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?
Aliens, Strangers and the Gospel
In this article I would like to consider our general attitudes
to 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’ (v8). 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’ (Lk 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.’ (Rom 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 (Ex 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 Ch 2:17) or about a tenth
of the country’s total population. As is usual today, most of these were unskilled
workers (cf 1 Ch 22:2; 2 Ch 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 (Eph 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.’ (Dr 10:17-18)
God shows his care by providing for basic needs
(cf also Lv 19:10; 23:22; Dt 14:29; 24:19-20; 26:11-12)
In his well-known prophetic description of the Last
Judgment in Matthew 26, 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’.
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 there fore 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.’ (Ex 23:9 cf Ex 22:21)
Respect for foreigners begins with respecting their
basic rights. The Mosaic law cites the following: Sabbath rest (Ex 20:10;
23:12; Lv 25:6; Dt 5:14); a fair wage (Dt 24:14, 15); access to unbiased justice
(Lv 24:22; Dt 1:16; 24:17: 27:19).
We should consider the foreigner as
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 (Lv 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.’ (Lv 19:33-34 cf Dt 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 (Lk 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 (cf Jn 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 qualities, as Jesus did with the Samaritan who was the only
on of ten healed lepers to show his gratitude (Lk 17:11-19). Loving foreigners
sometimes means accepting that we are going to be rejected, without wanting
to get our own back, as Jesus pointed out to his angry disciples when they were
not welcomed in a Samaritan village (Lk 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 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’ (Gn
17:5-6). In the same way, God made a covenant with the people of Israel which
included all the aliens living in Israel (Dt 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 Ch 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 (cf Is 56:6-7). The gospel is good news
for all people.
Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman (Jn 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 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 cam 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 (Mt 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, 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!”’ (Rom 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 recently done research on the forgiveness of God in Islam. He earned
his doctorate from the University of Sorbonne (Paris) and is now 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 and The
Prophet and the Messiah, An Arab Christian’s Perspective on Islam and Christianity
(Inter Varsity Press 2001).
This article, translated from French by Ri Weal, is the
substance of a talk given at the IFES European Conference on Evangelism in Holland,
Easter 1991. Additional teaching on this theme is found in his new book, The Prophet and the Messiah, chapter 24, pages 283-289, titled: "Love the Immigrant as Yourself."
Copyright Information: This article is reprinted from the IFES Review, November 1993 issue, with permission of the author and IFES.