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Welcoming the Stranger

"Many Faces of the Spirit" Conference

Dr. Michael Kinnamon
Lexington, Kentucky
July 16, 1999

I want to begin by giving thanks for those persons who have worked so hard and so carefully to prepare for this conference. One thing I particularly appreciate about the structure of this event is the emphasis it places on our conversation with one another. My role, as I understand it, is not to provide rousing rhetoric (I doubt there is anyone here who is against welcoming the stranger!); my role is to prime the pump for our dialogue and, perhaps, to provide some precision and resources for thinking about this topic.

With that in mind, I will make four points that, I hope, would be helpful for our conversations:
Welcoming the stranger is a central ethical injunction for all of our religious traditions.
Welcoming the stranger is not an act of altruism but is vital to our own spiritual health.
Welcoming the stranger means welcoming strangers who don't welcome strangers There are strangers we need to welcome here in central Kentucky.

In making these points, I will be speaking not as a sociologist or historian, but as a theologian--as a Christian theologian and believer who tries to make the teachings of my tradition normative for my life. I take it than when we speak to each other all of us are speaking as committed members of our various religious communities.

Before getting to my four points, however, we need some definitions. Strangers, as I see it, are those persons who are outside our community, persons whose lives (including their religious commitments) are in fundamental ways unknown to us--which generally means persons who are unlike ourselves.

Who we understand the stranger to be depends, of course, on how we define our own identity. In traditional cultures, identity is primarily a function of clan or tribe, and strangers are those who are from outside the clan. Ethnic groups function that way for some. In high school, I had a girlfriend who was (is) Basque. On more than one occasion, I heard her father say that "No Basque is a stranger to me"--which, I now realize, was also his way of reminding me that I was a stranger. In an individualistic culture, however, strangers are those who are outside our personal circles of acquaintance. I wish I could say that "No Christian is a stranger to me"--or, better yet, to say with the ancient Roman playwright Terence that "Nothing human is foreign to me"--but, as a late twentieth-century North American, that is definitely not how I live.

I grew up in a small town in southern Iowa, surrounded by corn fields and hog farms that almost functioned as barriers against strangers. My first real experience of "the stranger" was when Amish began moving into the county. At first there were only a few families, and the response was, generally speaking, cautious, distant curiosity. Then came more families; signs began to go up along the highways saying "watch for horse drawn vehicles;" and the tone of fear was unmistakable, even for a child. "They don't buy insurance or clothes. If they take over any more land, this town's finished." As far as I know, my father and his friends had no direct dealings with the Amish; but they sure talked about them all the time--how they treated their horses, how they treated their women. These were strangers, and they were anything but welcome.

This leads us to the second term that demands definition. Welcome as I understand it, means "to make the other feel at home." A closely-related word in Jewish and Christian scriptures is hospitality, which meant opening one's home to strangers, giving a meal to anyone who shows up. The Jewish Talmud says that Job, the quintessential good man, had a door on all four sides of his house so that strangers wouldn't have to walk to the other side to find a way in. This has been a trait admired in virtually every ancient or traditional civilization. Today, however, hospitality, in our social context, has come to mean entertaining friends. Far from being a key dimension of the ethical wife, hospitality is an urbane quality on the order of table manners. We have a hospitality industry to cater to strangers.

So we need to be clear. Welcome, as used in our religious traditions, and as I am using it tonight, does not refer to politeness or distant charity. We have not necessarily done it by giving money, since the issue in welcoming someone is relationship. A genuine welcome also doesn't mean inviting the stranger to become like us. White churches often put "all welcome" signs on the door, without changing anything, and then wonder why African Americans don't join. No, true welcome is not absorption; it allows the other to remain other. It doesn't insist that strangers become friends, let alone grateful allies. It enables them to feel at home.

To put all this another way, welcoming is not the same as tolerating. Tolerance is surely preferable to intolerance (though I will modify that slightly later in this address); but history shows that tolerance doesn't survive in times of crisis. Beginning in the 1930s, the most educated, enlightened country in Europe became the scene of unspeakable barbarity. India has the longest tradition of religious tolerance in the world. But such tolerance has included the caste system and, in 1948, gave way to fanatical intolerance in which more than a million Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs were killed. Strangers will be tolerated so long as their case arouses sympathy or so long as they don't challenge our political convictions or standard of living. Strangers, that is to say, will be tolerated when times are good; but tolerance will evaporate when times are tough--as people of Japanese ancestry found out in this country during World War II.

Welcoming strangers is an act of affirmation which says that we value the other prior to any judgment about them. Welcoming is based on a recognition of fundamental relatedness prior to any specific knowledge of who they are.

Like you, I am sure, I personally have been welcomed many times. But one incident came immediately to mind as I was preparing these remarks. When I was nineteen, I studied for a year in Israel and then spent several months traveling overland from Istanbul to Calcutta and back. Since then, I have taught fairly regularly in India, where my family and I are always generously welcomed. But now I am a professor. Then, I was just another weird-looking student who arrived third-class in Delhi (along with what seemed like a billion other people) and who experienced acute sensory overload. As I stood there looking, I am sure, completely lost (since I had no tickets or reservations), a Hindu man asked if he could help me find where I was going and, after a brief conversation, invited me to his home for a meal.

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I hope these definitions have been helpful. I turn now to my first point by noting three commonalities in our religious traditions.

As religious communities (I am not talking about us as individuals, but as religious communities), we all have the experience of being the stranger -- Mormons in New York and Illinois, Buddhist "boat people" driven from their homes in Southeast Asia, Hindu workers in the Middle East (or Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka, especially the one million tea plantation workers who are disenfranchised by both Sri Lanka and their native India), Turkish Muslim workers in Germany and Switzerland, Palestinian Muslims in parts of the Middle East, Jews in Europe for more than a millennium, African refugees whether Christian or Muslim or traditional religion, Bahais in post - revolution Iran, Christians in pre-modern Japan. . . .

All of us as communities have also been those who turned strangers away. I realize that faiths which are nowhere in the majority (e.g., the Bahai) have been more sinned against than sinning. But I hope we agree that there is no room for self-righteousness when it comes to this topic. We share the experience of being strangers and the experience of being those who reject or neglect strangers.

All of us, I think it is fair to say, have religious teachings that instruct us to welcome the stranger.

- From the Quran: "It is righteousness to give of yourself and your substance, out of love for Allah, to your kin, to orphans, to the needy, to the wayfarer [stranger], to those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves. . . ."

- From the Upanishads (the well-spring of Hindu religion and philosophy): "Let a person never turn away a stranger from his house, that is the rule. Therefore a man should, by all means, acquire much food, for good people say to the stranger: 'There is enough food for you.'"

It would be good if I could make reference to all of our traditions; but I hope you will understand if, for the next five or so minutes, I concentrate on Christianity, including the Hebrew scriptures considered authoritative by Judaism, since this is obviously the tradition with which I am most familiar.

The basic theme is sounded clearly by Miroslav Volf, a Christian theologian from Croatia. There are, he writes, two persistent commandments in the Bible: have no strange gods and love strangers. Why love strangers? The paradigmatic passage is in Leviticus 19: ". . . you shall not oppress the alien [The Hebrew word is ger, which also means "stranger"]. The ger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the ger as yourself for you were aliens [strangers] in the land of Egypt."

A year or so ago, I came upon a woman in a sari in the middle of the St. Louis airport, obviously lost. I helped her find her gate, even though it meant that I got to my gate with about two minutes to spare. Did I do this because I am a nice guy?! The real reason, you see, is that I remembered that man on the train platform in New Delhi. Exodus 23:9: "You shall not oppress an alien; you know the heart of an alien; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt." Memory is the basis for empathy. You know that strangers are easy prey for unjust treatment, because you were strangers. You know that they deserve not just occasional compassion but equal treatment ("as citizens among you"), because that's how God treated you. Treatment of the stranger, therefore, is a key criterion of faithfulness to your covenant with God.

This message was internalized by the early Christian community and applied to its experience of Jesus. Through sin, we have made ourselves strangers to God. But in Christ God has still welcomed us, even to the point of death. Therefore, says the apostle Paul in his Letter to the Romans, you must "welcome one another, as Christ as welcomed you, to the glory of God."

There were religious persons in the society in which Jesus lived who contended that outsiders were sinners, by definition impure. But through his table fellowship with strangers, Jesus turns this notion on its head: the real sinner is not the outcast but the one who casts the other out.

Even more dramatically, the gospel according to Matthew suggests that Jesus identified himself with these strangers. "When the Son of Man [a messianic title applied to Jesus] comes in his glory . . . he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. . . . He will say to those on his left hand . . . 'I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.' They will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger and did not take care of you?' And 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.'"

The Key idea, I think, was expressed by the well-known theologian, Kosuke Koyoma, at the recent assembly of the World Council of Churches. "For God," said Koyoma, "no one is a stranger.... Therefore, when our actions say îI am not my brother's or sister's keeper,' we treat God as a stranger." You see his point. We are related, not just to other Christians but to all of humanity, through common creation. Welcoming the stranger, in this sense, is what Christians call a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible unity as children of God. Welcoming strangers is also a sign that our fundamental allegiance is not to this society but to God's promised future when there will be no strangers. Those who welcome strangers, scripture suggests, are always somewhat estranged from their own culture, are always unwilling to be too comfortable with the local status quo.

Perhaps a good way to summarize the Judeo-Christian teaching on this subject is to recall the wonderful story of the three strangers who appeared to Abraham (common ancestor of Muslims, Jews and Christians) by the oaks of Mamre. Abraham serves them bread from the choicest flour and kills the finest calf for them to eat--and, as most of you know, the strangers turn out to be a manifestation of God. The author of the New Testament book entitled Letter to the Hebrews recalls this story in one unforgettable verse: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels unawares." "No one," writes Thomas Merton, "knows that the stranger he meets is not the one who has some providential or prophetic message to utter."

This leads directly to my second main point: Welcoming the stranger is not a matter of altruism (self-less goodness on our part). Rather, welcoming the stranger is crucial to our own spiritual health. In one sense, this is an obvious point: The stranger, from another religion or another culture, is one who doesn't see through our eyes and who, thus, can challenge our pet assumptions, can shake us from our conventional point of view. I recall a discussion at the seminary (during one of the tedious election debates over "family values") in which western students were taking it for granted that people fall romantically in love and live in nuclear families--until a visiting student from India told them that he didn't see it that way at all. When I first went to work for the World Council of Churches, my understanding of "freedom" was almost entirely shaped by western assumptions of individual rights--until I met colleagues from other parts of the world who worried less about freedom of speech than freedom from an economic system that makes beggars out of children. Because they saw the world differently, my faith was enriched.

There is, however, another dimension to this theme. Perhaps the deepest of all human fears is the fear of not being loved, not being accepted. What we seek in another person is often simply ourselves in the other. We increase our sense of self-worth by restricting the circles in which we move to those who look and act and think as we do. "Look at me! I am worthy of being loved." The stranger, as one who doesn't see through our eyes, is precisely the one who can "see through" our facade--which is why so many of the spiritual giants of our age (Elie Wiesel, Thomas Merton) write explicitly about the importance of strangers.

What I want to stress is that this is a role we can and should play for one another as religious communities. When I was an undergraduate student in Israel, I was asked one day in class, as the only non-Jew, what I most affirmed about my heritage as a Christian. I said something (probably something superficial) about the centrality of love in Christianity, at which point one of the students blurted out, "Then why do Christians so often act hatefully?" This may sound obvious, but for me at age nineteen it was a moment of revelation. And since then it has been for me a reminder that interfaith relations hold us accountable to the best instincts of our own traditions.

I will add parenthetically that this is why being in the religious majority is a dangerous thing. When I worked for the World Council of Churches, my colleagues and I would often say that we never wanted to deal with Roman Catholics in Italy, Lutheran in Scandinavia, or Baptists in the American South! I could probably add Mormons in Salt Lake City, Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Buddhists in Tibet, and Jews in Israel.

My third point is probably the most difficult and, therefore, one that deserves discussion. Welcoming the stranger means welcoming those who don't welcome strangers, at least not in the way we think they should be welcomed.

As you know, there is a divide that runs down the middle of many our communities between those for whom the welcome of strangers, in all their diversity, is a key religious value and those for whom such welcome is, at best, secondary to the preservation of the community's orthodoxy or purity. It is one of the ironies of faith that these co-religionists are often more strangers to me than many Jews or Muslims or Bahais or Hindus -- and yet they, too, must be welcomed.

I need now to speak very carefully. There are many conservative, even fundamentalist, churches that practice extensive hospitality to strangers. Some congregations in Lexington, for example, have difficulty welcoming gays and lesbians or people of other faiths, but have wonderful ministries to welcome refugee families from the former Yugoslavia or Central America. Meanwhile, more liberal congregations may give lots of lip service to the idea of welcoming, but don't do much actual welcoming. All of us, then, need to be called to accountability--and it is with that in mind that I offer my next observations.

While all neighbors, however strange to us, must be welcomed, there are certain ways of acting and thinking that we cannot welcome if we are, in fact, to welcome the stranger. The apostle Paul hints at this when he urges the Roman congregations to "let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good." Genuine love, in other words, knows when and how to hate, to oppose, those things that stand against its realization. To put it bluntly, there is in the Christian tradition a principled basis for refusing to tolerate intolerance. Saying yes to the stranger means saying no to those things that harm the stranger. Otherwise, our very openness can mask what Herbert Marcuse called a "repressive tolerance" that allows racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia to flourish in the name of diversity.

Let me see if I can make this clearer by continuing to pick on my own tradition. Christians, as I see it, have frequently been guilty of two distortions of the commandment "love your neighbor." First, we have restricted the boundaries of our ethical obligation. One of the most haunting questions in the Bible is surely "Who is my neighbor?" When that question is put to Jesus in Luke's gospel, he responds by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan (the good stranger) in which need and common humanity--not race, nationality, class, or religion--define the community of neighbors we are called to welcome (a point made powerfully by Martin Luther King, Jr., in one of his finest sermons).

The second distortion is the tendency to think that the command to love neighbors--to welcome strangers--is fulfilled if we refrain from doing them harm. But in a world such as ours, it is not enough to say yes to strangers; we must also say no whenever they aren't welcomed. "Our community renounces racial bigotry." Good. Now work for racial justice. "We have cordial relations with the local mosque." Fine. Now speak out against the stereotyping of Muslims as violent and intolerant.

In short, what I try to tell students at the seminary is that they are called, as Christians, to welcome all those whom God, the universal Creator, welcomes. But precisely because of that, they are also called to resist those ways of acting, that narrowness of spirit, those attitudes of mind that threaten those whom God loves.

Finally, who are the strangers in our midst? I have already mentioned immigrants or refugees from such places as Bosnia and Kosovo. But I want to name four other groups that, as I see it, need particular welcome. There are, of course, many others that we might add.

Migrant workers, especially the increasing population of Hispanic workers who come to the Bluegrass without English-language skills. The Mayor's Hispanic Labor Task Force points out that social service agencies lack sufficient resources to meet the needs of this community (including persons with Spanish-language skills), and that we don't even have reliable statistics to help guide public policy decisions. The Task Force also offers this understatement: "Some Lexington residents may feel worried or threatened by the recent increase in the numbers of Hispanic newcomers. Many long-term residents do not know much about the culture of the newcomers, or about their contributions to our community, and may therefore operate out of stereotypes." (I am embarrassed to say that I must include myself in this category.) This is surely a concern for those who would welcome the stranger.

Racial-ethnic minorities who continue to be the object of hate crimes, acts which definitely say "you are not welcomed." Again, we lack adequate statistics, in part because many acts of hateful intimidation go unreported; but we know that the state of Kentucky listed seventy-seven hate crimes for 1998 (ten of them in Fayette County). Forty-five of those were aimed at African Americans. The Southern Poverty Law Center monitors twelve active hate groups in our state.

Thus, I applaud the proclamation, drafted by the Lexington Commission on Race Relations, and signed last May by the Mayor, which "declares the commitment of this city to stand with victims of hate crimes" and "calls upon the citizens of Lexington . . . to act collectively, creatively and decisively against hate and intolerance." How do we do this? Well, the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ) suggests that the best way is with a show of unity. "Treating an attack on one group as an attack on all of us sends a clear message to the panderers of hate that bias, bigotry and racism will not be tolerated against any member of the community." I am thankful for the witness of both the NCCJ and the Humanitarium, the new museum of culture and diversity that is being formed here in Lexington. These are resources for those who would welcome the stranger.

Gay and lesbian persons in our community. I realize that gay men and lesbians are not strangers in one sense. They are our fellow students, neighbors, co-workers. But often these persons are forced to keep part of themselves hidden, and, in this sense, to live as strangers. I am sure there are persons here tonight who hold that homosexual activity is a violation of God's will. But even that conviction, in my judgment, should not preclude active welcome for persons whom the society around us often reviles--which is why I am thankful that the Fayette County Fairness Ordinance has been amended to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. As you may know from the recent public debate, the Human Rights Commission documented twenty-six cases of discrimination against gay persons last year in Lexington in employment and housing. This is surely a concern for those who would welcome the stranger.

Persons of faiths other than our own. Often, I suspect, we know each other through business or recreation, but we are strangers to one another as Christians or Jews or Muslims or Buddhists. We meet each other in public, but our deepest religious commitments remain unknown to one another. And in that sense we have not welcomed one another as persons of faith. This conference is one opportunity to rectify that situation.

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I will end by noting that we live in the best of times, and we live in the worst of times. The experience of pluralism has enabled many persons in our era to see beyond past provincialism. But our age is also witnessing, as you well know, a resurgence of ethnic conflict, religious intolerance, and crimes rooted in hatred toward those who are "different." Globalization brings us in touch with more and more strangers. But international business and communications also have an homogenizing effect, suppressing the very differences that are a potential source of mutual enrichment. Many "modern people" are less suspicious of others than were their ancestors. But the pace and scale of modern life mean that easy, superficial familiarity often replaces real relationship.

So, such a theme as ours for this conference is certainly timely. I pray that our identity as persons of faith will increasingly become "those who welcome the stranger." And that we will learn how to welcome strangers better not just as isolated communities but in partnership with one another.

Michael Kinnamon
Theological Seminary

©Copyright Michael Kinnamon

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