What is our first reaction, our spontaneous response, when we meet the stranger?
“Who let’s these people in here anyway?” asked the man. He was agitated and shaking his head, in complete dismay. “I mean” he paused “The woman who served me coffee the other day was Moroccan!” His voice raised in incredulity at the end of this declaration. The man was a casual friend of ours and he was speaking to my husband on a chance meeting at a convenience store nearby.
My husband took a second then responded calmly “Who let your people in here?”
But our friend didn’t hesitate and was not to be silenced. “My people came on the Boat!” he said with authority and pride. He did not have to specify “which” boat. Depending where you live, this conversation is not uncommon. It is not nearly as rare as I would wish it to be.
The French philosopher Zvetan Tdorov puts this response well when he says that “our first spontaneous reaction in regards to the stranger is to imagine him as inferior, since he is different from us”. If one could see the unfiltered version when any one of us confronts difference in the form of a stranger, they may see this response.
Daily in our world we encounter the stranger.
Some times the encounters are interesting, intriguing, fun, joyful. Other times encounters are troubling, assaulting us with faces, smells, clothes, and accents that exacerbate the differences we feel and make us uncomfortable. Sometimes those feelings of discomfort spill over into anger or judgment.
And now I speak to the Christian who is reading — the one who believes that the gospel message is for all people. Hear this: the way we confront difference, the way we treat the stranger, reflects what we believe. If we consider the stranger to be inferior because he or she is different then we’d best ask ourselves ‘why’, best examine our motivation and our heart.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.”*
The stranger – that one who is foreign, not one of us, unknown. From Genesis to Hebrews to James we have clear instruction and wisdom on how to treat the stranger. The words of Jesus call us to feed the hungry, bring drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick, come to the prisoner. The writer of Hebrews asks us to show ‘hospitality to strangers for by it some have entertained angels’. Hospitality holds a high premium in Middle Eastern culture, both now and in Old Testament times. The verse below is not ambiguous in its command:
‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’
We are told to “love” the stranger. Not just tolerate, not pass by, not ignore – but to love.
International students, immigrants, refugees – they all fall under the category of the ‘stranger’. The journeys that brought them to the United States are as varied as the tapestry of experiences they come with.
Take international students as an example. Figures vary, but the United States has over 800,000 international students that arrive every fall for the academic year. Statistics on international students show that 80% of them never set foot in and American home. Never. Former world leaders who were international students at one time include Benazir Bhutto, Fidel Castro, and King Abdullah of Jordan. The state department maintains a list of current world leaders who at one time participated in American academic programs. The list includes almost 300 former or current leaders.
I have to ask myself – were they ever invited into the home of an American? Was hospitality extended to them during their tenure as students? Or did they come to this country and leave, without so much as a cup of coffee in the home of someone from the United States?
Who is the stranger in our midst? Who is the stranger in your midst?
And how do we respond to that stranger?
Can we ask ourselves this question and be honest in our responses? What is our first spontaneous reaction in regard to a stranger? What is our response to difference?
Do we consider some worthy of our hospitality and others unworthy? Some superior because they are attractive, or white, or clean, or smart, or beautiful? Do we love only those with whom we agree, because we believe the same things on faith and God? Do we believe those who look like us are somehow more worthy of God’s love and of ours? Do we love because of obligation or duty which is really no love at all? Do we believe we are more lovable because of who we are and how we live?
Or do we love because first we were loved?
It is the Advent season and daily we are reminded of the Incarnation – God become man. If there was ever one to meet the stranger it was Jesus, the God-Man. Leaving all that was rightfully his, he came into our midst and encountered a world that didn’t know what to do with a Messiah. He engaged the stranger and found out their story, he entered into their story, and by entering their story – their lives were never the same.
So this advent, can we look at the stranger and imagine him as equal? Can we embrace the stranger with an invitation to dinner offering a side helping of genuine hospitality and pumpkin pie? Can we put aside our discomfort with difference, and see what might happen? Can we bring the stranger home?
What will our response be in regard to the stranger?