Having coauthored a book entitled Welcoming the Stranger, my interest was piqued by the similar title of a book I spotted on a bookstore shelf recently: Learning from the Stranger: Christian Faith and Cultural Diversity (Eerdmans, 2009) by Calvin College professor David I. Smith focuses on the intersection between biblical faith and interaction with those of different cultural backgrounds. Loving and learning from those who are “strangers” to us, Smith argues persuasively, is not merely a specialized virtue or set of skills for those called to full-time missionary service abroad, but rather “a matter of Christian discipleship” for every follower of Christ. Drawing on intensive analysis of three situation of cross-cultural interactions in the Scriptures, Smith’s text provides a helpful theological grounding for Christ-followers seeking to effectively engage with immigrants arriving from a different culture (and for immigrant Christ-followers to engage with those of a distinct culture in their new country).
Abraham’s life is, in many ways, a model of faith and of hospitality, but for the man through whom, ultimately “all peoples on earth [would] be blessed” (Genesis 12:3), he also provides an unfortunate model of, as Smith phrases it, “how not to bless the nations.” On multiple occasions (Genesis 12:10-20, 20:1-18), Abraham resorts to self-serving deception toward foreign rulers, passing off his wife Sarah as his sister in order to spare himself trouble. Smith focuses on the ironic cross-cultural interaction between Abraham and Abimelek, the king of Gerar: Abraham, a prophet of God, lies and puts both his wife and the entire nation of Gerar at risk of serious harm; on the other hand, the pagan king Abimelek is the one who hears directly from God, responds with full obedience, and shows more concern for Sarah’s chastity than her own husband. Smith argues persuasively that Abraham’s sin was, at least in part, a result of a poor response to cultural difference: Abraham’s vulnerability as a foreigner and his (inaccurate) presumptions about Abimelek’s character lead him to make nearly disastrous choices. We would do well, Smith argues, to learn carefully about other cultures before prejudging them—and so to avoid Abraham’s errors.
Smith then turns to the familiar story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus’ model of neighborly love (Luke 10:25-37). He argues that the offensiveness inherent in the culture in which Jesus told this story is lost to most contemporary readers: Samaritans, Smith notes, were despised outsiders to nearly all Jews—including Jesus’ disciples, who were all-to-eager to call down fire upon Samaritan village (Luke 9:55). But Jesus holds up a Samaritan not just as a victim deserving of compassion—even that would have been an offense—but as the model of neighborly love. The man beaten on the side of the road to Jericho, Smith notes, was presumably a Jew—but, beaten unconscious and stripped of his clothes—even the traveler would not have necessarily been able to identify his ethnic identity. And, Smith says, that’s the point: Jesus wants to be clear that ethnic identity is irrelevant to the self-justifying scribe’s question of “who is my neighbor?” While theologians of his day went out of their way to exclude Samaritans and other foreigners from the Old Testament command to love one’s neighbor, Jesus’ story emphasized that, even back in Leviticus, the command to neighbor-love specifically included the command to love the immigrant (Leviticus 19:33-34).
Furthermore, Jesus uses the example to drive home a point that is as critical to American Christians—faced with an ever-diversifying culture—as it was to the legal scholar in Luke 10: we are called not just to love foreigners, but to learn from them.
Not only does Jesus make the scribe the one challenged and ask him to put himself in the position of the one needing help, not only does he represent that help as coming from a Samaritan and not from the representatives of the temple, not only does he embarrass the scribe’s implied assumption that some are to be excluded from the command to love one’s neighbor—on top of all that, Jesus now asks the scribe (of all people!) to learn from a Samaritan how to interpret and obey the law.
That theme of learning from those of different cultural origins is driven home by the final biblical story of cross-cultural interaction that Smith examines: the story of the Apostle Peter’s visit to the Gentile Cornelius in Acts 10:25-35. Once again, Smith highlights the social unacceptability of what to contemporary American readers may seem like a pleasant interaction: Jews were absolutely forbidden from entering the homes of and dining with Gentiles, which is why, following the events of this story, Peter is rebuked: “you went into the house of the uncircumcised and ate with them” (Acts 11:3). But it is through Cornelius, a Gentile who is not yet a disciple, that Peter is able to fully comprehend the vision God has shown him and the fullness of God’s grace—open even to those outside of God’s covenant people.
Smith’s book is a timely reminder to those who rightly see immigration as an opportunity for ministry that the opportunity is not merely to serve and evangelize the immigrant, but to learn from and be led by those from a different cultural background, who can uniquely expose our own cultural blind spots and bring each of us to a fuller understanding of the gospel.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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