This presidential campaign season—as in no other of recent memory—Xenophobic, exclusionary, fear of the Other has been used by politicians in an attempt to garner votes. Xenophobia is more than a matter of preference for people whom we enjoy hanging out with, or those with whom we feel most comfortable. In Xenophobia we separate ourselves from others to better oppress, exploit, expulse, confine, hurt, or deny justice and access to others whom we have judged to be so Other as to be beyond the bounds of having any bond between us or any claim upon us.
In recent debates over whether or not to admit Syrian refugees, questions have been raised like, If we let them in, what’s the cost? Will our nation be less secure? Will property values in my neighborhood be diminished? Will these newcomers help or hinder the economy?
While these are not unreasonable questions, Christians ought to be upfront that in debates about others Christianity’s default position is hospitality, even as we received hospitality on the cross of Christ. Sure, we can argue about how we ought to be hospitable and what steps to take to integrate newcomers and to enable them to thrive in North American cultures. However, as Christians we are “prejudiced” toward hospitality, particularly for those in need, because that’s the way God in Christ has treated us and commanded us to treat others.
“Welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you, for God’s glory” (Rom 15:7 CEB).
Early in Israel’s history, God’s people are explicitly commanded to “love the immigrant . . . as yourself. . . . because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19:33-34 CEB). Challenging enough to be told to “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Matt 22:39) but to love even the foreign, resident alien doesn’t come naturally.
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 Xenoi, they had received Christ 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 household” (Eph 2:19 CEB). Xenophobia, the fear of the Other, stems from the Greek word for strangers.
It’s not an overstatement to say that welcoming the stranger, hospitality to the Other, is a hallmark of the faith of Jews and Christians.
So, in this season of rampant Xenophobia, what are some specifically Christian things your church and mine can do to witness that Christians have, by the grace of God, another way?
- If a politician or even a Christian group makes some exclusionary or hateful statements or act against Others with a “them” versus “us” mentality, your church can make contact with the wronged individual or group and let them (and the whole town) know that these politicians or groups do not represent the truth about Jesus Christ.
- Your church ought not merely welcome others of various ethnic, racial, political groups who evoke fear from the majority of the congregation. The church can devise strategies to seek out opportunities for conversation, storytelling, social events, and worship in order to fulfill the theological purposes of the church. Our stance with the Other ought not to be, “You ought to come and enjoy our hospitality,” but rather, “We need you to help us be more faithful to Jesus Christ!”
- The reality of our sinful fear of the Other (particularly during an election year!) is a fit subject for Bible study, sermons, prayer and honest discernment in the congregation. (If you need a good resource, I know a great little book on fear of the Other that’s been recently published by Abingdon!)
Will Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry, Duke Divinity School and is the author of the recently published, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love. He is a United Methodist Bishop, retired, who joined with the Episcopal and Catholic Bishops of Alabama to sue the governor and legislature of Alabama over HB 56, Alabama’s law against immigration. The suit was successful.