Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Human Rights and Forced Hospitality

Written by: on January 31, 2020

My oldest and youngest seem to hate each other a large portion of the time. Of course they do not hate each other, it just seems that way. Frequently the situation plays out where JT asks JP if he can play with a particular toy because it is his turn. JP rejects JT’s request out of hand, just because it is JT asking for it. The situation gets worse when JA asks to play with the toy and JP is more than happy to let him play with it. JT will angrily protest that it is not fair and it is his turn. That is when the fight starts and does not end until a grown up intervenes. As it turns out JT is correct and it is his right to play with the toy at this point and it is within his rights to protest not being given the opportunity to play with the toy. This will almost universally result in a conversation between the intervening parent and the kids where it is said that all of the fuss could have been avoided if only JP had decided to be nice to JT. The issue at play here is both one of rights and of hospitality.

In a world consumed by rights; human rights, women’s rights, gun owner rights (in the US), indigenous peoples rights, etc. is it possible that we are missing out on the basic kindness that is interpersonal hospitality? It is not that rights are a bad thing at all, in fact most claims of rights trace their roots to something that is tied to something basic in humanity. And fighting for rights is not bad either, when not freely provided the fight to see them observed is a good and at times righteous act. The issue is that having to fight for them is the result of someone not providing the space to allow the consumer of said rights the space to exercise them.

In the essay The Religion of Christianity and The Religion of Human Rights Nick Spencer argues that without a root in faith – and in particular Christianity – the concept of human rights collapses upon itself.i This essay is part of the series of essays compiled as The Evolution of the West, How Christianity has Shaped Our Values, so it is not surprising the argument being made is centered on Christianity. I think that Spencer is correct that human rights minus a belief in something larger than humanity will eventually collapse upon itself. I think that he missed out on a crucial point that rights are only necessary when a portion of humanity has chosen to not provide space for another portion of humanity.

Rights and hospitality are two sides of the same street. There is a level of natural hospitality that is willing to provide space for the other. Take women’s rights for instance. I grew up with three sisters, there was never a point growing up that I did not think my sisters could do something as well as me because they are girls. It was not until someone informed me that men are better than women at whatever that my being superior because of my maleness even entered my brain. In essence I grew up with a willingness to provide the space for my sisters to be every bit as good as me. The need for women’s rights comes about when a portion of society has decided that the space provided for women to be as (or more) capable than a man needs to be removed. It is at that point that rights need to be declared. Rights are forced hospitality (which is an oxymoron, just go with it). When we declare that no one shall be discriminated on the basis of gender, we are forcing open a space where all genders are able to operate in that space. The question that needs to be asked then, is why was that space initially closed off?

Declaring rights and enforcing them is good, but the hard work that needs to be done is helping the ones resistant to those rights to understand where and when the space was closed off. This sort of work is hard and requires more than lip service to be lasting. But when the work is done well the right, while philosophically correct, is no longer in need of enforcement and that needs to be our goal.


i Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West, How Christianity has Shaped Our Values, (Louisville:Westminster John Knox 2014), 138.

About the Author

Sean Dean

An expat of the great state of Maine where the lobster is cheap and the winters are brutal I've settled in as a web developer in Tacoma, Washington. As a foster-adoptive parent of 3 beautiful boys, I have deep questions about the American church's response to the public health crisis that is our foster system.

8 responses to “Human Rights and Forced Hospitality”

  1. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Love it, Sean. I appreciate your connection made between rights and hospitality. Our stepping on and over the other and not making/holding/keeping space for each other has been harmful and is dangerous. This universal truth of the dignity and rights of all humans is a place where the Christian and atheist can come together – and where we may even have a contribution to make in a greater way in the days ahead to the broader world. Appreciate you.

  2. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    You tell the best life stories to illustrate the crux of your points. Really excellent, perhaps you have no idea what a great teacher and communicator you are. “Rights and hospitality are two sides of the same street” will stay with me a long time. I really hope you will continue to develop your teaching gift.

  3. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    This is excellent, Sean. Intentional acts over a long period seems to be necessary for hospitality to move from forced to open and heart felt, natural. This was the basis of affirmative action, and although it has been misused and abused, it is a right concept. May the church lead in this important direction!

    • Sean Dean says:

      Enforced hospitality is a long game approach, but it’s also the only one that works. It’d be great if the church could find a way to lead in this area. I am hopeful that as a new generation of leaders start to bubble up we will see that kind of leadership arise.

  4. Karen Rouggly says:

    Sean, this is really powerful. I appreciated the way you equated rights and hospitality – I’d never thought of it that way before but it makes total sense! To your point, hospitality is also a giving up of ones own rights sometimes to make space for the other. If we think about hospitality in the home, I’m giving up my space for the joy of another to enter. Or in your personal writing context, often we’re giving up our rights to either have a child by birth, or only add to a family by birth, to make hospitable space for another. SO good.

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