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Rev. Lyndon Shakespeare Headshot

Hospitality, a Universal Tradition

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The right to religious liberty is widely regarded as a crowning achievement of secular-liberal democracies like the United States: a right that holds up the peaceful coexistence of religiously diverse populations. Anyone who has read a newspaper or watched the news lately will understand how such liberty cannot be assumed. The brutal killing of 108 people in Syria, including 49 children, last Friday is a demonstration of how fragile coexistence can be. The Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Pakistan recently mourned the one year anniversary of the killing of 100 worshipers by religious extremists. These tragedies remind us that, especially in places of shifting political and religious landscapes, tolerance of differences, even when mandated by law, might not be enough to protect religious minorities.

Here in the United States, we are currently engaged in a debate about the definition of religious freedom and how far it should extend. It's an important debate and one which presses people of all religious persuasions to consider the real meaning of religious liberty. Those targeted for harassment and death because of their faith would -- I imagine -- welcome the luxury to entertain such questions.

Throughout the world, governments are tasked with addressing the plight of minority groups within and outside their borders. Often tolerance is the only reasonable goal that states can hope for. While laws cannot change how we feel, they can often change how we behave. Yet, equally, and perhaps especially, the task of protecting religious minorities must fall on religious believers themselves. Communities of the world's major faiths, with their nearly universal, sacred tradition of hospitality, are perfectly placed to provide a generous and just course of actions against the marginalization and violence inflicted upon minority religious groups.

Unlike some political options taken to address the poor treatment of minority groups, hospitality refuses the fantasy of neutral ground and instead emphasizes how friend, stranger and even enemy can hold things in common even in contested spaces and places. To host a meal or discussion with a stranger situates action and discourse in a common location with joint recognition. Hospitality is neither a construction of friendliness nor is it an appeal to holier-than-thou toleration. In the Hebrew Bible, for example, the notion of the stranger was not only a designation for outsiders, but also part of a communal identity for a people who were strangers themselves in Egypt and Babylon. "You shall love the stranger as yourself," God says in Leviticus.

Among Christians, hospitality has an equally firm divine mandate. Jesus' words in the Gospel of Matthew, "I was a stranger, and you welcomed me," along with the central symbolic action of sharing a meal, equates making room for the vulnerable with welcoming the presence of God. The recourse in Islam to the virtues of ʾIbrāhīm (Abraham) as the exemplar of hospitality, a friend of God and a host of many guests, only elevates the importance of mutual encounter between host and guest.

I will soon be the beneficiary of this tradition of hospitality as a part of the Second Christian-Muslim summit in Beirut, Lebanon. A follow-up to one hosted by the Washington National Cathedral two years ago, it provides an exciting and timely example of common space and common understanding between religious groups. The goal of shared meals and dialogue is a clear and explicit commitment to mutuality and care within majority and minority religious groups in the face of shifting geopolitics and heightened sectarian violence. These efforts are not a guarantee against increased violence, but they are more than a sentimental attempt to promote simply "getting along." Above all, the summit rejects the status quo that makes inequality acceptable under the guise of maintaining safe distance. On the contrary, the local acts of hospitality lifted up by the summit can generate the virtues of generosity, trust and hope. We are encouraged by the summit to remember our religious convictions -- and that these include the simple act of welcome to a friend, a stranger and even to an enemy.

The Rev. Lyndon Shakespeare is director of program and ministry at Washington National Cathedral.