The Ethics of Hospitality

An Interfaith Response to US Immigration Policies

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Helen Boursier
  • London: 
    Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
    , February
     310 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Debate over immigrants and their place in the United States has a long history, with US policy and culture sometimes welcoming but often excluding new immigrants. After the election of Donald Trump in 2016, immigration politics became even more contentious, as Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric gave license to those with similar views to voice them publicly and loudly. One of the puzzles of Trump’s election was the sometimes virulent anti-immigrant views voiced by some of his Christian supporters—particularly white evangelical Christians. How did they make sense of their anti-immigrant views in light of their religion’s instruction to be welcoming toward immigrants? In her 2019 book The Ethics of Hospitality: An Interfaith Response to US Immigration Policies, Helen T. Boursier explores this conundrum, both for Christians and for people of other faith backgrounds, calling instead for an ethic of “radical hospitality” toward immigrants.

As a theologian and pastor who has worked as a volunteer chaplain with migrants at the Texas-Mexico border, Boursier approaches the issues in this book largely from a theological perspective. The author draws on various theological and philosophical sources, including Martin Buber, Karl Barth, and Jacques Derrida, to develop an argument about the responsibility of faith communities to lead the public call for welcoming refugees to the US. In addition, the book incorporates a variety of more ethnographic sources, pulled from Boursier’s deep experience working with refugee families at the border between 2014 and 2018.  She incorporates art and reflections from refugee mothers and children, eliminating names and dates to protect privacy. Boursier also draws on journals based on her interactions with families through her volunteer work and utilizes 450 digital records of reflections by other volunteers who visited detained families between 2014 and 2016. Together, these multiple sources provide rich ground for developing the insights Boursier writes about in the book, as well as giving voice to the refugees themselves.

The book covers a lot of ground, from describing immigration law to discussing Christian, Jewish, and Muslim teachings about “welcoming the stranger.” The most original and riveting section of the book, though, is Part Four, which focuses on refugee families detained at the border in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities. This section of the book is the one based most intensely on Boursier’s own direct experiences working with refugee families, and the vivid examples she provides are both heartbreaking and maddening. Few direct scholarly accounts exist of life in immigrant detention facilities. Particularly with the outrage during the last few years over refugee treatment in facilities at the border, including separation of children from their parents, this section of Boursier’s book offers an indispensable snapshot of what life is like for the families forced to live in these facilities and the trauma that experience produces.

Though the book has much to offer, the writing style is at times weighed down by theological language that some non-specialist readers may find off-putting. The book might have garnered a wider readership if it had started with a few accessible stories about the refugees themselves before introducing more advanced theological concepts. Another limitation of the book relates to its central aim to develop an “interfaith hermeneutic for radical hospitality.” Boursier states that the interfaith hermeneutic she is proposing “requires a letting go of the differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” (2). While the goal of a shared response to immigration—one that does not “limit God by putting up fences” (2) between religious traditions—may seem desirable on the face of it, research on the topic suggests that “interfaith” efforts in the US context often result in practices dominated by Christian symbols and language (Ruth Braunstein, Todd Nicholas Fuist, and Rhys H. Williams, eds., Religion and Progressive Activism, NYU Press, 2017). In this context, calling on Jews and Muslims to downplay the particularities of their traditions for the sake of unity, even if Christians are attempting to do the same, could be a recipe for potential problems. As such, the book could have used a more robust discussion of some of the obstacles that can inhibit the creation of genuinely interfaith efforts.  

Despite these limitations, The Ethics of Hospitality is a worthwhile and timely read. Boursier’s provision of an inside look at the experiences of refugees in detention facilities at the border makes the book truly valuable for both academic and non-academic audiences. It would also make a great choice for seminary students in graduate level courses on immigration.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Grace Yukich is professor of sociology at Quinnipiac University.

Date of Review: 
August 11, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Helen T. Boursier is a professor at College of St. Scholastica.


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