Aliens, Strangers and the Gospel
Who has never met a foreigner? Who has never spoken with a foreigner? Who has never felt just a little bit ill at ease with a foreigner? And who has not had the experience of being a foreigner in this modern world of ours where travel is so easy?
In this article I would like to consider our general attitudes towards foreigners, first by seeing that a foreigner is not always someone who lives in a country other than his own and, secondly, by looking at what the Bible says about aliens and strangers. Finally I will try to summarize the responsibilities Christians have towards foreigners living in their countries.
Foreigners and Ourselves
The experience of being an outsider or stranger is not restricted to people living far from their own countries. You can actually feel like a stranger in your own country and even in your own family. For personal, political, religious or just professional reasons, someone can feel distanced from, even rejected by, his family or people. The author of Psalm 69 gives voice to this when persecuted for his faithfulness to God: "I am a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my own mother’s sons" (Psalm 69:8).Even at Nazareth right at the start of his ministry, Jesus probably felt like an outsider when he declared that "no prophet is accepted in his home town" (Luke 4:24). Condemned to death and rejected by the Jewish authorities, unjustly persecuted like the psalmist, he was the outsider par excellence.
So you can feel alienated from those close to you. But you can also feel alienated from yourself. Which of us has never felt at odds with himself? Haven’t we often acted or spoken in a way we later regretted? The apostle Paul describes this odd feeling of disunity within himself: "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do...For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing" (Romans 7:15, 19).
Where does this feeling of alienation from ourselves come from? Why do we sometimes feel torn apart by opposing forces? The Bible calls the reason for this inner discord sin. We could define sin like this: treating God like a stranger. We can treat him as a stranger in several different ways: either we are indifferent to him, or we fail to recognize him for who he is, or we are openly opposed to him. In each case, our relationship with God determines what our relationship with others will be like. When our relationship with God is not healthy, our relationship with foreigners usually suffers too. Foreigners are no longer people to be discovered, but a threat to protect ourselves from. Their strangeness is no longer one of the facets of God’s rich and diverse creation; it becomes a reflection of our own difficulty in being at peace with ourselves and at peace with our Creator.
Like all people, foreigners are alienated from themselves. It’s even harder for them to escape their own inner contradictions because they are distanced from the background of family, culture and religion. They more than others experience difficulties living in a society which is not their own. This only complicates our relationship with them which then risks turning into a relationship based on power. Foreigners can easily become scapegoats, blamed for all the ills of society. Because of their minority position and their often-difficult living conditions, there is a great temptation to want to dominate and ill-treat them. The Bible warns us against this temptation through the teaching it gives on aliens and strangers.
Foreigners in the Bible
Almost as soon as they had settled in the Promised Land, the people of Israel found themselves faced with the question of what to do about foreigners. Among the foreigners living in Israel were those who had accompanied them on their flight from Egypt (Exodus 12:38); there were also Canaanites like Rahab; and lastly there were those who came later to Israel like Ruth the Moabitess and Uriah the Hittite. At the time of King Solomon there were about 150,000 such aliens in Israel (2 Chronicles 2:17) or about a tenth of the country’s total population. As is usual today, most of these were unskilled workers (1 Chronicles 22:2; 2 Chronicles 8:7-8).
Israel as a people were neither better nor worse than other peoples. But because they were God’s chosen people, they were far more likely to look down on the foreigners in their midst. This is why the Mosaic law contains detailed teaching concerning aliens and strangers. This teaching is reiterated by the prophets who continually remind the Israelites of how they should behave towards strangers. Unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament says little about foreigners because Jesus destroyed the dividing wall between Jews and non-Jews. By his death on the Cross he made a new covenant from which no people on earth is excluded (Ephesians 2:11-19).
The Mosaic law frequently associates aliens and strangers with widows, orphans, the poor and Levites. This emphasizes that a foreigner’s life is not an easy one. His work is often hard and poorly paid, and he may not be able to afford good housing. In addition to any material difficulties he may face, there are emotional challenges: he is an uprooted person, deprived of the comfort of his native language, family and friends. In short, he is alone. This loneliness is all the more painful because it is seldom a personal choice, hence the tendency for foreigners to stick together. They attempt thereby to recreate their home environment.
The more different the home country is from the new country, the more leaving home seems like going into exile. Sometimes this exile can motivate foreigners to try to integrate in their new society. But more often it has the opposite effect and makes them vulnerable, in some cases even to the point of criminal activity. Because exile causes suffering, God has a special love for aliens and strangers. "For the Lord your God is God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing"
(Deuteronomy 10:17-18). God shows his care by providing for basic needs (Leviticus 19:10, 23:22; Deuteronomy 14:29, 24:19-20, 26:11-12)
In his well-known prophetic description of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:35, Jesus, by associating the foreigner with the hungry and thirsty, the naked, the sick and the prisoners, draws our attention to the precarious living conditions of foreigners. Jesus is not preaching salvation by works in this text, but he clearly shows us that true belief in him necessarily manifests itself in acts of solidarity towards those most in need, including foreigners: "I was a stranger and you invited me in".
Our Responsibilities to Foreigners
If foreigners are vulnerable, and if God looks on them with such compassion, what should our responsibility as Christians be towards them? I want to suggest that ours is a threefold responsibility.
We should respect the rights of foreigners
Foreigners, just like us, have been created in the image of God and therefore have great dignity. They are worthy of respect. The Israelites had even more reason to show respect to foreigners since, because of their own history, they were well qualified to identify with them: "Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt" (Exodus 23:9, 22:21). Respect for foreigners begins with respecting their basic rights. The Mosaic law cites the following: Sabbath rest (Exodus 20:10, 23:12; Leviticus 25:6; Deuteronomy 5:14), a fair wage (Deuteronomy 24:14-15), and access to unbiased justice (Leviticus 24:22; Deuteronomy 1:16, 24:17-27:19).
We should consider the foreigner as our neighbor
As a nation Israel had to respect the rights of aliens living in her midst. As individuals, the Israelites had to go further. The command to love your neighbor (Leviticus 19:18) was extended to the foreigner: "When an alien lives with you in your land, do not ill-treat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt" (Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 10:19). Love your neighbor as yourself; love the alien as yourself. From these two commandments we can draw two conclusions: the alien is also a neighbor, even though he may not share our background, culture and religion. Secondly, if the Israelites had to take special care of the alien because of his particular circumstances, so we should show greater understanding and concern for the alien living in our midst. Jesus affirms this teaching of the law and brings out its full meaning in his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). He clearly links together these two commandments to love our neighbor and to love the alien. For the Jews, Samaritans were not only foreigners but long-standing enemies with whom they refused to have the least contact with (John 4:9). Now, Jesus not only calls the Samaritan the Jew’s neighbor, he also asks the teacher of the law to follow the Samaritan’s example: "Go", he says, "and do likewise." We can easily imagine the double shock the teacher of the law must have had: not only is the Samaritan his neighbor, but he can even serve as a model of love for him! Loving foreigners as ourselves, then, means coming to their aid when they are in need. More generally, it means having a loving attitude towards them, overcoming the prejudices held against them, taking the initiative in making contact, as Jesus did with the Samaritan woman, so as to break through the wall of silence between us. Loving foreigners also means realizing they are quality human beings, as Jesus did with the Samaritan who was the only one of ten healed lepers to show his gratitude (Luke 17:11-19). Loving foreigners sometimes means accepting that we are going to be rejected, as Jesus pointed out to his angry disciples when they were not welcomed in a Samaritan village (Luke 9:51-56).
We should proclaim the gospel to foreigners
As citizens, we have to be on guard lest the rights of foreigners in our country become a mockery. Our society should show solidarity with foreigners and all other disadvantaged people, respecting the diversity of its members. As Christians, we have a duty to befriend foreigners and a responsibility to show them the love of God in Christ Jesus. In other words, it is up to us to proclaim the gospel to the foreigners living in our midst. Right from the outset, God intended his salvation for all the peoples of the earth. His calling of Abraham was the first stage of the outworking of this plan of salvation. When God made a covenant with him, he gave him the name Abraham, which means "a father of many nations" (Genesis 17:5-6). In the same way, God made a covenant with the people of Israel which included all the aliens living in Israel (Deuteronomy 29:10-12, 31:12). Foreigners were also well integrated into the religious life of Israel, able to participate in all the major festivals. Even at the consecration of the great temple in Jerusalem, the foreigner was not forgotten. Solomon prayed that the temple would serve to make God known well outside national boundaries (2 Chronicles 6:23-33). Faithful to this global vision, all the great prophets of Israel speak of the day when people will come from the ends of the earth to worship the God of the universe (Isaiah 56:6-7). The gospel is good news for all people. Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4 serves as an excellent model for proclaiming the gospel, particularly to foreigners. Notice, first, the very personal nature of this conversation which is a true dialogue from start to finish. We must know how to listen to foreigners, to get to know them and try to understand them, so that what we say will have meaning for them and speak to their concerns and questions. Next, we must know how to remain humble towards foreigners, if we want to enter into a relationship with them. Otherwise, our efforts will be perceived as a desire to impose our religion, our culture, our ideas, when they are already afraid of losing theirs. Lastly, if the truth of the gospel we believe in is opposed to what the foreigner sees as truth, we need to be firm and affirm what we know to be true. What is at stake is nothing less than salvation, ours and theirs. Evangelizing foreigners studying in our universities is an integral part of the mission Jesus had entrusted to his church. We should joyfully play our part in fulfilling this mission. True, it isn’t always easy to communicate the gospel to people of a culture other than our own. But it’s a very good opportunity for us to think about our faith and so to grow in the knowledge of the Lord.
Conclusion: How Should the Biblical Teaching on the Foreigner Affect us Today?
In 1989, France celebrated the 200th anniversary of the 1789 Revolution and the Declaration of Human Rights. That same year, the Berlin Wall came down, thus opening the way for German reunification. During this same period many European peoples regained their independence, and for several months Europe was in a state of euphoria following the collapse of what had been called ‘the Soviet Empire’. Then the Gulf Crisis came along, followed by the war in which many countries were involved. This war, and more recent struggles in Russia and Bosnia, Angola and South Africa remind us that we still live in a world torn by all sorts of conflict. In such a context, the biblical teaching about the foreigner becomes very relevant. What are the requirements of the gospel in this respect? I suggest three:
It is perfectly legitimate for nations to struggle for their independence. However, we must always bear in mind the danger of nationalism, whose victims would be minority groups living within the nation’s borders. The practice of ‘ethnic cleansing’, the rise of extreme right-wing parties in several European countries and the inter-tribal warfare in some African nations remind us that this danger is very much with us. At the global level the more powerful nations need to be on their guard against exploiting the poorer and weaker ones, and as Christians we should play our part in encouraging governments to develop international relations founded on the principles of solidarity and equity.
Clear-mindedness and Tolerance
This is the second requirement of the gospel. Christians know better than others what really separates people from one another: the hardest barriers to break down are not geographic, political, economic or cultural, but spiritual. Two French people can be much more foreign to one another than an Arab and an Israeli who share the same faith in Jesus. This is why even very just laws cannot in and of themselves guarantee respect for the rights of foreigners. For example, there are even Christians who claim that, since Islam is fundamentally opposed to the Christian faith and in some Muslim countries the rights of Christians are not respected, the building of mosques should not be permitted in their countries. Such Christians are using exactly the same kind of reasoning as certain Islamic regimes which do not grant Christians their rights. They also forget that Jesus commanded us to do to others not what they do to us, but what we would like them to do to us (Matthew 7:12).
All over our world today, there are millions of foreigners, including hundreds of thousands of international students. The world is on our doorstep! Will we shut or open the door? Are we going to invite these strangers into our homes, our dormitories and halls of residence, into our lives and into our hearts? If we do, we will be invited to share in the lives of our international student friends, but we must do so with great tact and not take advantage of their fragility. We will then discover that behind their foreigner’s exterior, behind their religion which may be quite different from ours, there is a man or woman astoundingly like us. The more we identify with internationals, the more what we say will mean something to them. By sharing our lives and not just our words, internationals will see that Jesus Christ really is unique: unique because of his life, his teaching, his love, his death, his resurrection, and his quiet but very real power. He is also unique because he alone can reconcile us to ourselves, to our neighbor and to our God: "For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, 'Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.' How, then can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!'" (Romans 10:12-15).
Chawkat Georges Moucarry knows well the experience of being a foreigner. Born in Syria and married to a Dane, he has lived and studied in France for many years. Author of several books on Islam and Christianity, he has done research on the forgiveness of God in Islam. He earned his doctorate from the University of Sorbonne (Paris) and has worked as a tutor and lecturer in Islamic studies at All Nations Christian College in England. He is the author of "Islam and Christianity at the Crossroads". He is also the author of "The Prophet and the Messiah, An Arab Christian’s Perspective on Islam and Christianity" (additional teaching on the themes discussed in this article can be found in this book in chapter 24, titled: “Love the Immigrant as Yourself” on pgs. 283-289).
This article, translated from French by Ri Weal, is the substance of a talk given at the IFES European Conference on Evangelism in Holland on Easter 1991.