by David Driscoll
from Signs of the Times No. 72 - Jan 2019

Wiltshire is more multicultural than one might think.

Trowbridge, the county town, has the largest concentration of people of Moroccan descent in the whole of the UK, and it was in Trowbridge that the West Wilts Multifaith Forum held its AGM last June. We had a guest speaker, Jayme Reaves, who gave a fascinating and thought-provoking presentation on the importance of hospitality from an interfaith perspective. It would certainly not have been out of place at a Modern Church conference. I was therefore keen to read her book upon which much of the presentation was based, Safeguarding the stranger with the strapline, An Abrahamic theology and ethic of protective hospitality.

Reaves describes herself as a public theologian. Originally from the American South, she studied at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, before moving to the British Isles where she did an M.Phil in Conflict Transformation and Reconciliation and a PhD in Theology at Trinity College Dublin. She has worked amid conflict in Sarajevo, Bosnia and in Northern Ireland. Apart from writing and lecturing, Reaves serves as a community advisor for West Dorset Community Action. 

In her book, Reaves argues strongly that far greater attention should be given to what she describes as protective hospitality and shows how its foundations are to be found in the Abrahamic faith traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. She goes on to stress its enormous significance today, not only to conflict resolution and peace studies in general, but also to the desperate situation of millions of refugees, and the urgent need to find ways, not only to provide refuges with security and protection, but also in the long term to enable them to flourish. Reaves also suggests that the discussion of these ideas will make an important contribution to inter religious dialogue, for example, a better understanding of the practice of hospitality in Judaism and Islam would be of real value to theological discussions within the Abrahamic faith traditions. I should add the book also shows how much liberation and feminist theology has influenced Reaves’ thinking.

Reaves naturally refers to her own experiences in Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland, but she also draws on case studies of protective sanctuary for Jews living in Nazi-occupied France and for the many vulnerable refugees who arrived in the USA as illegal immigrants in the 1980s, fleeing from terrible conflicts in Central America. She goes to considerable length to unpack the meaning of hospitality by drawing on a wide and varied number of writers, and in so doing describes so well the breadth and richness of this word. There is an extensive bibliography at the end of the book.

Reaves writes about hospitality to the other, quoting the liberation theologian Leonardo Boff who, in addressing the question, ‘Who is the other?’ says this,

‘(1), the other who is unknown, and who knocks at the door; (2), the other who is a foreigner, who comes from another country, speaks another language, has different habits and cultures; (3), the other who lives in a different social class and lives in poverty: (4), the other who has been snubbed by society, who is in need, tired and starving; (5) the other who is the radical Other, who is God hidden behind two wandering people.’ (Boff, Virtues: For another possible world 2011)

I also found helpful a quotation by the philosopher John Caputo, who says,

‘if hospitality is what we say it is - that is, welcoming the other - then ought it not be a matter of welcoming those who are unwelcome … [and] extended beyond our friends to our enemies?’ (Caputo, What would Jesus Deconstruct? 2007). 

I was a little disappointed with the biblical section of the book, and felt material on hospitality in the New Testament wouldn’t have come amiss, but clearly Reaves wanted to focus exclusively on Abrahamic material both from the Jewish Bible and the Qur’an. Nevertheless, the book gave me a greater understanding of hospitality and the challenges that lie ahead if we are prepared to take it seriously. Let me finish with the quotation that introduces the book, this time from the philosopher, Jacques Derrida, from a book he wrote with Anne Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality (Cultural memory in the Present 2000),

‘hospitality is not merely one ethic among others but the ethic par excellence.’

The Revd Canon David Driscoll is a member of the Council of Modern Church and a leader in its south-west regional group.