Hospitality is a virtue that has long been an integral part of countless cultures around the world, regardless of religion, location, or historical epoch. Derived from the Latin word hospes, meaning “stranger,” hospitality in a general sense entails providing for a guest in one’s home, often offering food and lodging as well as protection, company, and support. In the Christian Bible, this simple notion of hospitality is extolled to an extreme degree, challenging believers to give freely of themselves as they have freely received from others (Matt. 10:8) in all aspects of life, without discrimination between friend, enemy, stranger, or kin. While it may not be practical (or even possible) for Christians to follow this doctrine in every respect, a hypothetical society that did take seriously the Biblical call for hospitality would certainly function in a way very different from our own. In particular, the practice and study of rhetoric, specifically in terms of how we conceptualize values, incentives, and exigency, would drastically change in a world where Biblical hospitality stood as our highest priority. As a pedagogical exercise to explore the pragmatic and theoretical features of both Christianity and rhetoric, then, I offer the following hypothetical account of rhetoric in light of Biblical hospitality.
To begin with, we must establish an understanding of what Biblical hospitality is, and specifically how it differs from secular notions of hospitality. Hospitality, at its most basic level, simply means providing food and shelter for guests; this is an attribute that is, of course, praised highly by many people regardless of their religious affiliation. However, Biblical hospitality extends far beyond this simple notion of food and shelter, invoking instead a challenge that influences the entire Christian way of life. First of all, the Scriptures’ rules of giving do not merely apply in cases where an individual in need approaches the home asking for assistance; instead, Christian doctrine argues that one should consider others’ needs in a more general sense outside the home (in harvesting, for example, as per Deut. 24:19-22; see also Gen. 18:1-8, James 2:1-7, and Lev. 25:35-38). Secondly, the Christian act of welcoming and providing for an “alien” in the home entails not just material goods like food and money, but also physical protection and care. In some cases, this may even require the paradigmatic Christian hosts to risk their own safety and security, or that of their families, in order to care for their guests (for instance, see the story of Rahab and the spies in Jos. 2:1-16). A striking example of this is found in the Biblical account of Lot who, when the Sodomites demanded he turn over his guests to satiate their carnal pleasures, would rather offer his own daughters for sex than betray his guests (Gen. 19:1-11). Finally, the authors of the Scriptures repeatedly clarify that such giving and hospitality should be extended to all who are in need, including strangers and “aliens” (as per Lev. 19:34) but also potentially dangerous or unscrupulous characters such as thieves, enemies, and beggars (seen in Rahab’s protection of the spies). Indeed, the word most often associated with hospitality in the Septuagint and the New Testament is xenos, which can mean foreigner, stranger, or enemy (Koenig, 1992, p. 299). In short, the Biblical teachings do not condone partiality or judgment on the part of Christians (as expressed in James 2:1); on the contrary, all individuals should be treated alike, whether friend or foe, family or alien, virtuous man or potential villain.
Given this definition, and specifically these extensive lifestyle goals, we can conceive of Biblical hospitality as a universal rejection of selfishness and partiality. As explained in Finney (1878, pp. 143-165), selfishness is the ultimate root of all sin (beyond just greed, gluttony, and lust), and it entails the rejection of God and God’s will by choosing one’s own gratification over God’s law. Finney also clarifies the distinction between selfishness and desire: While desire is a “purely involuntary state of mind,” selfishness is a conscious choice to allow the will and action to be governed by desire (1878, p. 146). These selfish acts will often be unreasonable, but always voluntary and, most importantly, partial to one person or group (Finney, 1878, pp. 146-151). According to this line of reasoning, the only way to avoid this sin of selfishness is to give fully of oneself to all others, regardless of self-interest and the potential risk of personal inconvenience or even endangerment.
Although at first blush we may not think to apply this concept of eschewing selfishness to the caretaking of our family members or those close to us (both spatially and emotionally), a complete embrace of impartiality would in fact dictate that we ignore all of our own personal interests, including personal relationships. Notably, Finney does concede that, in some situations, our hospitality may for practical reasons be extended primarily to those in proximity to us (1878, p. 149). However, the deliberate choice to privilege some over others (such as acting to benefit friends and harm enemies, a commonly accepted form of “good” praised in Aristotle, trans. 1984, p. 46) is in fact a form of selfishness from which we ought abstain. In other words, the judgment of who most deserves wealth and comfort is not ours to make, but rather God’s; to try to claim this ability would be not only foolish, but also blasphemous.
There are three ways in which this goal of hospitality is both explicated and promoted in the Christian Bible. The first is through explicit calls to action such as “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Pet. 4:9; see also Rom. 12:13, Deut. 24:17-22, Lev. 19:34, 25:35-38, Exod. 22:21, 23:9). The second is the positive reinforcement of hospitality in Biblical narratives, found most memorably in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37), but also in stories such as those of Rahab, the widow of Zarephath, and, notably, Abraham (see also Deut. 10:18). Negative reinforcement such as the punishment of inhospitality (or the abuse of hospitality) is manifest in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:1-11; see also Judg. 19:16-30 and Acts 5:1-11). The third is through the continually revisited metaphor of Jesus as both host and guest (Koenig, 1992, pp. 300-301): God’s generosity is frequently described in terms of offering housing, food, and drink to His followers (Psalm 104), while countless tales describe Jesus as a stranger who ought be offered food and drink (Matt. 25:35-40). Interestingly, Tillich (1963) argues that this second concept of God as “other” is crucial to the overall symbolism of a living God, the nonbeing within God’s being, and of the “Divine Life” as a reunion of otherness with identity.
If we were to take seriously this challenge to both welcome and protect the “other,” sharing our wealth and ability both in and outside of our homes, our conceptualization and use of rhetoric would be significantly altered in terms of what we value, what incentives we use in motivating one another, and what topics we see as exigent (or what we use rhetoric to accomplish). Addressing each of these points in turn, I hope to establish a hypothetical image of how our world would change were rhetors, their audiences, and society as a whole to adopt the Biblical concept of hospitality.
To begin with, a complete adoption of this Christian view of hospitality would alter our basic value structure, changing what we see as important attributes in ourselves and others. A rhetor sensitive to this value system would therefore need to substantially alter elements of speech that appeal to our values, particularly in epideictic speech, from the way they are enacted today. In such speeches of praise or blame, the savvy rhetor would no longer laud accomplishments of men or women that involve the conquering of other people or the establishment of material wealth. Instead, achievements that highlight selflessness and giving would become far more important, including humanitarian or charity work. Conversely, rhetors seeking to indict or criticize a subject might highlight selfishness and lack of hospitality as evidence of an unsavory character. While such elements of selfishness and selflessness are certainly utilized today in many speeches of praise and blame (such as those criticizing or supporting political candidates), they are frequently balanced with positive appraisals of wealth and power; in seriously adopting the Biblical goal of hospitality, this second grouping of “virtues” would essentially vanish from the competent rhetor’s arsenal. Remember, as well, that epideictic rhetoric assumes the audience is in some way qualified to make judgments of others’ character; a complete acceptance of Christian hospitality would, however, not allow us to take any action based on these value judgments, since we would no longer be allowed to exercise partiality. This would dramatically alter the potential value of epideictic rhetoric in swaying an audience’s opinion towards or away from some proposal.
A shifted value system inspired by Christian hospitality would also influence the way in which the rhetor establishes a relationship with his or her audience in all forms of speaking. First and foremost, this would eliminate the need identified in Burkean theory to first create a sense of shared identity with the audience before attempting to persuade them; we would no longer desire a sense of proximity, or partiality, to the speaker, since such relationships are deemed irrelevant for making decisions of whom we ought help and support. As an extension of this concept, rhetors would no longer rally support for their own cause by otherizing alternative groups or voices, as seen in the xenophobic rhetoric employed following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, but also the rhetoric used to promote Japanese internment over half a century prior. Both of these examples attempted to distinguish “us” from “them” in a way that justified oppression and exclusion, but would not be relevant in a world where Christian hospitality was vigilantly upheld. Finally, taken to the most extreme level, this concept of Christian hospitality could in fact erase the need for the rhetor’s personal credibility (or Aristotle’s all-important “ethos”) altogether; if we truly believed in Christian hospitality, we would be willing to adopt the proposals of deliberative or forensic rhetoric (if they involved giving something of ourselves or caring for others, which most proposals do) simply based on our ability to carry them out and their ultimate benefit to someone, not because we believed the rhetor to be a competent or worthy person. Such judgments of worth, as applied to the rhetor or other subjects, would no longer be within our realm.
A shift in our society’s overall values would also necessarily shift the methods employed by rhetors in creating incentive for the audience to act. A common tactic in motivating audiences is the creation of shared need, or the sense that a proposal will, in some way, benefit the audience directly; as Aristotle explains, the audience “will be ready to attend to anything that touches [themselves],” and appeals such as “it concerns you quite as much as myself” can be valuable in gaining the hearers’ attention (trans. 1984, p. 203). In a worldview dominated by Christian hospitality, this audience-centered view of benefit and cost would essentially evaporate, since personal gain would be eschewed in favor of giving and shared rewards. In other words, a rhetor would no longer have to show why a policy would be good for the audience (and decisionmakers) directly; all that would matter is that the policy benefited somebody, in some way, and that it was within the audience’s power to provide this benefit. One example of where this change would be seen most clearly is in campaign rhetoric: Candidates would not try to “win over” certain demographic groups with promises of how he or she would help them specifically, but would instead be able to champion any policy that provided some good, knowing that their audience would not be partial to one group’s benefit over another.
Another common strategy in motivating an audience, as articulated by Aristotle (trans. 1984, pp. 103-107), is the use of fear. Certainly, fear of things such as poverty, disease, and natural disasters would still be useful as a tool to motivate audiences in our hypothetical society. However, that use of fear that suggests we ought to be afraid of other people taking things from us or betraying us would no longer be applicable. Specifically, since Biblical hospitality encourages opening our hearts and homes to all people, including those who we might see as enemies (as per Exod. 23:5), any proposal predicated on the notion that we should hoard our possessions or close our doors in the face of the enemy would automatically become irrelevant (such as anti-immigration rhetoric that emphasizes fear of the “alien” stealing our jobs).
In concordance with these shifts in the things we value and the reasons why we feel compelled to act, an embrace of Biblical hospitality would ultimately change the topics we speak about and the changes we wish to enact in the world. In other words, our entire political agenda would be changed, so our interpretation of exigency (or what needs to happen) would automatically change, along with the rhetoric and policies created to address these needs. To begin with, a rhetor who addressed an audience in the spirit of hospitality would no longer be placing his or her own interests in the forefront; instead, topics and policies intended to benefit others (including the audience, but also strangers, aliens, and enemies) would become just as, if not more, important. As a whole, persuasion would become less relevant for two reasons: first, the homogenously hospitable audience would already agree on how to behave, and secondly, without the need to convince others of right behavior that benefits another, the rhetor would have little reason to manipulate others (as the primary goal would be to offer kindness and generosity, not to force one’s will).
Even if rhetoric were still used to discuss public affairs and propose or explain new policies, the policies being promoted would look strikingly different. The domestic policies, for example, within a nation such as the United States that was suddenly in full support of Biblical hospitality would be radically influenced, as living would now be more or less communal in nature (as encouraged by Acts 2:42-47). For example, things like taxes and welfare would likely be irrelevant if everyone naturally believed that they should give their own belongings to those in need; governmental enforcement of this sharing should be unnecessary. As such, the extensive policies and rhetoric in place now that try to manipulate taxes and social services would no longer be necessary, either.
The relationship of such a hospitable nation with the rest of the world would also be drastically dissimilar from that of the United States and the world today. In particular, our foreign policy rhetoric could no longer justifiably argue for offensive war tactics that took anything (land, money, oil, or other resources) from another group of people. Foreign aid that required either payment of money, a political and cultural foothold (like the Christian missions and other religious aid programs that have been used for centuries, exchanging goods for conversion), or some other sacrifice in exchange would become taboo. Any rhetoric that proposed acts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement would become irrelevant, because partiality, or tariffs and other taxes levied on some “alien” countries but not our own, would no longer be acceptable. Indeed, immigration rhetoric would entirely disappear, since our borders would necessarily be completely open to any and all who wished to enter. In short, much of the political rhetoric (specifically deliberative) employed today would be entirely defunct; foreign policy might instead consist of explaining our policies of giving and hospitality to others, and perhaps trying to suggest to those of other, less hospitable cultures that our ways are beneficial, without needing or wanting to manipulate public opinion to ensure one group’s profit.
In summary, the relationship between rhetoric and Christian values is both clear and strong: Were we to fully commit ourselves to the teachings of the Bible, the face of rhetoric as we know it would be fundamentally changed. Of course, this brief account has not addressed the possibility of conflicting Biblical teachings, nor has it argued for the practicality of such complete devotion to Biblical hospitality. Nevertheless, I have attempted to articulate the specific ways in which the values, incentives, and exigency employed within rhetoric are closely tied to our worldview, and specifically our notions of hospitality and selflessness. As such, when reflecting upon the Bible’s seemingly simple call to “entertain strangers, for by doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2), we can now perhaps understand a bit more fully all the ways in which such an exhortation has the potential to change our world.
Aristotle. (1984). The rhetoric and poetics of Aristotle (W. R. Roberts & I. Bywater, Trans.). New York: Random House.
Finney, C. G. (1878). Charles G. Finney’s systematic theology (J. H. Fairchild, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
Koenig, J. (1992). Hospitality. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Bible dictionary (Vol. 3, pp. 299-301). New York: Doubleday.
Tillich, P. (1963). Systematic theology (Vol. 3). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.