November 17, 2016

Xenophilia: It's a Thing and a Christian Virtue

"The Table of Brotherhood" by James E. Ransome
We are living in a time when xenophobia, fear of the other or stranger, is gripping some. It is being used to motivate policies and actions by the government against Muslims, Mexicans and other Latino immigrants, and anyone who some might feel are a threat. It is stirring up hate groups to act out more than they have in recent times. Xenophobia might be the root cause of racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and other human proclivities to mistrust those outside of our own tribe.

Xenophobia is dangerous. In mild forms, it might keep us in our enclaves, clubs, churches, and segregated neighborhoods, never venturing out to get to know those who are different from us. Unchecked and empowered, it has led to great atrocities in human history, such as the persecution of Jews and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Many have become familiar with the word xenophobia, especially in our current political climate where so much rhetoric expresses hatred of others. But not many are as familiar with the word xenophilia: Love of the stranger or the other. We don't use it much. It isn't a popular concept for garnering political support. But it is a significant word in the New Testament, even though it only occurs a few times.

Consider these verses:

Romans 12:13  Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 

Hebrews 13:2  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 

In both of these New Testament letters, showing hospitality to strangers is encouraged as a virtue, the thing that Christians do, and as we read in Hebrews, even a mysterious means of divine communication ("entertaining angels"). But here's the part we miss with our translations: There is no other kind of hospitality other than the kind shown to strangers! The translation turns one word into three.

The word for "hospitality" in both these verses, is, yes, xenophilia (in a slightly different Greek form). Hospitality is not a nice thing we do, serving coffee and donuts after worship, and then we do it better by including strangers. Hospitality simply is loving strangers. Loving the other.

If you're sharing coffee and donuts, or dinner, or throwing a great party, and inviting friends, family, and familiar neighbors, great! It's fun. It's a good thing. It builds up community and family connections. But it isn't hospitality, not in the New Testament sense. We only show hospitality when we love strangers. Hospitality is xenophilia, and xenophilia is hospitality.

The New Testament encourages hospitality, xenophilia, love of stranger, as a Christian virtue. It is an important part of how the church shows forth the love of God in Christ's name. And if we dig a little deeper, we see that without loving the stranger, we have missed the mark completely.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a parable about judgment. It's beautiful and difficult. It's about sheep and goats being separated based on how well they welcomed Christ into their lives. You probably know it. Here is part of it (Matthew 25:35-40):

I was hungry and you gave me food, 
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, 
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing, 
I was sick and you took care of me, 
I was in prison and you visited me.' 
Then the righteous will answer him, 
'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, 
or thirsty and gave you something to drink?
And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, 
or naked and gave you clothing? 
And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 
And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, 
just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, 
you did it to me.'

You see it, of course. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.You showed hospitality. You lived xenophilia. You rose above your fear of strangers and lived in utter faith that God has created us to be one in love, and then you did it. And it matters deeply.

Xenophilia is not about how we feel about others, though it might lead to deep feelings of compassion and affection for others. It is about how we love strangers in concrete actions:
  • Inviting them into your homes and churches for meals and conversations
  • Greeting them on the street with openness and affirmation
  • Tipping them well in restaurants and offering words of encouragement for their work
  • Standing up for them when others are living out their xenophobia through hateful actions and words
  • Listening to their stories of pain and rejection and believing them
  • Resisting governmental policies that persecute the "other" for the problems we face in society
  • Denying that there is anyone who really is "other" because of our faith in God and the expansive love of Jesus
How else can we live out hospitality, love of the stranger, xenophilia? That's up to us to figure out together as each day comes. We are living in a moment in history when it matters greatly how we do this as a church. We know it matters to Jesus how we love the other. It now matters to us more than ever. And if Hebrews is right, God might be waiting to speak to us some new, wonderful message we will only hear when we welcome and love the stranger.

Peace and love to you, familiars and strangers alike.

Michael Coffey

1 comment:

  1. I cannot deal with social media right now but I need to see what you and other thoughtful people are saying so I'm grateful I can see your writing in this forum. Thank you for continuing to offer guidance.

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