Welcome Requires Walls

Welcome Requires Walls

Written by T.M. Suffield |
Tuesday, May 9, 2023

We need difference—the difference between the Church and world is what we usually call holiness—and then we need to behave like Christians and radically welcome people within the bounds of our homes and churches, without having to knock down all the walls, expecting that the encounters around the table will change all of us.

Sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it? We think we know that to welcome is the very opposite of having a wall up. We’re wrong.

Ivan Illich taught that the welcome of hospitality requires a threshold. By definition, we need to move over a threshold in order to be welcomed. If there is no threshold to move over, I can’t welcome you.

To put it another way, if someone isn’t in some sense an outsider, I can’t welcome them into my space. Why not? Because if they’re already an insider there’s nothing to welcome them into.

We live in cultures that don’t like this from two angles. Either, we loath the idea of walls—groups that are not accessible to everyone without a process of entry—from the angle of inequality, imagining that the only way to get true equity is to tear down the walls.

Or, we are so radically individualistic that we’re instinctively allergic to the idea of welcoming someone into something private enough to have walls. From this angle we either bridle at the idea of walls because we can only imagine welcoming people in the broad public square, or because we cannot imagine welcoming someone into our lives.

I don’t think either of these thrusts is at the surface, these operate at the level of the stories that we live by, the ‘Social Imaginary’ that describes the space we live in, but that’s why the phrase “welcome requires walls” sounds paradoxical to us.


I think this is an important concept for Christians to get hold of if we think, as I do, that hospitality is the solution to many of our societal problems. If hospitality should define both the church and the ‘city,’ and is a broad principle that flows to us from the Cross and is encountered at the Lord’s Supper, then we need to understand that tearing down the walls doesn’t help us.

To take the most literal example, if you come into my home then I’m going to do my best to make you welcome. We will eat together and I will endeavour to treat you like you belong. Nevertheless, it isn’t your home, because if it was then I wouldn’t need to welcome you. You must cross the threshold into my world.

My world comes with my rules, even if we’re talking about as mundane things as which items you can stack in the dishwasher after we’ve eaten, or where the teaspoons live. If I’m a good host then I may well try to make you welcome by shifting some of my rules in your direction: perhaps I won’t serve something that I’ve discovered you don’t like to avoid making the threshold too difficult to cross.

You are still crossing into my world. This is always the case when we eat with someone, we enter their world. That’s as it’s meant to be—not least because we learn how to behave at a table by the grand hospitality of God in the Lord’s Supper. We enter his world as we come to eat, which has his rules. We’re invited, we’re welcome, our transgressions are forgiven, but we don’t pretend for one minute that this is our table.

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