Love the stranger

Several people, all on their own, at a street crossing

The simple and bold command of God to “love the stranger” can be hard to obey. But it has never been more relevant. We offer this reflection for our times from Ian Adams, CMS mission spirituality adviser.

It’s Tuesday 18 March 1958 and Catholic Trappist monk Thomas Merton is on a busy street corner.

He has an experience that will give new clarity to his life and work.

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world…

― Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Merton’s experience of the barriers between us falling away is unusual.

We negotiate the complexities of life as best as we can, and that often seems to involve keeping something of a distance between us and our fellow humans.

Particularly those on the street.

Some spaces between us are course appropriate, helpful, even necessary.

But we can so easily default to othering the other whom we encounter on the borders of our personal existence.

We fail to see individuals for who they are – beloved of God.

Instead, cultural and national stereotypes begin to take hold.

Racism is a particularly pernicious way in which such othering is expressed.

Less obvious might be a quiet wariness of the other who is not quite like us.

So the stranger becomes a source of discomfort.

The refugee becomes a problem.

The incomer a symbol of all that seems to have changed.

And any sense of our at-one-ness is lost.

So what might be a Christian approach to engaging with the stranger, refugee or incomer – or simply the people on our street corner? With the person who is not like us? How might we stop othering the other?

The response of our mother-Jewish faith has always been simple and bold. This is from the great summary of the essence of the law in Deuteronomy 10:

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:17–19 NRSV

We are to love the stranger.

Not just tolerate the stranger, or let them be, but love the stranger.

In word and action.

This may come of course with various degrees of challenge. This is a short poem titled ‘Fragrant theory (man in a stained sheepskin coat on Magdalen Bridge).’

I know the fragrant theory

that to welcome strangers

is to entertain angels
but the reality

more pungent

Ian Adams, Cave Refectory Road

I can still sense this encounter. We find some people easier to welcome than others.

So how might we live out God’s instruction to love the stranger?

It’s important to note that for the writer(s) of Deuteronomy this instruction was set in the context of God’s great love, revealed in his love for the people of Israel.

…the LORD set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today.

Deuteronomy 10:15 NRSV

In response God’s people were to love God – and to love all whom God loves – including the stranger.

So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul… You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:12,19 NRSV

Now as followers of Jesus the Christ, this task first given to the people of Israel comes also to us. It is a calling to step into our belovedness, to allow ourselves to be loved – and then to reach out in love.  

Loving the stranger begins therefore in orientation towards the God of love, in our commitment to be present to God who is always present to us, in our prayer.

To allow ourselves to be seen by God.

To be seen is also an invitation to see God.

To return the gaze as is urged by the Christian contemplative tradition.

And through this being seen and seeing, this openness to God, we may find ourselves – as did Thomas Merton – beginning to see others as they truly are.

So the call to love the stranger is a calling to prayerful presence.

From the perspective brought about by such regular presence we may in turn begin to see others as they truly are. Mission becomes possible through our own gradual inner transformation shaped through prayer, and then takes shape in an outer movement of love to our world.

It’s important to note that Jesus takes the commandment from Deuteronomy and gives it a sharp edge.

In a vivid piece of future-story-telling as recounted in the gospel of Matthew Jesus teaches that how we treat the stranger – how we refuse to other them, but rather welcome and care for them – is a vital measure of the extent to which we may or may not be judged as righteous. 

‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:44–46 NRSV

There is no dodging the seriousness of this story.

But if it is serious it is also liberating.

Love is not so difficult when we know that we are truly beloved.

Thanks be to God, this may be how we might love the stranger, and live and love in the time of othering.

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