Why should we welcome the stranger?

I write a quarterly column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible and the ideas that it expresses. I have written for them on:

This column explores the question ‘Why should we welcome the stranger?’ as part of a whole edition of the magazine on this issue.

Many of us find meeting people from another context, culture or language challenging. When people think, say or do things differently, we find it—well, strange. That is why we call them ‘strangers’! It is much less work relating to people who are like us—and strangers find the same. That is why, in any context, minority ethnic groups will almost always cluster together; this is the unexplored reality behind our current debates about race and discrimination. 

Many cities in Europe, during the Middle Ages, were divided into distinct areas for the different ethnic groups that lived there, each with their own diet, culture, and dress. Yet when I lived in Slough, in Berkshire, in the 1980s, I found exactly the same thing. I could tell you precisely which streets were occupied by Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and indigenous white British. We find life easier to live amongst people like us.

Creation unity

What does scripture say about this dynamic, and about our encounter with the stranger? The first claim is that all humanity is made ‘in the image of God, male and female’ (Gen 1.27). Such a claim was radical then, when Genesis was written, and it is radical now. It is all too easy to treat those who are different from us as less than us, and another small step to treat them as less than human. Scripture forbids it. 

The global genealogy that we find in Genesis 10 might seem obscure and mythical to us—but it says something very important. All humanity, in its variety and diversity, has a common spiritual ancestry in Adam and Eve—there is only one race, the human race. The story of Babel in Genesis 11 tells us that this diversity becomes rivalry and enmity only as the result of sin.

The stranger in Israel

God’s call of Abraham, and the forming of the people of God from his offspring, brings this question into sharp focus. If Israel is the chosen people of God, how should they treat the stranger in their midst? The answer is remarkable.

The term translated ‘stranger’ or ‘resident alien’ is ger; it appears to be derived from the verb gur, meaning ‘to dwell’, but Jewish commentary claims is it related to the noun gargir, meaning ‘an isolated berry at the end of a solitary branch’. This offers a powerful picture of how vulnerable it feels to be a stranger in a land far from home—and it shapes how Israel is to respond to such strangers:

The stranger who dwells 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 (Lev 19.34).

There are three remarkable things here. First, the creation principle springs from recognition of the sovereignty of God. Secondly, Israel must welcome the stranger since they know what it is to be a stranger in a foreign land—all the way back to the time of their father Abraham (Gen 23.4). 

Thirdly, this section of teaching in Leviticus articulates what Jesus calls the second great commandment, and it is ‘like’ the first: ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matt 22.39, Luke 10.27). Even ‘sinners’ love their own kind, in their own safe groups (Matt 5.47); the true test of whether you love your neighbour is in your response to the stranger. 

A community of strangers

The outworking of this love for stranger is precisely what we find amongst the early followers of Jesus. God has destroyed the ‘dividing wall of hostility’ between Jew and Gentile (Eph 2.14) and therefore between all who were strangers to one another. 

In Acts 13, we find the believers in Antioch being led by a black African, a wealthy Jew, a displaced exile, a compromised political leader, and a fanatical Pharisee—reflecting the ethnic and economic diversity of the city. Paul’s list of fellow ministers in Romans 16 includes female and male, Jew and Gentile, Greek and Roman, ex-slaves and influential politicians, wealthy and poor. It is a case study in those who are from ‘every nation, tribe, people and language’ (Rev 7.9) as humanity redeemed by Jesus and restored to God’s original intention of unity in diversity.

In the stranger, I meet someone who challenges and dethrones the idea that I, and my cultural outlook, is the centre of the world. I meet someone who is made in the image of God, no matter how different this person is from me. And I meet someone for whom Christ died, and whom he longs might be incorporated into his multinational, multicultural, multilingual people of God. 

These are the compelling reasons why I need to learn to ‘welcome the stranger’.

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27 thoughts on “Why should we welcome the stranger?”

  1. Israel was to welcome the stranger provided that the stranger kept the law of the land, the laws of Moses… and didn’t demand that it be changed to accommodate differing cultural preferences.

    • And this raises the question of how do we (can we?) translate this from a covenantally- based society to one in which is there exists a variety of beliefs and practices, and one in which some of the “strangers” have chosen to create their own communities?

      • I think it is not possible.

        We should distinguish between the individual level, where of course the stranger should be welcomed into our homes, and the cultural/national level.

        • … provided (of course) that the stranger has had a wash within the last few days before coming into my house.

          And we certainly don’t want to encourage cultures where they are imperfect ablutioners.

        • Anton, I see the logic of your first point( although this would require elaboration). However while not wishing to downgrade”the individual level” I would affirm that the biblical input expressed above should by extension have application to Christian communities. In particular, as we are all well aware, the most pressing problem facing both church and state in this context at this moment is one specific issue pertaining to “the stranger”: it is the *refugee* !

          • We should welcome the refugee, yes. But they are supposed to claim asylum in the first safe country they come to. Regarding the huge numbers trying to cross the Channel, is France not a safe country? Or the country they reached France from? And are they really refugees or economic migrants?

  2. Perhaps I should have been more specific. The “most pressing problem” is not how to deal with the issue in general terms. It is to do with the appalling consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

    • Colin – how far do you expect people to go in this? Because I know quite a number who have taken the Ukrainian refugees *into their own homes*. I personally would be very reluctant to do that – I like my own company and I keep the number of visitors to my house to a minimum. I have some admiration for those who actually take the refugees into their own homes.

  3. Anton – I think the main reason why some Ukranians are are wanting to move to the UK is because they already have family here. But even if refugees in general are supposed to claim asylum in the first safe country they come to, is that right? Given the UK is an island, logically we would receive no refugees. Why should other countries take all the burden and not the UK?

    However I do not think we should have open borders, but Ukranians seeking shelter should be checked, at least at a basic level. It is quite possible, indeed probable, that Putin and his cronies will be attempting to smuggle in agents into Europe in the guise of refugees. So it is right that the government takes some precautions.

    • I wasn’t talking about Ukrainians, who are clearly bona fide refugees in the present horror, but about those crossing the Channel.

      • Why are those crossing the Channel not ‘bona fide’? The UK does not provide any legal route for them to enter the country, but that doesn’t affect their eligibility to apply for asylum and obtain refugee status.

        • I answered that above: they are entering from France, and bona fide refugees are supposed to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. Would you explain to me why France is not safe?

          This suggests to me that they are not bona fide refugees but economic migrants, but that is a further issue.

          • It is a widely-held view that people must claim asylum in the first country they come to. But it’s not actually true. There is no such requirement.

            As for the actual reasons why people don’t stay in France, I see it like this:
            Say Britain was taken over by a despot and I needed to flee for my safety, and let’s say I spoke Spanish but no French and had some friends or relations in Spain who I knew I could help me, but no one in knew in France. Where would I go? Obviously I’d go through France and on to Spain if I could. Would I be going there rather than France for economic reasons? Maybe you could make that argument, but it wouldn’t stop me being a genuine refugee. And I’d be of more use to a host country if I knew the language and had a support network.

          • I doubt that being of use to their host country is uppermost in their minds. We could deal with this abuse of our generosity if we were to cut our benefits system to a little below that of France. And save the hard-pressed taxpayer some money too; tax falls hardest on the working poor, which is one reason why the ‘red wall’ was breached at the last election.

    • I certainly wouldn’t rely on a so-called fact-checking site, and the one you cite addresses only the question whether the requirement has to do with the Geneva Convention. Your own digest of what is says is wholly misleading, despite wishing to be ‘clear’. This report of a court ruling in 2017 strikes me as giving a truer picture:

      • You’re referencing the Dublin regulation, which is an EU law setting out which EU country is responsible for looking at an individual’s asylum application. For obvious reasons that regulation no longer applies to the UK. The Dublin regulation is also discussed in the website I referred to.

        The article on fullfact has been drafted with the assistance of experts in immigration law. But if there are particular errors of fact in it, please highlight them.

        • The error of fact would seem to be yours: ‘there is no requirement for refugees to claim asylum in the first safe country they come to.’ If the first country is an EU country, then EU law and the Dublin regulation apply. If they fly and the UK is the first country they come to, then of course they claim asylum in the UK.

  4. Thanks for that clarification Anton. However , it would seem that others have simply read into what I have said as an expression of their own particular concerns.So let me clarify my own, specific position.
    First and foremost it is not primarily to do with British state (or any other state); it relates to the primacy of *The Kingdom of God*!
    Secondly , and in relation to this, so far no one has picked up the point which I made in my second post :” I would affirm that the biblical input expressed above should by extension have application to Christian communities”.
    By this I mean that the OT teaching expounded by Ian (but allowing for the caveat expressed by Anton as well as the general societal differences between the OT times and our own) contains principles that have direct application to the Christian Church and how *it* deals with the issue of *the stranger*.
    Moreover, I believe passionately that, in the context of the Ukraine crisis, the plight of *the refugee* highlights, not only the appalling suffering of a particular people,but also (a) the spiritual and moral bankruptcy of Western “civilization” ( including the UK) but (b) the acquiescence of a large section of the Christian Church , so immersed in its own agenda(s) that, among other things, in the light of its semi(?) humanistic reduction of the Gospel, it has lost sight of of the *fulness of the Gospel”.
    Yes! “He has lifted up the humble” Yes! He has filled the hungry with good things”. But “He has performed mighty deeds”. “He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones” (Song Of Mary)*. He has realised ” salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us”. (Song of Zechariah)*. Too political?* Too Old Testament?* Perhaps then Putin is calling our bluff !

    • Colin – as with much of what you write, (a) I get the impression that it is probably really good, but (b) I can’t understand it – and it goes way over my head.

      I accept full responsibility for this – my fault, not yours.

      On `The Church’, though, as I’ve said before, I think that Karl Barth was right on the button in his commentary on Romans 9, where he points out that it is `The Church’ instituted by God when he writes, `I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people’

      Barth points out that the `my people’ about whom Paul is writing were, in fact `The Church’; namely, the religious zealots (of whom Paul was one before his conversion), people such as Caiaphas.

      There is a fundamental tension; The Church trying to uphold an order, when the gospel, when it breaks in on peoples lives causes disorder.

      Nevertheless, if you look at what `The Church’ has been doing to help Ukrainian refugees, it has been surprisingly wonderful and I think that you are unjustified in doing it down in this particular instance. The Church is actually doing an awful lot to facilitate helping Ukrainian refugees. For example, my niece (studying at university) has welcomed two Ukrainian refugees into her apartment – and this was arranged through `the church’. My brother-in-law who has a spare apartment has put it at the disposal of a Ukrainian family who were looking for accommodation and – again – he was put in touch with the family through the church. I have seen quite a lot of activity connected with churches around here thoroughly involved in the effort to help the refugees.

      So if you’re trying to talk about `moral bankruptcy’ and `acquiescence of a large section of the Christian Church’ in the context of criticising the effort to help the Ukrainian refugees, then I don’t really know what you are on about. In fact, I have been pleasantly surprised by the very active role that the church here has been taking.

      • Jock , Yes you are right . I am *not* criticising the Church’s attempts to tackle the refugee crisis. What I am criticising is that a section of the Church,in its desire to mirror secular values, has been caught napping to the causes which have led to this tragedy; not least in downplaying or even denying the reality of human sin and corruption. Jesus said: “you shall of wars and rumours of wars – for out of the heart of man , come evil thoughts —. All these come from within”. Deep down, while we may accept Christ’s teaching, we seem to drift along in a state of inertia. The call of Jesus Christ is the call to spiritual action; not to philosophical reaction! Putin plays on all of this. He has seen the complacency of Western society – and he has *acted*.

      • Responding specifically to your comment about Barth, Romans 9:2-4 reads:

        I have great grief and continual pain in my heart, for I was praying that I be cursed from Christ on behalf of my brothers in the flesh, who are Israelites, who were adopted and have the covenants and the law…

        I write this with an interlinear before me. Whether Paul means all Israelites or just Israel’s religious leaders such as Caiaphas, why do you and/or Barth speak of “the church” here? The church is the collective of the faithful in Christ, whether Jew or gentile.

        • Anton – look at the people who were Saul’s closest buddies before his encounter on the road to Damascus. These were the people most zealous for `The Church’.

          You should read Barth on Romans 9 for yourself. I don’t think it has much to say about Romans 9, but he is `right on the button’ when it comes to the church.

          • I read Barth’s Roemerbrief a long time ago. I don’t still have it on my shelf. Your summary of what he is saying is not very clear, so I shall not say more unless you do. But Paul is very clearly talking about unconverted Jews in Romans 9:2-4. Do you and/or Barth dispute that?

          • Anton – I don’t dispute that, but I can’t say anything about whether or not Barth disputes that (having read his commentary). I do know that he used this chapter as an excuse to write about `The Church’ and – as I say – I think that what he says about `The Church’ is right on the button – but if you want to know about Romans 9, you should read something else entirely.

  5. Well, Ian Paul put up a nice piece, but the comment thread was utterly dismal. `We should welcome the stranger, unless (of course) he or she is an economic migrant coming from a country with a rubbish economy, trying to make a better life. We should, at the very least ensure that the stranger has dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s as far as the immigration laws are concerned – and we don’t welcome a stranger from a different culture.’


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