Recently on this blog, Michael Louderback (MA in Counseling Psychology, ‘13) wrote about the psychology of transference and how we work out our humanity through our posture toward strangers. Here, Seth Thomas (Master of Divinity, ‘16) writes about how theology enlivens and sharpens that conversation. Seth reflects on his own experience and the example of Jesus to challenge cultural voices that label strangers as enemies.
I have a goddaughter who is an American-adopted Ugandan. Her parents knew a deep sense of calling that led them to reaching out and welcoming into their home three girls from a Ugandan orphanage. And I am changed by the fact that I now belong to her, and she to me. She has become my kin, my neighbor, my family. We are not bound by blood or skin color—we are bound by the love that extends as the hands of God in our common, shared life together. And I find, as I remember her presence in my world, that I am me more because of her.
The calling of the Christian way is to embrace the stranger and make a place at your table for your enemy. “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you,” Jesus says. At the core of this tradition is a radical concept that we not only must live alongside those who are different from us, but that we are meant to seek the well-being and shalom of our enemies, as equal and even above our own selves.
We are meant to seek the well-being and shalom of our enemies.
I’m struck by how contrary this way of life is, especially in the culture and climate of our nation. We live in a period of nationalist rhetoric, where our American identity supersedes standing up for those who may have wronged us or may look different from us, practice their faith in a different way, trace their family origins to different places than I do. We are told we need stronger borders, not more open tables, or stricter qualifications for who can become our neighbors, not welcoming hospitality that says regardless of who they are, they must be welcomed as though “when you cared for the least of these, you cared for me.”
For me, the piece that gets at the core of my feelings of anger and sadness around this climate of fear and ostracism is the fact that I need “the other” to truly know myself. I am not whole if I do not know (and by know, I mean experience, come into intimate contact with, connect to, and be willing to be changed by) my neighbor—as close or as “other” as they may be. For it is in encountering our differences that we begin to place our own sense of identity. I am not me without you.
We stand at an intersection where we are wrestling with what it means to embrace differences in identity, while maintaining and strengthening our own sense of who we are made to be and how we live in the world. This is not an easy place to stand, but if we avoid the intersection, we risk losing ourselves in the process of turning our backs on our neighbors. Neighbors, whether they be our own flesh and blood family or whether they are outsiders, strangers, refugees, and immigrants, are meant to stand in the intersection and reveal to us who we are—our biases, our gifts, our strengths, our shortcomings. And they reveal an even deeper reality: they stand in as the presence of the Living God with us (the very means of incarnation here and now).
As we begin to shift our minds from the rhetoric of self-centeredness, we begin to recognize that of course the problems and complexities of our world will drive us to conflict. When we hear of children losing access to meals at school, we can say “not my kids” or we can begin to recognize that these are our neighbors. There are no kids who are “not my kids,” all children belong to me as I belong to them. And what is a table centered on truly Christian grace and welcome if it is not a table where all sinners—rich and poor; black, brown, white; gay, straight; fundamentalist, progressive—are able to sit together in unity, break bread in peace and acceptance, and recognize our kinship which is at the very core of our difference?