I Was a Stranger: A Christian Theology of Hospitality

I Was a Stranger: A Christian Theology of Hospitality

by Arthur Sutherland

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780687063246
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 11/01/2006
Edition description: Paperback
Pages: 120
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.25(d)

About the Author

Arthur Sutherland is Assistant Professor of Theology at Loyola College in Maryland. He has a B.A. from Harding University, an M.Div. and S.T.M. from Yale University Divinity School and a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. His interests are in systematic theology, the history of Christian doctrine, and African-American religious thought.

Read an Excerpt

I Was A Stranger

A Christian Theology of Hospitality
By Arthur Sutherland

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2006 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-687-06324-6


Chapter One

"Poor, Wayfaring Stranger"

CHRIST, THURMAN, DU BOIS, AND THE SPIRITUALS

In April of 1947, Howard Thurman became the first African American to deliver the Ingersoll Lectures at Harvard Divinity School. His lecture put him in the company of William James, Josiah Royce, Edgar Sheffield Brightman, William Ernest Hocking, and Alfred North Whitehead. Thurman had much in common with his predecessors, particularly his affinity for the philosophy of pragmatism. It was Thurman's belief that there had bloomed on American soil a view of life, of the human condition, and of truth that was centered in just the type of raw approach to human experience that those other fellows had advocated. He said, "The human spirit is so involved in the endless cycle of birth, of living and dying, that in some sense each man is an authority, a key interpreter of the meaning of the totality of the experience." This could have been said by any of the American pragmatists. Where Thurman parted company with them, however, was in his decision to reach back to the Negro spiritual as a resource for understanding these matters. He announces that he has chosen the Negro spirituals as his subject because in many ways they are "the voice, sometimes strident, sometimes muted and weary, of a people for whom the cup of suffering overflowed in haunting tones of majesty, beauty and power!" The intellectual challenge of the songs was not their unusual meter, "the real significance of the songs ... is revealed at a deeper level of experience, in the ebb and flow of the tides that feed the rivers of man's thinking and aspiring." In speaking this way Thurman was asserting like W. E. B. Du Bois that Negro sacred songs about Jesus and Christianity were fundamental in understanding the Negro's experience in America. The spirituals' repeated focus on an individual's wilderness, wandering, and welcome is done in the light of an interpretation of Christ as a poor, wayfaring stranger who took on the totality of human existence.

We should be reminded of this if we are interested in seeing how the songs are helpful in constructing a theology of hospitality and a Christology of hospitality in particular. Thurman helps us remember that we ought to start with the assertion that Jesus himself appeared to folk in the towns and villages of Palestine as a homeless stranger. As charismatic, challenging, and convincing as he was in preaching his vision of the reign of God, at the end of the day the saying still applied: "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head" (Matthew 8:20 NIV). Our presumption of familiarity with the Gospel narratives makes the full significance of this difficult to remember. Too often insight into the humanity of Jesus is either underweighted or overlooked. Reminders and explications of how Jesus lived (his person; that is, his divine and human natures) are important because they are the foundation for understanding what Jesus does (his work of redemption). Any attempt to construct a Christology must keep in mind that once Jesus began his mission, there is no indication that he ever stayed under his own roof again. When this is done, it underscores the importance of hospitality for those who would be his disciples.

The Gospel writers ask the reader to develop not just a remembrance of the facts of his homelessness but also to develop empathy for Jesus' plight. By feeling for Jesus, the reader gains insight into Jesus' own empathy with the distressed of this world and his gifts of hospitality toward them. His empathy for the homeless shows in his healing of the demon-possessed man from Gerasene (Mark 5:1-20). His empathy for the homeless explains his detestation of those who exploit the widow and leave her without shelter (Matthew 23:14). His generosity welcomes the despised to eat bread with him (Luke 19:1-10).

The Gospels show Jesus' empathy for the imprisoned by stressing how his own actions consistently put him on the edge of arrest. He speaks of prison as a matter of course, as a capricious fact of daily life (Matthew 5:21-26; 18:29-31). Indeed, life in occupied Palestine meant living with harassment from civil authorities and adjusting to those who could confront, compel, and convict (Matthew 5:39-41). The threat of imprisonment was so much on his mind that he uses it to illustrate the justice and mercy of God toward the forgiven and the unforgiving (Matthew 18:21-35).

As for clothing, the evangelists draw upon a series of sayings by Jesus that stress the peril of nakedness and show that Jesus knew of the anxiety it brought. "And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?" (Matthew 6:28-31). Indeed, the risk of being without clothing is transformed into a mark of discipleship (Matthew 5:40) and Gospel writers emphasize the loss of Jesus' clothes during his arrest, trial, and crucifixion: "they stripped him" (Matthew 27:28) and "divided his clothes among them" (Mark 15:24).

Similarly, the hunger of Jesus is a prominent feature of the Gospels. Although the temptation narrative is the most often recalled scene in this regard, Jesus knows the hunger of the weary crowd and has compassion upon them in Matthew 15:32. When he is hungry he looks for figs and is short with anger when nothing is found (Matthew 21:18-19). He justifies his actions in gleaning grain from another's field by appealing to the action of David's men (Matthew 12:3). His thirst on the cross in Jerusalem, perhaps the penultimate mark of his humanity (John 19:28), is foreshadowed by his thirst on the road through Samaria (John 4:7).

These experiences are important because they make clear that Jesus is depicted not as just saying the words "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me" (Matthew 25:34-36 NIV), but of having actually lived them. The Gospels want to ensure that Jesus' humanity is seen as whole, complete, and total. It is what allows us to understand hospitality as an aspect of Christology. To the degree that we understand Jesus as a homeless stranger we will understand the parameters of the problem, What does it mean to welcome those who wander among us?

African American Sacred Songs: Their Origin, Development, and Christology

Although it is common to call all of the African American religious songs that emerged from the era of slavery up to the arrival of "gospel" music in the 1930s "spirituals," the early catalogers of the spirituals made distinctions between types of spirituals, calling a portion of them "the sorrow songs." John Wesley Work Jr., for example, in his 1915 book Folk Song of the American Negro, makes this division and noted that "there are two extremes of emotion,—joy and sorrow—expressed in this music. There is practically no middle ground."

The spirituals cannot be separated from the fact that they were essentially work songs, meant to provide relief from the tedium of mindless and backbreaking labor. The easily repeated refrains, the reliance upon call and response, and the use of first-person pronouns all indicate that the songs were intended to give reprieve, build community, and provide an assurance that the work they did in no way defined who they were. The songs that slaves sang "in church," that is, in organized gatherings during times of worship, were often quite different: they sang the hymns and tunes of John and Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts. This accounts in part for the difficulty the early choirmasters of historically black colleges such as Fisk, Howard, and Hampton had in getting permission to have the songs performed in chapel and church. It was only after the songs were arranged along the lines of the European concert tradition that they became "spiritual" despite their message of Jesus, faith, and redemption. This bias was a matter of class and supposed sophistication. Some were embarrassed by these field songs and saw them as the signatures of an undereducated and often illiterate people.

However, this view portrays a slighting of an essential fact. All music in traditional African culture is spiritual. The African lives in a spiritual world, and music is a part of everyday life, and in particular, a life of work. The spirituals emerged not just because of slavery, but because the slaves were working people surrounded by the preaching and teaching of the gospel. Had the dominant religion in the era of slavery been something other than Christian, the slaves would have adapted their music to that just as easily.

The spirituals often contain remnants of African tribal religion. This appears, for example, in the repeated references found in the spirituals to Old Testament figures such as Daniel, Moses, and Jacob. The creators of the spirituals knew the biblical narratives, and they knew the importance of ancestors in African religion. Daniel, Moses, and Jacob became not just figures caught in the pages of the past but living and active participants, even protectors, in the present who could be appealed to for survival, resilience, and resistance. In the song "The Social Band," Mary the mother of Jesus is pleaded for:

    Bright angels on the water,     Hovering by the light;     Poor sinner standing in darkness     And cannot see the light.     I want Aunty Mary to go with me,     I want Aunty Mary to go with me,     I want Aunty Mary to go with me,     To join the social band.

Slave religion was highly fluid and syncretic. This explains the relative ease by which some slaves adopted Catholicism. The appeal of rites and rituals, the prominence given to the saints and to Mary, and the general aura of the sacredness of daily life (as opposed to the dichotomy between Sunday and the rest of the week often prominent in Protestant worship) facilitated the ease with which some slaves turned to Catholicism. The fluid and imaginative nature of popular Catholicism might be the reason in the song "Sister Mary Had-a But One Child" an angel is given feminine gender:

    Sister angel appeared to Joseph,     And gave him-a this-a command,     "Arise ye, take your wife and child,     Go flee into Egypt land."

Yet, despite the tendency toward syncretism, the spirituals are decidedly monotheistic:

    Someday Peter and someday Paul,       The angels are watching over me—     Ain't but one God made us all,       The angels are watching over me—

Whereas Catholicism contributed dynamism to the songs, the influence of a taut Calvinism in early Afro-Baptist theology is perhaps reflected in songs that speak of the immutability of God as a comfort to believers:

    God is a God!     God don't never change!     God is a God,     And He always will be God!

    The earth's His footstool and heaven's his throne,     The whole creation, all His own,     His love and power will prevail,     His promises will never fail, saying,

    God is a God!     God don't never change!     God is a God,     And He always will be God!

The introduction of Christianity into slave life was both gradual and steady. Most of the slaves brought to the New World were young and could be poor bearers of the traditions of their parents. When the United States passed legislation that banned the importation of slaves in 1807, the traditions of the elders fell on hard times. As the memory of their religious past faded, Christianity filled the void. Yet, there is evidence that some themes are so often repeated that the spirituals seem to be almost at one with Augustinian and medieval notions of homo viator. This concept, "wandering man," appears, for example, in Augustine's Confessions, where humans are often seen as wanderers in this world ever searching for a home. Travel by foot was paradigmatic of religious seekers during the Middle Ages and this type of travel became a metaphor for the misery of life. Sentiments of either or both types can be seen in the classic spiritual:

    Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,     Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,     Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,     A long way from home,     A long way from home,     True believer;     A long way from home.

The wandering life of Jesus and his followers is punctuated in the spirituals by references to travel, pilgrimage, and restlessness—with the distinction, of course, that the end of the journey could also be viewed as liberation from slavery and not necessarily travel to the Holy City of Jerusalem or heaven above. Wading in the water, crossing Jordan, and going home all functioned as code words for escape north. When the double entendre does not appear, the emphasis is on the wanderer's experience of the absolute misery of this world.

    I am a poor, wayfaring stranger,     While journeying through this world of woe,     Yet there's no sickness, toil, and danger,     In that bright world to which I go;     I'm going there to see my father,     I'm going there no more to roam,     I'm just a going over Jordan,     I'm just going over home.

Hope, relief from this world, is found in imatio Christi:

    The foxes, they have holes in the ground,     The birds have nests in the air,     The Christians have a hiding place,     But sinners ain't got nowhere.     Now ain't them hard trials, great tribulations?

These references show that the spirituals uniformly affirm the humanity of Jesus in the Gospels; the "fundamentals of the faith," the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus are taken directly from 1 Corinthians 15. The songs are not just traditional but are heralds of tradition. In these matters and many more the spirituals show themselves as continuous with the mainstream of Christian doctrine. However, relatively few of the songs are directly trinitarian in outlook. As Bruno Chenu says:

The spirituals do not demonstrate a reflective Trinitarian theology. Only rarely is Jesus designated as the "only Son" or as the "darlin' Son." To my knowledge, only one text speaks of the Father-Son relationship: "The Father looked at His Son an' smiled, The Son did look at-a Him."

If the measure of how trinitarian the spirituals are is a matter of counting the references to Father and Son in the same song then perhaps Chenu's point is well taken. But is it the case that the writers of the spirituals were naive and unsophisticated in regard to Christology? Thurman wrote before Chenu: "For the most part, a very simple theory of the incarnation is ever present. The simpler assumptions of Christian orthodoxy are utilized. There was no elaborate scheme of separate office and function between God and Jesus and only a very rare reference to the Holy Spirit." Or asked another way: Did the writers of the spirituals oppose trinitarian thought and thereby deliberately choose to exclude references to Jesus as the Son of God? Are we dealing with songs that are so impromptu and circumstantial that we should not expect them to reflect the precise language of the Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds? If this proves to be the case, then the spirituals may be lacking as adequate reflections on Christology and thereby not be fully helpful in understanding the theological basis of hospitality.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from I Was A Stranger by Arthur Sutherland Copyright © 2006 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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