Grace in the Play of Role Reversals: Muslim Hospitality to Christians in the West

The word “de-colonization” has entered the public discourse more frequently of late, and it suggests unlearning some practises and postures and deconstructing some long-standing relationships in order to reconstruct them in ways more conducive to solidarity and partnership. I presented this paper at a Canadian American Theological Association meeting at Canada in May 2021 without ever using the word “decolonization.” But I think it has some relevance to this discourse, as it involves re-structuring a relationship with a religious other.

“Where are the Christians here today? White Christians, where are you?” The comedian Omar Regan was roasting one demographic of the 400 people present after the other in the conference room. He made fun of Indian Muslims and Middle Eastern Muslims, but also African-American Muslims, Jews, and people like myself, white Christians. He was an equal-opportunity roaster, singling out and embarrassing people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds—highlighting their accents, their postures, their culture.

As an exercise in practical theology, this blog begins with the at times uncomfortable experience of a generous dinner hosted by the Muslim Society of Guelph at the local Delta Hotel entitled “An Evening in Tribute to Our Community Partners” in January 2020. Here the Muslim Society had an exhibition hall profiling the contributions of Muslims throughout history, gave awards to outstanding citizens of Guelph (especially Muslims), and provided a lecture, music and comedy for our entertainment.

I come at this subject as a World Religions professor from a Christian academic institution, Redeemer University, trained in Religious Studies and ethnography at the University of Waterloo, and now directing a missional Christian academic organization, Global Scholars Canada.

I want to examine the notion of hospitality, which I think may be as important to God’s character as his sovereignty, and maintain Christians, and maybe evangelical Christians in particular, usually view this attribute from the superior position of the host. But if it is true that worship is a participation in God’s Trinitarian hospitality, we might do well to consider the notion from the role of guest, and this exercise may very well open us to a fresh and transformative theological and personal understanding of ourselves and God; considering guesting (yes, it’s a word) as a Christian practise. This is especially relevant in the post-Christian West, and in the context of a polycentric World Christianity.

The Desire To Change the World

Take for a moment a recent book entitled The Simplest Way To Change The World: Biblical Hospitality as a Way of Life by two male pastors Dustin Willis and Brandon Clements (Moody 2017). The blurb for it says, “We all feel that pull to make a difference in the world―to reach out more, champion the gospel, help those in need—but we’re so busy.” So they offer techniques for using your home as “the ultimate game-changing secret weapon for gospel advancement.” The home here is not just a personal “oasis of self-interest”, a refuge from ministry, but a “four-walled tool” that can be weaponized for cosmic spiritual warfare.

Now, as a Canadian Christian, the utilitarian and military language in this book is alienating; but there are good intentions here I don’t want to trample upon. In fact, when they start with a quote from Charles Spurgeon—“every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter”—they point towards a traditional religious role (“missionary”) in which the Christian is understood as both the active agent and perpetual host at the same time as the more vulnerable and receptive role of guest to a foreign culture. Here is the reality: missionaries are always on someone else’s turf, and this opportunity for humility brings the evangelical in some ways closer to a core evangelical experience: that of having the heart strangely warmed by divine hospitality, where one recognizes one’s condition before God, “Just as I am, without one plea.” That is to say, being human means being dependant, receptive, children of God who must surrender all to be saved by grace.

In a sentence: To assume you are called to be a host is primary to some Christians; but it is secondary to Biblical faith, where God is first of all the host, and in Christ, sets the table with himself as nourishment.

Hospitality is never listed as one of the spiritual gifts in Paul’s letters (despite what spiritual gift inventories may suggest); it’s a call to every Christian (Romans 12:13). But it is a spiritual gift in a different more fundamental sense: a gift from God to the open heart. In one word, Grace.

Guests Unaware

I deeply appreciate the public theology of Matthew Kaemingk’s Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear (2018) and use it in my World Religions class, as it builds on my own Kuyperian Calvinism. Kaemingk paraphrases Abraham Kuyper’s famous phrase, “There is not one thumb-breadth in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” to say instead there is “not one square inch in the entire public square where Christ’s model of hospitality does not have relevance and normativity” (186). The book is a rich ethical re-examination of God’s hospitality in Christ and in our own pluralistic world through the lens of Dutch history and Reformed theology. In a nutshell, drawing on Hans Boersma, God’s wrath and justice evident at the cross are synergistic with and subservient to God’s hospitality.

This champions God’s hospitality alongside his sovereignty, but with extra emphasis on his hospitality as a corrective to hundreds of years of emphasis on sovereignty.

While Kaemingk’s book is focused on Christian hospitality for Muslims, a number of his illustrations take an ironic twist he doesn’t recognize: they are in fact, moments where roles are reversed and Muslims play host to Christians, suggesting that Christians may also be guested, and that Christ may play in the Muslim immigrant’s fried legumes. 

He tells the story, for example (p. 250), of a church planting group called “Oasis” 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 and other neighbours for rich and spicy meals in their own homes. In a startling reversal, the hosts became guests, and a community started to form. Communal meals eventually moved to Sunday after a worship service. What Kaemingk is doing here is pulling attention away from the macro-level political maneuvers and re-focusing it on the micro-practises of everyday life, giving examples of Christians modelling Christ’s hospitality in hopes of prompting the reader’s own “redemptive imagination.”

But his examples are really as much about the experience of guesting as hosting. He tells more stories of how Dutch Christians have learned, for example, a deeper communal approach to sickness from Muslims, and a less privatized view of the home and a more flamboyant hospitality from them. Such education happens not through intellectual effort, either; it is an embodied realization. What I mean is he quotes one Christian saying, “When we cook and eat together, we not only learn about a person’s culture—we taste it.” The host becomes the guest, and as another Christian says, “The arrival of immigrants in the Netherlands has blessed the Dutch people by exposing them to the ‘richness and variety’ of God’s creation.” (p. 249).

As the executive director of a global missional movement, I’ve heard reports back from migrant Christian academics who give testimony to the sacrificial, unsolicited graciousness of non-Christian nationals in their host country. “It was deeply humbling,” said one scholar to me recently. It is a profound experience, always transformative, often surprising, and at times at the level of an epiphany. Mission is always an exchange rather than mere patronage, and the guesting practise opens up ministry in fresh and often liminal ways. God’s image and God’s presence lives in the religious other, prompting an opportunity for the missionary to learn and grow.

Strange Hospitality

Elizabeth Newman’s Untamed Hospitality: Welcoming God and Other Strangers (2007) pushes for a hospitality that is not primarily sentimental, polite and nice; nor confined to entertaining in one’s private home; furthermore, neither is it defined by the hospitality industry’s antiseptic consumerism or its compliment, inclusivity and diversity discourse regimes. Hospitality, she insists, is grounded in the very life of the Trinity, and our participation in this life, primarily in worship, is both reception and gift, in turn transforming our approach to economics, politics, education and science. 

This hospitality is “untamed” for Newman because civilizing forms of hospitality, mould it to conform to contemporary cultural frames, rendering it palatable and inoffensive, domesticating it into multicultural practises that train us in the end to be self-conscious, if not embarrassed about our convictions, interiorizing it into a safely sealed compartment where the surprise, terror, and command of God are categorically excluded. Newman adds a strangeness, more of an edge, to Christian hospitality that compliments Kaemingk’s robust cross-centred wrathful hospitality.

Newman emphases again and again it is God’s hospitality that is first and we are primarily recipients. And I think she becomes most edgy in a few places where she shifts from seeing Christians as host to where she reverses the roles and acknowledges our experience as guests of others’ hospitality. “If someone always has to be the host,” she writes, “it quickly becomes oppressive for the other guests; such giving can easily become a way of controlling others. Or if someone is always a guest, the others never receive what this particular person has to give” (68). Later, she speaks of Christ being in the poor (Matt. 25) and says, “Christian hospitality gives up predictability and control because it acknowledges that God comes among us in surprising and strange ways that we can never fully predict or domesticate” (p. 92).

Finally, near the very end of the book, in a reflection on the work of L’Arche and its advocates, she sees most clearly that the most important thing is not the professional intervention of “doing for” and “giving to” but rather in the personal presence of “being with” and “receiving from.” The emphasis here falls not on seeing the other as an object to transform, but as a gift to embrace. Hospitality, like grace, should lead to friendship.

To be clear: this doesn’t mean shelving the proclamation of Good News. That remains essential to Christian faith. But it happens from a different social location: from the mouth being fed by a religious other.

What Newman does for worship, I would extend to mission: see ourselves first as the weak, the dependants, receivers of grace even as we extend forgiveness, healing, food and justice to others. Grace may play powerfully such unexpected role reversals, where someone used to the “strong position” and feeling “useful” in “doing something,” instead takes the guesting role of receiving, giving their attentive presence, and re-discovering their own moral and existential poverty. This is, after all, our ever-increasing position in post-Christendom secularized Canada.

Muslim as Host

A brief summary of my dinner hosted by the Muslim Society: these are my own photographs from the event. Now on one hand, the hotel is a third space, a commercial space, rooted primarily in the efficiencies, predictability, and calculating traditions of the market. The Muslim Society of Guelph purchased our old Christian school building, and I have been in their mosque a few times since, for vigils, to write an article on the Muslim school, and for interfaith meetings. I am guest in space we used to own as Christians. I also invite a Muslim doctor to my World Religions class every year, and he proselytizes my Christian students, something that startles them in a moment of recognition. In that setting, we are his hosts due to the nature of the space but we are guests to his faith presentation. Let me also add that these students, pre-COVID, also had to attend two non-Christian sites of worship. That can be really disorienting for students, who like seminarians, often live in Christian territory 24/7.

Numerous posters filled the hallway, explaining the contributions of Muslims to human civilization.

Here you can see our Muslim hosts are immersing us in the best of their traditions—their food, their history, their philanthropy, prodding us to laughter, to friendship, to solidarity. Now some might be suspicious about the public relations efforts here, but make no mistake what is going on: my wife knows one of the main organizers behind the scenes and this Muslim leader explained, quite directly, “Do you know why we do this? To show people we are not terrorists.”

Students from the Islamic school in town contributed posters explaining aspects of their faith.

My interest, however, is the experience of the Christian guest, who feels ill at ease, as the commercial space has become strange space, adorned by the history and values of a religious other, you might say the Muslim Samaritan, who loves his children, too, and wants to be recognized, not just as the guest, beholden to the accommodating generosity of others, but as a host in his or her own right, with something to offer that is of special value and dignity.

The evening’s program. Note the singing of the Canadian national anthem, the comedian, and messages from the Mayor, MPP, and MP.

(The scribbling is my notes!)

From Bridges to Tables

The Muslim Society’s subtitle that January evening was appropriately, “Building Bridges Together.” This bridge metaphor is over-used in many inter-faith encounters, and while its intent to connect and open up pathways for exchange is well-intended, I wonder if the model is too heroic, suggesting people leave their home territory onto some neutral and often temporary structure that is only for this purpose of opening up traffic. It also suggests that one rise above the dangerous white waters below, unperturbed by the treacherous rocks and foaming rapids—the very real differences about God, faith, and history that contentiously separate two rival faith communities worldwide. Such bridges are surely only for the privileged elite, those with the resources of mobility, education, and leisure time that the working poor would have less opportunity to experience.

Evening prayers were done during the event and explained.

Kaemingk offers his own critique of contemporary images, drawing from both Holland and the USA. On one hand there is the enlightened liberal option, the potentially patronizing “open door” that seeks to be fully inclusive and welcome all diversity but which fails to deeply engage the challenge of the other’s religious convictions about God, judgment, and death, after they have been ushered through the door. Their entire focus is on the threshold, but little afterwards; they mistakenly assume all guests should become like them—politically liberal and tolerant, and keep their religious views and practises quiet and private. But Islam, like Christianity and Buddhism, is a missionary religion.

Like much of the event, the food was a mix of Muslim and Western culture, you might say East and West.

The other inter-faith image on offer comes from the right-wing political advocates, who routinely propose a nationalistic and self-protective “high wall”—the boundaries that supposedly make for good neighbours and protect from invasion but in fact are built on the stereotypes of the other and perhaps a fear of contamination by the other’s dangerous views and practises. Both walls and doors are important and Biblical in their own way; but neither gets to the heart of the Christian encounter with religious others.

Kaemingk and Newman (and even Willis and Clements when you dig into their book) offer the alternative eucharistic image of the “shared table.” Not only does this allude to Communion and the eschatological divine feast, it also suggests a place of both sharing and vulnerability, giving and receiving, in both cuisine and story. Christian ministry in this post-colonial light reveals itself as an exchange rather than charity, a participation rather than solely patronage. If religious others bear the image of God, and if God, being omnipresent, is involved in their affairs, too, our encounter is with God-in-the-other, and includes listening as well as telling, learning as well as teaching, and let me add: arguing as well as laughter. This is the theme of my blog: the sensus divinitatus lies within every human being, welcomed or resisted.

Why do I do push myself and my students towards the unfamiliar, the vulnerable, risky spaces? In part it is for learning about other religions, about religious others, about strangers who are neighbours. It is an embodied experience, in a distinctly different context, one that makes vividly clear to them the vast diversity of human traditions. It is a form of pilgrimage, where one’s awareness of God and other spirits is especially heightened.

But it also does this: for many evangelicals, who historically have seen themselves in the position of the host, the pro-active agent, they are now the guest, vulnerable, beholden to others generosity, reminding them once more of what lies at the heart of their own conversionism: we are the bumbling, bedeviled and beloved children of God. Such theology shuns patronizing one-way top-down mission, an echo of “the West to the Rest” and rather instead points to the exchange described in Terry Muck and Francis Adeney’s notion of “giftive mission” in their book Encountering World Religions: The Practise of Mission in the 21st Century (Baker 2009) and resonates with John Barclay’s Paul and the Power of Grace (Eerdmans 2020). Barclay points to the reciprocal nature of grace, the mutuality of Paul’s ecclesiology of the body of Christ, and the double register of divine and human activity that lines every generous act. “Pure grace” gets nuance and anthropological insight on the nature of the gift.

In this light, our own practise of hospitality becomes not our heroic work, and not merely duty, but a practise in gratitude for being guested, and our salvation not something earned, but something warmly and humbly received; indeed, as a participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Even Willis and Clements’ weaponized hospitality book, which I mentioned right at the beginning of this blog keeps bringing the Christian reader back to that foundational experience of God’s hospitality, and the promise of “God’s eternal banquet table” which they paradoxically insist is not “some childish fantasy story” but our destiny as God’s children—a destiny which our neighbours ought to be warmly invited to share. While at the table together.

2 thoughts on “Grace in the Play of Role Reversals: Muslim Hospitality to Christians in the West

  1. Thanks for another thought-provoking blogpost! I love the idea of a shared table as a place of vulnerability and sharing, in contrast to the image of a bridge, and your photos of the Muslim hospitality event in Guelph are so vivid and touching. Thank you also for introducing important texts on inter-religious dialogue and understanding.


  2. Your account of being a guest of the Muslim community of Guelph, reminded me of Ramadan 2015, and being a guest at the Iftar meal in the Muslim Centre in Guelph. I was treated with great kindness and respect. I was given a seat at the head table next to the speaker, a scholar from Pakistan, and even invited to address the gathering.

    The scholar engaged me in a profound conversation. It took me back in my mind to my time as a missionary with Christian Reformed World Missions in Guinea. The second Imam used to invite me from time to time for a meal, and we had profound conversations. My wife and I regularly invited leaders of the community, and students, to dinner at our house. To be the guest of the Imam was something I had not expected. It was heartwarming to be the receiver of hospitality, and witness to the Lord Jesus Christ and His kingdom by the ministry of presence and receiving.


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