A Little Believing Thinking
Our most recent “Faiths in Conversation” session was on what our respective faith traditions (Judaism, Christianity & Islam) have to say about the “other,” the “stranger” and “sojourner.” As I wrote about last week, our tendency on topics like these is to jump immediately into the arena of public policy and political action. And while I would be in full agreement that not to act on our faith’s convictions is the very definition of unfaithfulness (Matthew 7:21-27; James 1:22). But I would also argue that not to root out actions in careful Scriptural reflection is equally unfaithful. If being “hearers of the Word” but not “doers of the Word” is spiritually dangerous, then no less dangerous is our tendency to be “doers” without first being “hearers of the Word.” And so in this Interfaith presentation I attempted to summarize the New Testament’s primary teachings about the “stranger” and the “other,” and to describe the characteristic way that we as Christians have tried to keep faith with them. DBS+
Faiths in Conversation
“The Other & the Stranger” – September 14, 2014 – 7 pm
A Christian Perspective (Second Revision)
Dr. Douglas B. Skinner
Northway Christian Church
The theological foundation for this conversation here this evening from the Christian perspective is Creation. The Apostle Paul writing to the Ephesian church reminded them that when he got down on his knees to pray, that he was talking to the God who is “the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (3:14-15). Our creation by God makes us all members of the same human family. This is what Paul meant when in his sermon to the philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens he told them that we are all God’s “offspring” (Acts 17:28), that “He made from one blood every nation of mankind to live on the face of the earth” (17:26).
Having said this, I think I could sit down right now, and feel pretty confident that I had fulfilled my assignment here this evening of explaining the Christian perspective on “The Other and the Stranger.” Our Creation by God makes us one people, one family, and technically this means that there are no outsiders, no strangers, no “others.” “On paper,” in principle, this is absolutely true. This is the way God intended things to be; His “Creative intent.” But the fact of the matter is that things right now are not the way that God intended them to be.
Following the opening picture of shalom in the book of Genesis where everything and everybody fit together with everything and everybody else in a web of perfect harmony and well-being just like the pieces of a puzzle making a beautiful picture, the stories that follow that portrait of “original blessing” are descriptions of its gradual unraveling. The scholars talk about the stories of Genesis chapter 1-11 as “etiological” stories, stories of origin that explain why things are the way they are.
We have an innate sense deep inside us – what some of the more poetic theologians have called an “echo of Eden” – that tell us that things are supposed to fit and work together in perfect harmony. But our experience of life in this world is anything but this, and so the stories that the Bible tells after the stories of creation are stories that explain why it is that we feel so estranged from God spiritually, and so estranged from our own selves psychologically, and so estranged from creation ecologically and so estranged from each other socially. While we are all one family by design, all the children of the same God, we nevertheless experience each other by the things that make us different. We divide from each other on the basis of things like race, gender, economics, geography, culture and language.
Donald Kraybill, a Mennonite Theologian and Sociologist, describes our familiar pattern of social interaction to a checkerboard.
Each square on the board represents a particular category of persons… Boundaries emerge to set groups apart from each other. Members have a clear sense of whether they are “in” or “out” of a group… Social interaction is organized around the boxes and lines on the social checkerboard. We relate primarily to persons in our own square and in nearby squares. (225)
And, we grow increasingly leery of those in squares away from our own. This is what the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis chapter 11 is all about. Since the separation of that scattering we have become strangers to each other. We have lost Creation’s bond of shalom that makes us conscious of our connection with each other as members of the same family, and we have settled into different squares on the checkerboard where we become strangers and relate as “others.”
As Christians, when we talk about God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, we believe that what is being repaired is what has become unraveled; what is being restored is God’s original creative intent for us and the world, it’s about getting us back to the garden. And part of this healing is a movement away from the separation of Babel that has made us strangers, and a return to our more foundational identity as members of the same family.
The New Testament ends with a stunning vision of a new heaven and a new earth with a New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God when the work of salvation is finally complete. And the great architectural feature of this coming city of God are its four walls with four gates on each side, 12 in all, open every day and all night long so that the people of the nations can stream in bringing their glory and honor with them to lay before the throne of God (21:24-27). And in the glimpse that John was actually given of God’s throne, it was surrounded by people of every tribe and tongue (Revelation 5:9). In the end, by the grace of God, the human family makes its way “back to the Garden” where once again there are no strangers in God’s Shalom.
Until that day comes, we as Christians try to embody what we know about what it is that God is in the process of bringing about in Jesus Christ as best we can. We lean into that future that we believe that God is bringing about. We who are Christians regularly pray – “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” – it’s the first part of our family prayer. And believe me when I tell you that you can’t pray these words, and mean them, and then just sit idly by, indifferent to what it is that you know God wills for us and for the whole world. As John Killinger put it, when you pray these words –
You want to redesign the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. You want the hungry to be fed and the infirm to walk. You want the blind to see and the deaf to hear. You want parents to love their children and children to grow up happy and morally committed to the right things. (115)
And you want strangers to be treated with respect, dignity and compassion because the New Testament makes it absolutely clear that this is something that God wants.
In Matthew chapter 25, in His instructions on the kinds of things that He expected His disciples to be doing out of their devotion to Him, Jesus Christ talked about taking in the stranger (25:35; 38; 43). “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” Jesus said (25:35). Behind this spiritual truth was the literal truth of Jesus’ own experience as a refugee. Matthew tells us that when King Herod went on his rampage killing all the baby boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem after Christ’s birth, Joseph packed up his family and fled to Egypt where they lived as sojourners and strangers. Somebody welcomed them there; provided for them there, and in turn, Christ expected His disciples to do this same thing for others (2:13-23).
In Romans 12:13, the Christians of the Roman church were told to practice hospitality. The word that appears in that Greek text for hospitality is “xenophilia” which literally refers to loving the stranger, the exact opposite of the word that is probably more familiar to us – “xenophobia,” the “fear” or “hatred of the stranger.” Paul understood “loving the stranger and the sojourner” to be a characteristic of someone who is being “transformed” by the person and work of Jesus Christ in their lives (12:2). In other words, this is something Christians characteristically do.
And the author of the New Testament book of Hebrews makes this same exact point when he or she wrote: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers” (Hebrews 13:2). “Entertain” here does not refer to inviting them to the movies, or buying them a nice meal, or singing them a happy song. No, what it meant was opening their hands, their arms, their hearts, their homes and their churches to them. And according to Adolf von Harnack, the important German theologian and church historian from a century ago, the impact of the church in the ancient world was in no small part due to the way that the first Christians did exactly this.
They loved people in specific and concrete ways: by giving alms to the poor, especially to widows and orphans; by caring for the sick, the infirm and the disabled; by providing for the needs of prisoners and those languishing in the mines; by taking care of the dying, the enslaved, and those devastated by natural disasters like earthquakes and floods; by finding work for the unemployed and taking care of the unemployable; and by welcoming the sojourners and making room in their lives for the strangers.
When Christianity jumped from its exclusively Jewish incubator to the whole wide world in the front room of the house of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius in Caesarea (Acts 10), Peter stated the principle that has informed Christian conscience ever since: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to Him” (10:34). Now understand, Peter didn’t come to this conclusion quickly or easily. The ways of Babel are strong in us; that checkerboard is tattooed on our soul. This truth had to hit Peter like the proverbial 2×4 up the side of a Missouri mule, and then it had to grow in him gradually from the inside out. And as a Christian, this is how I believe that it still works. Things change for the better in ourselves and the world from the inside out.
When he was asked what the Bible was all about, Gardener Taylor, one of the great African American preachers of the last generation said, “God is out to get back what belongs to Him.” Starting where the Bible starts, Dr. Taylor saw the estrangement of humanity from God that the story of the Garden of Eden tells as the great fact of the human condition. The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden made them spiritual refugees from their own true native land with God, and the story that the Bible tells from Genesis through Revelation is the story of what God did to bring His people home again to Himself.
In the New Testament, this is the dominant thought when the subject turns to strangers and sojourners. It’s first and foremost a category for a Christian’s own self-understanding. We find it in the second chapter of the letter to the Ephesians, where the saving work of Jesus Christ gets framed as the way that Gentiles, people who had been spiritual aliens and strangers to the covenant of God, get restored to their place in His family.
Through Christ we have access by one Spirit to the Father… so that we are no longer strangers and aliens… but have become members of the household of God. (2:18-19)
In the Hebrew Scriptures the treatment of the stranger and the sojourner by God’s first covenant people was conditioned by their memory of having once been strangers and sojourners themselves (Deuteronomy 5:15). And in the same way, we who are Christians are commanded to treat strangers and sojourners in ways that are consonant with our own spiritual identity as strangers and sojourners ourselves. A heart that has been welcomed home to the love of God in Jesus Christ is a heart in which room will be made for the other and the stranger because that’s what God wants, and that’s how God works.
Barrs, Jerram. “Francis A. Schaeffer: The Later Years Lesson 8.” Basic Bible Study Themes, III. http://www.covenantseminary.edu
Harnack, Adolf Von. “The Gospel of Love and Charity.” Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries. http://www.ccel.org
Killinger, John. Bread for the Wilderness, Wine for the Journey. Word Books. 1976.
Kraybill, Donald. The Upside Down Kingdom. Herald Press.