Welcoming the Stranger

Two particularly prominent issues today are racism and genderism. And they vitally need to be addressed.

As I consider these issues, it seems to me these are part of a larger Problem. Namely — rejection and oppression of those who are different from us — whether that be skin color, gender attitudes, religion, political views, national origin, education (more than one ‘revolution’ has singled out the educated for execution), hair color (being a red-head at the time of the Spanish Inquisition could get you burned at the stake), whether you make the sign of the cross with two or three fingers (see Raskol) — this heinous list is entirely too long. Wait, anything AT ALL on this list makes it entirely too long.

Meanwhile, the idea of welcoming the ‘stranger’ has solid grounding in the Old Testament:

“When a stranger (גֵּר/GĒR) sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Jesus reiterates this:

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger (ξένος/XENOS) and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35)

Likewise the book of Hebrews:

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers (ξένος/XENOS), for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2)

The Hebrew word for ‘stranger’ in the Leviticus passage (גֵּר/GĒR) indicates “one who is of a different geographical or cultural group, often with less rights than the reference group”, and the Greek word (ξένος/XENOS) in Matthew and Hebrews means ‘one who is strange, unfamiliar’. In short, we are enjoined to welcome the person who is ‘strange’ or ‘different’ for whatever reason.

It seems to me that Christianity has an opportunity to say something authentic about this. Because Christianity itself was founded by non-whites in the non-European Middle East. First century Palestine (and ancient Israel in general) was a very ‘strange’ culture to us on so many levels. And the ideas the Bible teaches are even stranger: “Love your enemy”. Really?

And even when ‘white Europeans’ embraced Christianity, much of their interpretation and practice seems just as strange to us ‘moderns’. For example, the Medieval Mystics:

When there is union of love, the image of the Beloved is so sketched in the will and drawn so vividly, that it is true to say that the Beloved lives in the lover and the lover in the Beloved. Love produces such likeness in this transformation of lovers that one can say each is the other and both are one. The reason is, that in the union and transformation of love, each gives possession of self to the other, and each leaves and exchanges self for the other. Thus each one lives in the other and is the other, and both are one in the transformation of love. (John of the Cross)

Almost incomprehensible to us “practical, rational American Protestants”. And that’s my point.

Meanwhile, if others are strange to us, we’re likely strange to them! How much of the rest of the world is looking at America today and marveling how strange we’ve become. Heck, I have that same feeling watching the 6 o’clock news – is this really the same America in which I was born and raised?

So. I wonder if there isn’t merit in renewing our embrace of the strangeness of the people, languages and culture that were the origin and foundation of Christianity. If for no other reason than it is good practice for welcoming ‘strangers’ wherever we encounter them.

And furthermore: I find that as I work at being more present to ‘strangers’ whether in ancient times, within myself, or neighbors, I discover anew that all human beings wrestle with the same eternal questions: how to navigate this Strange Voyage from Birth to Death, with its signposts along the way of Love, Beauty, Truth, Family, Aspiration, and Suffering. In short, our common humanity in what really matters.