How the reciprocity of hospitality helps global neighbors understand one another
In this time of worldwide migration and complex global issues, it is worthwhile to reflect on the notion of hospitality and words related to it, like host, guest, and (believe it or not) hostile.
Though hospitality has tremendous importance in all the Abrahamic religions, today we often have a limited vision of it.
We see it as something extra or optional, like the flowers and candles we use to decorate our houses when we entertain guests we have invited, or the hospitality suite in a stadium or conference center. We also tend to think of hospitality as unidirectional, bestowed by the host upon the guest.
But in the ancient world, hospitality was a sacred, reciprocal obligation that could be a matter of life and death.
Travelers needed to know that they could ask for and receive shelter, nourishment, and protection; those who took them in needed to know that their household would be in no danger.
Neither host nor guest imposes any change on the other; they are in reciprocal balance and each has an essential, divinely mandated role.
In this relationship, the host offers what is needed to sustain life, a blessing indeed. The guest offers the gifts of new stories, appreciative inquiry, and other blessings, tangible or not. Neither host nor guest imposes any change on the other; they are in reciprocal balance and each has an essential, divinely mandated role.
In the Indo-European language, there was one word for both parties involved: ghosti-potis, meaning roughly “master of strangers.” That evolved into Germanic gast, Slavic gost, and Latin hospes (feminine hospita). Stranger danger is a real thing: there is another Latin word, hostis, that originally meant “stranger” but came to mean “public enemy.” Still another similar word, hostia, meant an animal or victim slain in sacrifice — like the Eucharistic host. Over the centuries, through normal processes of language change, these roots became entwined.
…there is another Latin word, hostis, that originally meant “stranger” but came to mean “public enemy.”
For people of means, travel today does not have to be the perilous undertaking it once was. It can be strictly transactional, not involving hospitality in the traditional sense at all. With instant online booking and packaged tours, we can guarantee predictable, self-curated accommodations that don’t take us more than a baby step outside our comfort zone. But we miss something important when we do not open ourselves to the truly unfamiliar, as a host and as a guest.
The SPU community seeks to have global awareness and to be a blessing, and true hospitality is crucial to achieving a position of understanding from which to serve effectively. As my favorite African proverb puts it, “The one who has not traveled thinks that Mother is the only cook.”
Kathryn Bartholomew is associate professor emerita of languages and linguistics at SPU. She retired this spring after 49 years of teaching, including 29 at Seattle Pacific.
This article originally appeared on page 56 of the Autumn 2018 issue of Response with the headline “Living sacred reciprocity.” Illustration by Jonathan Ball.