At first glance, the Bible might seem to offer support for bigots and isolationists. One nation chosen, all the others spurned. Idolaters destroyed; intermarriage with them expressly condemned.
Read a little further, though, and all chauvinisms are shaken. Repetitively, inescapably, God “loves the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:18). He wants Israel to see themselves as a nation of pilgrims passing through; thus, the foreigner in their midst holds up a mirror, serves as a reminder. They are instructed to “love him as yourself” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
To be sure, the resident alien must abide by Israel’s laws. But—and this is remarkable—he or she is equal to the Israelite before the law (Deuteronomy 1:16; 27:19). In dispensing equal justice, Israel rehearses for its deepest calling: “I will also give you for a light to the nations, that My salvation may extend to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).
In every generation of biblical history, God uses the stranger to teach His people a fundamental lesson: We are not possessors, established on a homeland, standing and defending our ground. Rather, we dwell in tents and booths. The Lord is the God of the uprooted. In one passage, Jeremiah even suggests that God Himself is “like a stranger in the land, like a traveler who stays only a night” (14:8).
The picture hardly changes in the New Testament. Jesus, God Incarnate, is the ultimate stranger on earth. He comes to pitch His tent among us (John 1:14); He has nowhere to lay His head (Luke 9:58). To a radical, deeply troubling degree, He identifies Himself with every outsider. His is the face of every refugee. “Lord, when did we fail to invite You in — ?” “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these” (Matthew 25:41-46).
In recent months, we have seen a weary world greet its first sight of Syrian refugees largely with a collective shrug. A photograph of a dead child on a beach softened hearts and opened doors, but they slammed shut again after an act of terrorism.
Truth be told, we should never have expected governments and politicians to welcome the stranger with bold love. This is the calling of the company of believers, themselves sojourners and exiles on earth; it can never be delegated to the world. Nor can we protest that we are asked only to embrace the worthy. Jesus Himself closed that door in our faces: “But I tell you, Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).
It has always been thus. When a notorious persecutor of Christians professed conversion and claimed the status of a brother, he was shunned—until a believer named Barnabas took a big risk (Acts 9:26-27). It may have been his example that first showed Paul a love that believes and hopes all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).
Around A.D. 250, an epidemic spread through much of the Roman Empire. Pagans mostly deserted the sick, but Christians in several cities organized care for the living and burial of the dead—and this in spite of the fact that the persecution of the Emperor Decius was underway, and Christians were even being blamed for the plague. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, urged Christians to care for all the afflicted without distinction, and also specifically to extend aid to their persecutors. This episode was one of many steps leading up to the establishment of the first hospitals.
Almost from the beginning of European exploration of the New World, Native Americans were portrayed predominantly as “wild savages,” “dumb brutes” and worshipers of the devil. They were also described as treacherous and untrustworthy. One who disagreed was “Apostle” John Eliot (1604-1690). Aided by Thomas Mayhew and others, Eliot’s evangelistic labors resulted in the establishment of 14 towns of converted “praying Indians” in Massachusetts. Particularly during King Philip’s War in 1675-76, Eliot was called a traitor and received death threats, and many of his translated Bibles were confiscated and destroyed. But he continued undeterred.
In 1956, five young American missionaries were killed by Waodani people of Ecuador. Incredibly, some of their family members continued the work, eventually leading many Waodani to Christ. In 1965, Steve Saint, the 14-year-old son of one of the martyrs, was baptized by two of his father’s killers.
These stories show the power of God. The apostle Paul concluded that his own dramatic conversion occurred so that others might see the “unlimited patience” of Christ (1 Timothy 1:16), and draw hope. So with other converts, age after age; but always the patience of Christ is extended through the boldness of His ambassadors.
Stranger and Neighbor
Today, we may be witnessing the start of a great move of God. For years, Muslim countries have banned or severely constrained Christian missionaries. No churches may be built, no sermons preached, no Bibles handed out; and any citizen who converts “blasphemes Islam” and is subject to extreme penalties, even death.
We have prayed for walls to crumble and gates to open. But what if God has chosen rather to bring people out—to turn them into the uprooted as a first step in making them His own?
What if it falls to Christians, more than countries, to welcome and serve these strangers—taking them in if this is permitted, or, if need be, sojourning with them in temporary camps, showing them the love that Christ has shown us? If we cannot go, what if it is our calling to adopt a displaced family, sending them personal words of encouragement as well as practical assistance, even if this offends some who accuse us of giving aid and comfort to our enemies?
It is not hard to find grounds to decline this invitation. Some days, every news cycle supplies a new reason. But we’ve been told to peer intently into strangers’ faces, expecting, as we serve them, to meet our Lord.