Being hospitable to a broader definition of peace
By Joseph Liechty ’78
The genius of “Healing the World, Peace by Peace” is that it serves simultaneously as a celebration of what Goshen College is and as a prod to live out what we proclaim. Reflection on our commitment to making peace in all its forms, for example, reveals considerable successes, such as our Study-Service Term, the Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center and the Music Center’s Community School of the Arts.
It also shines a light on our absences and subtle failures. One such area of success and failure on the Goshen College campus is hospitality. Many students and faculty members from diverse backgrounds have found a true home here, and yet too many others – whether because of their religious affiliations, socioeconomic status, ethnic/racial identities or political views – have graduated or departed while still feeling like outsiders.
In truth, I have an obsession with peace as hospitality that arises from having spent most of my adult life – 1980 to 2003 – as an outsider in Ireland doing mission work with a focus on reconciliation. I survived and eventually flourished only because so many people were willing to take me in and to make me at home. The story that best encapsulates for me the gift I received concerns a tea-break epiphany in Belfast. There were perhaps 15 of us present; some were just acquaintances, others had been good friends for a long time, and one had been what I can only think of as a guardian angel. I went over to get another cup of tea and, for a moment, I was on the outside, watching the others. It occurred to me: “Wow. I’m really the odd one out here. In fact,
I’m the odd one out at least three times over.” I was the only Mennonite, the only American among the Irish and the only Dubliner in a room full of Belfast people. “I’m the odd one out,” I thought, “and I’m completely at home.” That was to me a sacred moment, a paradox alive with significance, and I felt a deep contentment.
In 2003, I returned to Goshen College to teach in the peace, justice and conflict studies program. Now I was an insider at least three times over – as a Mennonite, as a child of a former faculty member, as an alumnus. I brought with me a desire to repay my great debt for hospitality received by doing what I could to extend hospitality to those at GC who would feel in some senses outsiders.
From my point of view, hospitality and peace have become inseparable. Peace almost always has to do with relationships; healthy relationships can be the goal of peace, the form of peace, the means of achieving peace. To practice hospitality, then – to build and sustain positive relationships – is to nurture peace.
For a teacher, hospitality starts in the classroom. At the beginning of most semesters, I tell my students about my tea-break epiphany, and I say that this class succeeds only if you feel free to be as different as you want to be, as different as you need to be, and also completely at home. It has been exciting to discover that the equitable teaching practices that make a classroom more hospitable for students representing a minority identity are actually the practices that promote the best learning for all students. An equitable class is structured so that every student has opportunities to find, express and develop her voice – no one is silenced, and all benefit from the variety of voices. In this case, the obligations of hospitality lead to a comparatively easy, win-win situation.
Sometimes, however, how to be hospitable is far from obvious and it complicates decisions. A good example was campus work over the past year on whether to break with Goshen College tradition and play the national anthem before athletic contests. For that GC tradition and for many Mennonites, the decision not to play the anthem arises from a faith stance that resists the sometimes-idolatrous claims of nations. Many students, faculty, and staff from other faith traditions, however, regard the anthem as an appropriate expression of national allegiance. Conceived of as an issue of faith and national allegiance, the decision about whether to play the anthem was difficult in practice, but conceptually simple, because faith must trump every other consideration.
However, add to the decision-making mix another faith issue – hospitality as a form of peace – and the decision about whether to play the anthem became more complex and conceptually difficult. The national allegiance quarrel remains in all its gnarly integrity, and yet, hospitality required us to think through some key facts that are invisible when viewed solely through the faithfulness lens: most of the GC student-athletes affected, for example, are from other-than-Mennonite religious traditions and would strongly prefer to play the anthem, and what we mean to be saying by not playing the anthem is inscrutable to visitors who don’t know our tradition and convictions. However, if hospitality complicated the national anthem issue, it was also a resource. Hospitality is always about love of neighbor, and that leaven can provide new ways to conduct the quarrel, and perhaps to transform it.
In deciding to allow the playing of the national anthem before games (see p. 17), the President’s Council gave balance-tipping weight to hospitality. What the President’s Council has not done, however, is to imply that the faith motivations behind the previous practice are antiquated or wrong. If anything, the decision is rooted in a confidence that GC remains a place where students and faculty are sensitive to excessive expressions of national allegiance, and a hospitality-driven decision to allow playing the national anthem will not change that.
Considering hospitality did not tell Goshen College what to do about playing the anthem. In fact it raised the stakes and made the discussion more complex. But in this case, more complex discussion also meant more broadly and deeply considered, and therefore more honest and fruitful. Nurturing an institution where it is possible for all to be as different as they want to be, as different as they need to be, and completely at home, is a challenge of the highest order for everyone involved. When we get it right, the rewards are commensurate with the challenge. There is a peace for all present in these moments, these relationships, these places; we glimpse the grace and hospitality of God. Perhaps we even reflect it.
Joseph Liechty is professor and director of the Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies program at Goshen College and editor of the Journal of Religion, Conflict and Peace (www.religionconflictpeace.org). Liechty led the campus task force that recommended the national anthem be played before some sports events at Goshen College.
Thanks to Professor Emerita of Education Kathryn Aschliman for providing artwork of College Mennonite Church Bible School participants, who went on to become GC alumni. Read their statements on what peace means to them »