This month Abingdon Press publishes my book, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love. It is my attempt to think through the sin of Xenophobia, fear of the other, in a Christian, biblical way. The book has discussion questions for individuals and groups after each chapter, so I hope it will be useful in churches for study and growth.
The Place of the Stranger in the Christian Faith
A parable in the Hindu Vedas tells of a man entering a darkened room. To his horror he sees what looks like a snake coiled in a corner. Though full of terror at the prospect of a venomous snake ready to strike, he fights the urge to flee and instead moves toward the snake to examine it. Upon a closer look the specter is discovered to be nothing but a harm-less coil of rope.
This, according to the Vedas, is the purpose of philosophizing to disarm the fearsomeness of the world by removing the threat of the unknown. Knowledge of the truth about the worldrenders the world less fearful and more bearable.
Is there anything more natural, innate, and universal than our fear of the Other? This natural, innate, adaptively beneficial propensity to stick with our own tribe makes all the more remarkable that early on in Israel’s history, God’s people are explicitly commanded to “love the immigrant… as yourself”: When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19:3334 CEB). Unnatural enough to be told to “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Matt 22:39) but to love even the foreign, alien (NRSV) is counter to the way we come into this world.
To be sure, there is some tension in the biblical story between God’s commands not to “oppress the immigrant” and the command to exclude and drive out strangers like the Canaanites (many early American preachers labeled Native Americans as “Canaanites” and sought biblical justification for the European conquest of North America). Still, Leviticus’ command not just to receive or tolerate but to love the stranger is remarkable.
The stranger plays a curious role in Scripture, Old Testament and New. Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, threw the thirty pieces of silver on the floor of the Temple and then hanged himself. Matthew says that the priests who had paid him refused to use the “blood money” for God’s business. They bought a field “as a place to bury foreigners” (Greek: Xenois, foreigners, immigrants, strangers), casting the body of Judas among the im-migrants and foreigners as if Judas were not really one of the Twelve.
In Jesus’ parable of the Great Judgment, when all the nations would be judged and separated, the enthroned Human One says to the blessed sheep, “I was a stranger (Xenos) and you welcomed me” (Matt 25:35 CEB). Surprise. In welcoming Xenois, they had received the Human One unawares.
Ephesians joyfully proclaims to new Christians that they “are no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, you are fellow citizens with God’s people, and you belong to God’s house-hold” (Eph 2:19 CEB). Xenophobia, the fear of the Other, stems from the Greek word for strangers.
Christians must learn to say to all those who would attempt to play on our innate fear of the Other, “For Christians, hospitality to the stranger is not only expected of us by God butalso commanded of us.” The stranger, and our reception of strangers, is therefore a sort of acid test for Christian faithfulness.