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From Hostility to Hospitality

March 1, 2023
Photo: Alexix Brown

Learning to tolerate one another—this is a chief aim of civics education in K-12 schools. It’s become the status quo. But, according to David Smith, director of the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning at Calvin University, it’s just too low a target.

“Just putting up with people isn’t enough,” said Smith. “What if, instead of starting with tolerance, we actually approached civics education through the lens of Christian hospitality?”

Smith is a leading voice in K-12 education. Under his leadership, the Kuyers Institute has become an outstanding center of innovative thinking around Christian education over the past 15 years. Their latest endeavor is The Civic Hospitality Project, a partnership with Calvin’s Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics. The project gives K-12 educators many curricular tools and exercises they can draw from in putting together their civics lesson plans. The goal? For civics education to aspire to higher aims.

“Students don’t just need the right answers or an understanding of how systems work; they need to cultivate character qualities that will enable them to interact with people with whom they disagree,” said Smith.

The timing for this resource couldn’t be better. Micah Watson, director of the Henry Institute, notes that the United States is experiencing a rise in what is referred to as affective polarization. It’s where one’s feelings toward their own political party or group become increasingly positive, while their feelings toward members of the opposing party or group become increasingly negative.

“It’s where you start to feel it in your bones. You don’t even want to be in the same room as somebody else,” noted Watson. It's why something must be done. And someone must lead the way.

“A country has to review what it means to share common citizenship, and Christians are well suited to lead,” said Watson.

Watson says it’s not a choice for Christians to do this; it’s a responsibility.

“God has been hospitable to us; we must extend hospitality to others,” said Watson.

The two centers Smith and Watson lead are under the auspices of Calvin University—where citizenship is one of the four learning outcomes it anticipates for its graduates. The university aims to prepare its students to be global citizens, cultivating in them a desire to extend Christian hospitality wherever God leads them.

“Our mission is to consider all subjects. We are not in a citadel just looking at the Bible or Christian things,” said Watson. “One of our core educational framework pieces at Calvin is citizenship, this belief that we are [primarily] citizens of the kingdom of God, but also citizens of the United States and other countries. So we explore what it looks like to do that well and to relate those things well. How do our identities as citizens of the kingdom of God inform our practices and our thinking toward people who may not share our faith?”

“It’s not about capitulating to the left and right. Scripture commands us to be gracious and respectful to people who may think differently than we do,” said Smith. “We make space at Calvin for a variety of perspectives, and we are committed to the foundations of the Christian faith.”

That defines the DNA of this resource Calvin is now offering to K-12 educators.

“Our theology doesn’t give us license to be hostile to those with whom we don’t share the same perspective,” said Smith.

Educators across North America have tested out the curriculum in their classes over the past year, and Smith and his team have incorporated their feedback into refining the resources that are now available at Schools around the world are already putting these tools into practice. Smith sees this as another way in which institutes at Calvin are helping to serve Christian education and the church.

“While we do a lot of work behind the scenes for Christian education, this is a very tangible way we are directly resourcing the Christian school network,” said Smith.

And the church benefits as well, he said.

“The same students sitting in the classrooms learning about this idea of Christian hospitality will be future members of churches that are situated around these schools,” said Smith. “This will surely help these church communities have a healthier public life.”