Christine D. Pohl: Hospitality, trust and reweaving the fabric of community

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At a time when the social fabric is frayed, the church has an important role to play in reweaving community, drawing on the practices of hospitality and trust, says a theologian and professor emeritus of Christian ethics.

Today, when the notion of community and even simple courtesy and civility are under attack, practices such as promise keeping and truthfulness are essential for rebuilding trust and repairing the social fabric, says Christine D. Pohl.

“These are human practices — making and keeping promises and truthfulness,” she said. “Any community needs them to sustain trust, and without trust, no community functions, whether it’s Christian or not.”

Christine Pohl

A professor emeritus of Christian ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, Pohl is known for her work on hospitality, most notably in her 1999 book, “Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition.”

The church, Pohl said, can do much to restore trust and help rebuild community.

“There is an overall lack of trust, but I think the church has the good news,” Pohl said. “If we could just embody it, it would be much easier to proclaim it.

“The fact that there is community in the church, that there can be fidelity, that God loves us, is an enormous assurance: that even in our weakness and our failures, God loves us, that there’s a place for us in the community.”

Pohl was a featured presenter at Duke Divinity School’s 2018 Convocation & Pastors’ School, “Neighboring in a Post-Christendom World,” and spoke with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What’s your assessment of the overall state of hospitality and community in our country today?

I think our social fabric has frayed, and people know that. There are a lot of stressors. People talk to people with whom they agree, and they’re very harsh with people with whom they disagree. They don’t even try to understand one another.

This does not include everybody, and I don’t want to characterize it too broadly, but it seems like there’s less effort to be civil. Even common courtesy is under attack.

Q: What’s your diagnosis? Why you do think this is happening?

We’re living in a time when fear dominates the public landscape, and we’ve lost some of the frameworks that have helped us deal with fear in the past.

Things like the immigration debate, which is all about exaggerated fear, become such a lightning rod, so loud and fearful, that it makes it impossible to deal with the actual challenges that immigration raises for us.

The response whenever people are really afraid is to close the door and try to protect what we have.

There’s a sense that a lot of things that were valued are fragile and at risk of being lost, and people are grabbing on to whatever comes along as a solution — but often not adequately thought-out solutions.

The church itself has some major fractures that have not been dealt with in ways that are exemplary, so that it sometimes mimics the larger culture. So yes, it’s really a difficult time.

Q: You’re speaking today about hospitality, fear and trust. How do those fit together? What’s the relationship among hospitality, fear and trust?

They don’t fit together easily. But they are crucial for each other.

In my hospitality research, one thing I noticed was that communities that are best at welcoming people are communities that know who they are. They have a defined identity. They have something to offer. There’s a space for welcome. There’s a space and identity to welcome people into, and it’s a place that people want to be welcomed into.

But if you welcome a number of people substantially different from the community, it’s not just the people who are welcomed that are changed but also the community. That’s a permanent tension. You see it in the biblical text, in discussions about covenant.

We worship a God who calls us to love the stranger and to live in a way that’s faithful to God’s claim on our lives. Well, every stranger is not going to exactly line up with that, so negotiating that tension is extremely challenging for communities, and yet it’s necessary.

For a community to be sustained, it needs practices like promising and truthfulness, which essentially make up trust, without which you can’t do anything together. But nurturing those practices in a large setting, even in a communal setting that’s fraying, is challenging, because it means you have to slowly reweave it. You have to prove yourself trustworthy by keeping promises, by telling the truth, by living truthfully, by living hospitably.

Q: How do we do that? What are the practices that help reweave community?

We build trust by being true to our word, by holding on to one another, by staying at the table long enough to understand the differences.

There is a lot of posturing and harshness that makes it hard to move forward. We need to recognize sometimes that there are fundamental differences, and communities have to work with that reality, and it doesn’t always work out easily.

The tension between hospitality and fidelity is one that communities have to face. They have to figure out who they are. Jean Vanier said that when you welcome people into community, you have to ask for minimal conformity and allow maximal space for diversity.

In order for a community to stay together, there have to be shared commitments. People who are welcomed need to understand that — this is who we are, and we’re welcoming people into this community.

If you can’t conform to the minimal commitments, then you’re probably saying that this community is not what you want. But if the community itself can’t welcome people different from themselves, then, as Vanier says, it’s a community that is dying. When there is no room for strangers, there is eventually no room for members, which is one of the realities of communities that close in on themselves.

Q: But isn’t it the communities who cling so tightly to whatever identity they have that are the ones who say they have no room for strangers?

I think the challenge is figuring out what the core commitments are, the ones that you can’t give up and still be the community that you are. That’s where communities are going to differ and where they’re going to struggle.

Is this [new, unsettling thing] something that God is bringing into our lives to transform us, or is this [old, established thing] something that we really need to hold on to as part of our fundamental commitment? The bigger struggles are related to those kinds of questions within the church, but also in other social settings.

Q: Are these practices that work only on a small scale, say within congregations, or do they also apply to broader communities, or even nationally, to the political situation we now find ourselves in?

These are human practices — making and keeping promises and truthfulness. Any community needs them to sustain trust, and without trust, no community functions, whether it’s Christian or not.

The fact that Christians worship a promise-making and promise-keeping God is central to our understanding of who God is and how God relates to people, which means that promise keeping will have a particular meaning in Christian circles.

We say that Jesus is the truth and that our call is to speak the truth with love and, as Paul says, only speak words that build up and so on. It means that our understanding of truth and truthful speech is going to be distinctive.

It’s not that it’s totally different from cultural understandings, but it has distinctive dimensions, just like with hospitality. If we understand ourselves as worshipping a God who has welcomed us and we’re to welcome as Jesus welcomed, then that shapes what our hospitality looks like, and it has, over the course of the thousands of years, meant that Christian hospitality had a distinctive cast and flavor.

Q: What does that mean for institutions and for institutional leadership? Do those practices apply there as well?

I think so. There’s such a distrust of institutions at this point, and a distrust of leaders, because there has not been fidelity, because there has not been truthfulness. It’s going to be a long-term project to rebuild trust.

People are very cynical about institutions, especially the generation that’s now coming of age, which is difficult, because you can’t function as a society without institutions.

When you’re cynical about institutions, you exempt yourself from their demands, which becomes extremely problematic, because it intensifies the loss of trust. If people don’t trust institutions, they’re also not responsible to them. It can be as simple as, “Well, you know, these institutions cheat people. Therefore, I don’t owe them the truth.” But that’s a sure way to destroy everything.

That’s a challenge for us today. There’s a loss of trust in leaders, because leaders have not been faithful. There’s a loss of trust in institutions, because the institutions at times have failed. But then it becomes worse, because then people don’t feel like they owe loyalty, and in some ways, I’m not sure that they do. Institutions need to prove themselves faithful — that they care more than just about the bottom line or their own success or whatever.

Q: What are the lessons for institutional leaders?

Think about things like truthfulness, but also humility, a sense of responsibility, a sense of the public good. That last one has really failed, but it was a crucial aspect of our historic identity. We don’t even have the language in the public square about a “common good” or a “public good” anymore.

Q: You mentioned humility. Why is it so rare that leaders are willing to say, “I could be wrong about this”?

We’re afraid to be wrong. If there isn’t forgiveness and there isn’t trust, it’s very dangerous to be wrong.

We used to be able to say, “I’m sorry I did that.” Now we say, “Mistakes were made.”

You hear that all the time. Nobody can afford to own the wrong, and so they don’t. But then there’s also no resolution.

Q: I guess you can’t talk about forgiveness until somebody is willing to say, “I made a mistake.”

Right. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense to talk about forgiveness.

In a setting where there is no forgiveness and where if you reveal any vulnerability or fragility people will simply take advantage of it, it’s very hard to be truthful. In the absence of fidelity, in the absence of actually loving and caring for a person, truthfulness can be very harsh and it can be quite risky, and so people back away from it. Instead, we choose to put a spin on the situation, and spin quickly turns to falsehood.

Q: Where does church fit in all of this? What’s the role of church in rebuilding trust, especially as it is itself under attack?

There is an overall lack of trust, but I think the church has the good news. As we were saying this morning, if we could just embody it, it would be much easier to proclaim it.

The fact that there is community in the church, that there can be fidelity, that God loves us, is an enormous assurance: that even in our weakness and our failures, God loves us, that there’s a place for us in the community.

That’s an amazing word to a society of isolated people who are hungry for community — the fact that we’re called to truthfulness, not that we always do it well, but to live truthfully together, to allow our vulnerabilities and our failures to be known, because the community will help us. The community will help us become better, become more good, become more holy. There’s a promise there. There’s a story there: the power of Christ who redeems us, who makes us new.

That could be truly good news. And people could hear it as good news if they could see us living it out better.

Q: Does the church have a role in the public square in trying to reconcile the current political divide in the U.S.? Or are you speaking mostly to the church internally?

If we’re talking about the Protestant church as a whole, I’m not sure who speaks for it into the public square. But locally, churches could do a lot toward reconciliation. They can host it. They can model it. They can provide safe space in which people who disagree can at least come to an understanding of each other.

So there’s a lot that churches could do to, in a sense, reweave the fabric at a local level. At the national level, it’s complicated, because it’s not clear whose voice matters or who’s speaking for whom. But if we did it better at the local level, we would be heard a little better at larger levels.

There are also people who have a public voice who we often wish would use it for healing, for truthful speech that’s not self-serving, and help map out a way forward. Lots of the people who make political decisions are people in our churches. They could be shaped and discipled in ways that one would hope would make them more responsible political leaders.

So there are ways. I’m not sure “the church” can speak as a single entity into the society. But there are lots of ways that churches and church leaders and faithful church people could make a difference.

It is very distressing to me to see the powerful rhetoric of fear and exclusion, especially in the immigration discussions — how quickly we’ve made “strangers” as a category even more dangerous in people’s minds.

Christians have to resist that. That’s not who we are. We are a people who make room. We don’t close our eyes to the dangers, but we also trust that God is the one who makes room and has welcomed us.

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Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, Faith & Leadership, December 11, 2018

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