Beyond the High Wall and Open Door Dichotomy in Muslim Immigration: The Christian Pluralist’s Hospitable Table

Matthew Kaemingk. Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear. (Eerdmans 2018)

Book Review513ttI4H4fL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Those familiar with the central slogan of early 20th century Dutch Prime Minister and theologian Abraham Kuyper will hear an echo here: “There is not one ‘square inch’ in the entire public square where Christ’s model of hospitality does not have relevance and normativity.” Kaemingk tweaks Kuyper slogan “that there is not one thumb breadth of creation over which Christ does not declare, ‘This is mine!'” for a very particular reason. He acknowledges the crown of Christ and the political justice that Christ demands, but he insists the cross of Christ, building on John Calvin’s own hermeneutic, puts the hospitality of God for humankind as the primary frame for the Christian’s activity in the public square.

This book won an award of merit with Christianity Today in 2019 and Kaemingk himself was declared the 2019 Emerging Public Intellectual by Redeemer University. He is not only a theological descendent of Kuyper, but a disciple of Neo-Calvinist philosopher Richard Mouw. Kaemingk lives in Houston, where he is professor of ethics at Fuller Seminary Texas.

Immigration has been a burning issue in the United States of late, and Texas is a state where the tensions are particularly hot. Social diversity has always been fundamental to the human situation, says Kaemingk, but religious difference is now much more deep, close and fast than in the past. In particular, he directs his attention to controversies around Muslim presence in Western states, and asks: “What do Christians need to faithfully respond to the growing presence of Islam in the West?” Echoing an early church father, he also asks: “What Does Mecca have to do with Amsterdam?”

The latter question arises because Kaemingk believes Americans have much to learn from the Netherlands’ experience with Muslim immigrants. He explores some of the social history there, but at more length, some of the early 20th century theology that shaped some of the Dutch response to these “temporary guest workers” from Turkey that came to stay.

This is a rich book, and there is much to unpack. I will narrow my focus to three parts—how he builds on Kuyper; that he offers a “third way” for a polarized world; and finally, his nuanced view of hospitality. First, Kaemingk does not simply describe a Kuyperian Christian pluralism, but he expands it, developing something much more fulsome and robust. He first echoes Kupyer, saying that due to sin, there will always be religious diversity on the planet. He then reminds the reader that it is Christ who is sovereign over all creation, not Christians. While this might sound threatening to those seeking to maintain some Christian political privilege, it can be a liberating thought: Christ rules over our inescapable diversity, so don’t fret about scrambling for the political upper hand.

Kuyper, however, was weak in three areas that Kaemingk develops at length. For one, his Christology was focused on Christ the king, but needs a kaleidoscopic Christ who is also a teacher, healer, liberator, prophet, and friend. Under his rule, Christ does more than sit sovereignly on his throne: he shares wisdom, he binds wounds, and he offers nourishment. Secondly, Kamingk notes Kuyper emphasized worldview but did not elaborate on how Christian pluralists’ character would be formed for citizenship. Kaemingk fills this out by showing how worship and spiritual disciplines can shape church members for hospitality in the public square. Finally, while Kuyper emphasized political and legal action, Kaemingk gives examples from the Netherlands of sewing groups, coffee socials, medical aid, and a university that deliberately hires professors of religion who actually believe and practice what they teach. Christians must bring their pluralist ethic to all cultural spheres.

Kaemingk stretches Kuyper wider because he sees the extremely limited polarized political options that confront Christians today. The liberal multicultural option he calls the “open door”—which is welcoming but fails to think beyond the threshold—failing to take the religious difference of immigrants seriously. The liberal worldview, with its political correctness and identity politics, doesn’t recognize itself as a worldview, and while its open to people that look different, it expects newcomers to think the same as them. But assimilation into modern categories is not a given for devout Muslims.

The right-wing nationalist political option Kaemingk characterizes as the “high wall.” This perspective rightly seeks to preserve its cultural gifts and protect its citizens from harm but operates on the basis of fear, seeing Muslims through a “clash of civilizations” frame. Such xenophobia can only heighten tensions, especially if couched in racist rhetoric and the desire for a return to some past Christian supremacy.

Kaemingk offers a third option beyond liberal romanticism of “open all doors” and right-wing antagonistic “put up the walls”: the Christian pluralist table. The table is an image that bookends Passion Week—from the Lord’s Supper to breakfast at the beach, post-resurrection. The table is a space of sharing and vulnerability. It requires a door to enter through, but also walls to shelter and cultivate a sense of home. Unlike the left, a table ethic counts the real costs of welcoming deep difference; unlike the right, it ventures to see the image of God in the stories of the stranger.

While Kaemingk mostly sees Christ as the model for Christian hosting work, he also inadvertently betrays the possibility of role reversals: that Christians may also be guest, and that Christ may play in the Muslim immigrant’s fried legumes. He tells the story, for example, of a church planting group in Amsterdam that tried to draw Muslim immigrants into community by cooking for them. Understandably, the Dutch meals were hardly an enticing treat. Instead, immigrants started inviting the ostensible hosts for rich and spicy meals in their own homes. In a startling reversal, the hosts became guests, and a community started to form. Christ plays in thousands of places beyond Dutch Christian intentions, and maybe taking the more vulnerable position of guest creates openings for grace unavailable to a “host” mindset. In the weaker position of waiting, listening, and receiving, a delightful, attractive witness is born.

One last gem from the book: Kaemingk insists that the research shows that communities like mosques help immigrants find support to grow into flourishing citizens. “Defend Muslim spaces” he maintains, because it is Muslims who are isolated from family and community who flounder and are especially susceptible to radicalization. Support your local mosque as part of your pluralistic, Christian hospitality.

You might gather that this book does not explore Islamic history or theology, something important for hospitality to Muslims. But let me be bold about its value: every Reformed Christian university student and every elder who aspires to understanding the immensely rich resources that lie within their own theological tradition should read this book. Twice. It is tremendously timely, deeply rooted, ethically sound, and centred directly in Jesus Christ—both his cross and his crown.

Expansion Plans for Mosque near my house in Guelph, Ontario


2 thoughts on “Beyond the High Wall and Open Door Dichotomy in Muslim Immigration: The Christian Pluralist’s Hospitable Table

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s