Welcome the Stranger

(This blog is also available as a video at https://youtu.be/fvnNK1PBAjc.)

Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you invited me in”. (Matthew 25:35)

Tribalism, the attitude of “us” versus “them”, has many ugly faces – racism, nationalism, sectarianism, social or intellectual snobbery and many more.

If we are infected by a tribalist attitude, we want a pure world, a world of people like us, and we want to push those who are not like us out of our world. In his book Exclusion & Embrace, Miroslav Volf says that this exclusive attitude can take three forms (pp. 74-75):

(1) In extreme cases, we kill and drive out. Volf himself was brought up in the former Yugoslavia and witnessed the horrors of ethnic cleansing in the conflicts that broke out after its break-up. In my Irish homeland in my own lifetime, members of the Protestant and Catholic tribes drove each other out of their homes to create pure territories, cleansed of those who were different. The walls of segregation went up and suspicion of the other was all-pervasive.

(2) Alternatively, we assign those who are not like us the status of inferior beings. In their book The Gift of the Stranger (what a counter-cultural title!), David Smith and Barbara Carvill say that, in New Testament times, the world was “divided into Greek speakers who were bearers of full humanity and foreigners who were considered of lesser worth” (pp. 20-21). The outsiders were ‘barbaroi’ (barbarians) because their language was unintelligible ‘bar bar bar’.

I was once in a classroom when David Smith was teaching about this. He asked half of us to sit on the floor where we could just peer over the edges of our tables while he ignored us to talk to the others who were still in their seats. Back in our seats, he then got us in both groups to reflect on how we felt during that part of the lesson. An unforgettable experience!

(3) A third form of exclusion, Volf says, is in the way we ignore or abandon others. It is found not only in the way the rich of the West and North relate to the poor of the Third World but also “in the manner in which the suburbs relate to inner cities, or the jet-setting ‘creators of high value’ relate to the rabble beneath them”. He likens this to the attitude of the priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan who cross to the other side of the road and “pass by, minding our own business” (p. 75). We simply do not see the inferior beings – they aren’t in our world.

If asked what is the second of the two great commandments in the Bible, many of us would readily answer that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. David Smith and Barbara Carvill point out that the record of this command in Leviticus 19 is followed by a command in the same chapter to love the alien as ourselves (p. 12). Who is our neighbour? The person who is like “us”, the person who lives in our street? No, the neighbour can be the alien, the stranger, the one who is different from us because she or he is one of “them”! Is that not the point that Jesus was making in answering the question about the identity of the neighbour with the story of the Good Samaritan. Today it could be the story of the Good Palestinian!

Miroslav Volf opposes these exclusivist tribalist attitudes to an attitude that welcomes and embraces the stranger. The picture on the cover of his book Exclusion & Embrace is of a painted plaster sculpture by George Segal entitled Abraham’s Farewell to Ishmael. The contrast between Abraham’s arms around his son and Sarah’s tightly-folded arms with her back turned on them so vividly depicts the contrast between embrace and exclusion! Abraham’s having a child with the maid Hagar (anxiously looking on from the background) was, after all, Sarah’s idea in the first place!

Miroslav Volf uses embrace as a metaphor for our welcome of the stranger and talks of it as a drama in four acts (pp. 140-147). In act one, I open my arms to the other as “a sign that I have created space in myself for the other to come in and that I have made a movement out of myself so as to enter the space created by the other”. In act two, I wait for the other to respond. The embrace of the other is not an invasion of their space. True embrace is reciprocal. In act three, we each close our arms around the other but not too tightly so as to crush or assimilate the other. In act four, very importantly, the arms are opened again. As I tried to say in my blog about ubuntu, ‘I am because we are’ asserts both that I am and that we are. The separate identities of each of the parties to the embrace are affirmed and maintained in true community.

The arms of the Lord Jesus are not tightly folded as were those of Sarah. They are wide open with the invitation to come to him. As we do so, our individuality is not lost in our relation to him.

There is no tribalism, no nationalism, no racism, no intellectual or social elitism in Christ. Paul writes, “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11, NIV). Again, he writes, “In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 3:28, The Message)

Father, forgive us and free us from our exclusivist ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitudes, whatever form they take, and help us to truly welcome and embrace the stranger for in doing so you tell us that we welcome the Lord Jesus. In his name, Amen.

(This blog is also available as a video at https://youtu.be/fvnNK1PBAjc.)

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