerable people?

  6. I find it interesting how quickly people are jumping on the idea of my friend’s action being patronizing, purely ideological, or offensive. To be clear, my friend has been journeying alongside of people who are poor and marginalized, for much longer than any us, and has been doing so much more intimately than any of us. So, instead of quickly objecting to what he is doing, why don’t we ask ourselves: why is it that a person, who knows and has done far more in this regard than I, acting in this way now? Or is it actually that we find my friend’s actions offensive because they threaten our own easy lives… but instead of saying that we find what sounds like a good moral, and caring argument in order to shake off that dis-ease?

  7. “Of course, not intending to make judgements on your friend. Graces are unique and diverse and living in a van may be theirs. I wouldnt mind doing it myself.”
    think I was talking about the concept rather than judging or objecting to your friends credentials or way of life. For the record, I dont consider myself to be “journeying along side” the poor and marginalized.

  8. In my hopes to living in a community home one day with the families in my area, I noticed the focus of community going way higher than the focus of justice.
    In letting the conversations go wherever they may, there was always talk about living in a big house together (ie everyone still getting their own mortgage but just living in close proximity) and at times I found myself getting excited because this is a lot closer to the type of community I imagined than what I’m doing right now.
    However, I realized that I started allowing my hopes for community and hospitality to out weight my hopes for justice (the actual goal of this community) where I was willing to sacrifice justice for the sake of just having people live together.
    In looking to live in community with people now, there has to be a mutual understanding and intention to have a purpose of enacting justice to the people around us, it can’t just be jumping from one comfortable lifestyle to another just so we can live together and live out some dream of community that is absent of any justice at all.

  9. Dan, maybe you could say more about the rationale for your friend’s actions in relation to the context of the poor in Vancouver? What I mean is, what would it mean to move into a van there and how does that relate to practicing hospitality from a posture of justice in contrast to his current situation?
    I say this because I think you/he are onto something important here. I feel like “hospitality” can become a sort of escape hatch for those in intentional communities to get out of a certain sort of existential dissonance regarding being the church of the poor.
    And I say that as a member of just such a community.

  10. just because your friend has been an outstanding friend to many homeless people and an in-depth understanding of social justice issues, doesn’t mean he couldn’t be off base with thinking of moving into a van. In my experience, and I’m not saying your friend is this, some non-profits and people working in those environments begin to function in a similar fucked up way to the things they are trying to eradicate. Sometimes i think this has to do with the overwhelming nature of the issues they are trying to take on and so they try to do it “all”. Along with this, the closer people are to the “action” the more they are vulnerable to experiencing trauma, which can surface or introduce mental health issues within them (some might call this vicarious traumatization).
    Anyways. Just a few thoughts. I admire people who want to combine their hospitality with justice, but I question when hospitality becomes too narrowly defined or too black and white.

  11. I would just like to say that, Jude, Josh and Abe always showed me great hospitality…
    But I truly am the Solid in Solidarity…

  12. Blessings to your friends Dan for even engaging in this kind of thinking. I wish them all the best and was hoping they might write something about their journey here (do they have a blog?). I reckon the posts above have pretty much analyzed the crap out the situation so no need for me to add anything on that. But my wife and I have a bit of experience with what your friends are wrestling with, we didn’t have a van but we lived in the back of a 1952 Buick for a while.! The back seat was removed and we slept on a double bed that went all the way into the trunk! We weren’t much into theory back then, pretty naïve really. Later we lived in a school bus with 2 kids for 4 yrs, but we were still way better off than the street people and homeless we used to work with. We’d bring them home with us and they stayed in a little tin shed next to the bus! Occasionally we would all go to various churches on Sunday but I don’t know which felt more uncomfortable, the homeless or the poor church folk. Sometimes I felt guilty about living in the ‘big’ bus, but we did have the kids to think about. My wife and I have done (do) some…questionable (?) things, several communes/communities, sold everything a time or two, got involved in many “ministries,” endless years of rigorous and painful self examination when we weren’t busy critiquing ‘church,’ or culture, or religion, etc. Our folks and relatives and older friends were…perplexed, but, God bless em, they mostly grew to tolerate our “lifestyle” (and we theirs). But really, what was another option? Even with all our half-assed ideas and ineffectual stumblings should we have rather spent somnolent years in some generic Mcchurch figuring out ever more banal ways of avoiding the imperatives of the Gospels, and once a year dropping a box of ‘Tuna Helper’ into the food bank barrel rolled out at thanksgiving? Anyway, I just want to encourage and support your friends (and you) in their journey, blessings to you all from another IDP (internally displaced person).

  13. It would be helpful to me if you could also relate what “efficacy” and “value” is the aim of hospitality and justice. As someone who works at a drug and alcohol rehab (and farm) with seasons of very little “efficacy” when it comes to men who remain clean and sober, this is a question to which the answer will largely determine if I stay working (because, no matter the “success” rate, we love God through good work and worship and love broken men) or find another job (disillusionment with the outcome).


  • As Anne as the nose on Plain’s face – Inhabitatio Dei February 24, 2010

    […] asks some good questions about whether or not we need to rethink hospitality in connection with solidarity. Sounds dangerous […]