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Loving The Stranger

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As the great legal battle over the “travel ban” or “Muslim ban,” or whatever name we apply to it for propaganda purposes continues, I wonder about the roots of it.  Everybody is busy counting winners and losers but nobody is looking at the thing itself.  What principles guide either side?  Why is is so doggone important?  Everybody is weighing in on this thing on all sides and from all angles, but the vast majority of it strikes me as little different that Sportstalk – chest beating and posturing for one side or the other.

Even the legal discussion has gotten silly because the court has said very little about legalities here.  This is a test of wills.  But what is right and what is wrong?  What in all of this mess accomplishes good?  That’s the question at bottom here.  And what is immensely sad is that it is not an easy question to answer in a situation like this.  There are seemingly competing good intentions at play.  On the one hand is the desire to to protect ourselves, which is a good and natural impulse.  One the other hand is a desire to help the stranger – a Biblical imperative.  (It is massively ironic that those most concerned with helping the stranger in this imbroglio are the people least likely to ever quote the Bible.)  Purely anecdotally – for every potential terrorist that comes into the country there is a heartbreaking refugee story.  And it seems like a zero-sum game; to keep out the murderous terrorist we also refuse entry, at least for a while, to those that most need our help.

At a time when we need Solomonic wisdom we are getting Patriots/Falcons.  On a governing level it is troublesome that the courts, which could provide that wisdom in their opinions and decisions are instead picking sides and playing for power.  There simply has to be a way to accommodate both goods in this situation.  Is that not what we should be reaching for instead of winners and losers?  I have a very definite opinion on what ought to happen here, but I don’t want to state it and thus be accused of picking sides.  Rather, I want to look at some principles and ideas that should be at play in everyone’s thinking.

How to understand a Biblical imperative.  The most oft quoted verses when it comes to this situation are Deut 10:19 and Lev 19:34.  I’ll quote the Leviticus verse for discussion purposes:

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.

When reading the Bible, there is a lot to pay attention to.  There are two things I want to note about both of these verses that most people throwing them around ignore.  For one, both address not those outside of your community, but strangers and aliens already there.  Note in the quotation above “the stranger who resides with you,” not “the stranger that lives across the sea.”  That does not mean we do not want to offer aid and assistance to those that are outside our community (more on that in a minute), but it does mean these verses cannot be applied to an alien that is still actually and physically alien.  Secondly, Bible verses happen in context.  Both of these verses occur in the context of long lists of rules for being a part of the community.  In other words being a part of the community, even if of alien origin, is defined by abiding by the rules of the community.  Part of residing with us is in fact playing by our rules.  It is fair to say that the person who lives in our midst for the purpose of doing us harm (thus not playing by the rules) is not “residing” with us and this imperative may not apply.  Again, that does not mean we abandon compassion – but it does mean a defensive posture in that compassion is appropriate.  The Bible has to be read in context and with great care

Compassion can take many forms.  When Jesus talks about the final judgement He says:

Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’

Do what?  Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner.  Even “invite the stranger in” is different, as we have already established, than inviting in an enemy.  How about we take food and clothing to the hungry and naked prisoner?  Is that not following this command?  I can feed somebody who is not in my house.  Jesus generally talked far more about the “what” than the “how.”  Yes, we are to be compassionate to the point of sacrifice, but there are a lot of ways to accomplish that.  We are also called to wisdom.  We cannot feed the hungry if we let in the enemy and he kills us.  Our compassion ends when we die.  Wisdom would dictate we try to find a way to do the one while preventing the other.

Ask what is good, not what “feels” right.  Good is an objective thing.  C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity:

That is why faith is such a necessary virtue; unless you teach your moods “where they get off” you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of faith.

One of the things that has struck me in this entire debate is the willingness of so many to consider their fellow citizen with whom they disagree more of a stranger than the actual alien- and yet they are incredibly unwelcoming to the disagreeing stranger.  That’s about feeling, not what is good.  The stranger that opposes you angers you, thus you are willing to dismiss them.  But if it is good to welcome the stranger generally, should you not be at least as open to the opposing stranger in your midst as the stranger from without?  Doing good demands objectivity and until you can take feeling out of it you will be as Lewis describes.

Everybody needs to stop and take a deep breath.  Along with the competing goods there are competing mistakes on both sides of this.  We need to stop trying to figure out who is winning and start trying to figure out how to do what is good and best.  We can protect ourselves and be compassionate.  Those two goals are not in competition – the only thing that is in competition here is egos.  It’s not helping the country and its not helping the refugees.  Time to knock it off and get busy.


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