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Just Hospitality - God’s Welcome in a World of Difference

Author: Letty M Russell (J Shannon Clarkson and Kate M Ott, Eds)
Published By: Westminster John Knox Press (Louisville)
Pages: 138
Price: $20
ISBN: 978 0 664 23315 0

Reviewed by Nicholas Tuohy.

Letty Russell died in 2007 and this book is a bringing together of her lectures and research on hospitality, a book Russell longed to complete.

In chapter 1, Russell provides a biographical reflection that gives the context for her theology of hospitality. Russell suggested that hospitality is “the practice of God’s welcome reaching out across difference to participate in God’s actions bringing justice and healing in our world of crisis and our fear of the ones we call ‘other’” (p.53).

Russell gives an overview of postcolonial and feminist strategies for theology. Discussing the role of feminist postcolonial theory, Russell states: “There is no one universal meaning of a text or tradition; they are all subject to continuing discussion of our many local readings that vary with time, space, and culture” (p.43).

Exploring the ‘riotous difference’ as God’s gift to the church, Russell states that “Hospitality is an expression of unity without uniformity. Through hospitality community is built out of difference, not sameness; there is no ‘either/or’, ‘right/wrong’, ‘win/lose’” (p.65).

Russell proposes the need to reframe hospitality from images of merely “having friends over for dinner or serving coffee and goodies after church”, and moving away from associations of “terminal niceness” (p.80). One way we can do this is to “decolonialize” our minds by resisting the view that Christianity is universal truth and that others need to be “saved, dominated, and controlled”. Russell suggests that we “reframe hospitality as a form of partnership with the ones we call ‘other’, rather than as a form of charity or entertainment” (p.82). Russell sees the biblical view of hospitality having at least four interwoven aspects: (1) unexpected divine presence; (2) advocacy for the marginalized; (3) mutual welcome; (4) creation of community.

Finally, Russell advocates what she terms “just hospitality” and describes it as “a gift of God to us, one that we need to practise...Hospitality builds relationships across difference and in this way is a catalyst for community that is built out of difference” (p.117).

There is no doubt that Russell was passionate about the just hospitality she advocates in the book, and examples given of her own life and ministry portray an authentic praxis that moved beyond mere theologising.

As a lesbian, Russell is polemical about the issues faced by gays and lesbians. The discussion of sexual orientation has a place within the wider purview of a theology of hospitality; however, biblical engagement is stymied, for instance, when homosexuality is smuggled into the interpretation of biblical quotes such as Galatians 3.28 (p.65).

Russell sees any barriers erected as limiting hospitality and that the role of the church is to break down all barriers. However, one cannot reasonably read and interpret Jesus in the Gospels and present him as totally accepting and inclusive of all human actions and behaviour. The issue of homosexuality aside, biblical hospitality is not opaque and lacking definition; it is nuanced with the overtures of God’s love coupled with the Gospel call of repentance. For hospitality to be just, it must handle love and inclusion in tension with divine holiness and judgement. Russell articulates the former well but neglects to engage with the latter.

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You are reading Issue 50 of Ministry Today, published in November 2010.

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