Walter Brueggemann: The Strangeness of the Stranger

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:33-33).

You shall have one law (mispat) for the alien and for the citizen; for I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 24:22).

For the Lord your God is God of gods and lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:17-19).


What follows is a report on two books I have recently read, quite by happenstance, back to back. The first book is Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia by George _Makari (Norton, 2021). This ambitious book traces the notion of xenophobia (fear of the stranger) through the history of Western Christianity. Makari arrives at most interesting and important conclusions about his subject.

Because the term “xenophobia” smacks of old Greek etymology, one might expect that xenophobia is a quite ancient enterprise. To the contrary, Makari finds no compelling evidence for such an ancient concern. Rather, in both Greek and Hebrew traditions one finds an openness to strangers that runs toward “philioxenia,” love of the stranger.  Makari observes that in the tradition of Matthew, Jesus enjoins welcome to the stranger (xenos) (Matthew 25:35). Most important is the admonition of Hebrews 13:

Let mutual love (philadelphia; “love of brother”) _continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers (philoxenias), for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it (vv.1-2).

Of most interest is the fact that “mutual love” (philadelphia) and “hospitality to strangers” (philoxenias) occur together, exactly an antithesis to xenophobia!

Without strong evidence in the ancient world, Makari judges that xenophobia is a more modern phenomenon. Specifically, he pegs its emergence in the coming modern world to the action and ambition of Isabella and Ferdinand in their effort to create a “pure Christian Spain” in the late fifteenth century. They did so by expelling Jews and Muslims who, perforce, fled, were converted to Christian faith, or were killed.

Catholicism became the rallying cry of the kingdom … The nation’s subjects would now be those with pure blood, with clear Christian ancestry … Subjects were to be zealots in the pursuit of these national goals. Shared hatred of aliens and enemies pulled a diverse people together (19-21).

This drastic, ruthless royal initiative, moreover, is dated to exactly the same period as three other remarkable turns of public affairs:

...The discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus, as subject of Isabella and Ferdinand who brought back to them much gold;

...The flourishing of the Church’s Inquisition that sought out and punished all of those who were short of “pure faith,” and

...The papal “Doctrine of Discovery” that gave Spain privilege in the New World and provided that the “natives” must either convert or be killed.

It was readily concluded that non-Christians constituted a threat to the wellbeing of the pure Christian nation. The effective seizure of the New World by Spain signaled “the hegemony of their illusions” (22) [a wondrous phrase!], and legitimated their eager predatory quest for labor, markets, and gold that shaped the subsequent history of the New World. The legitimated ideology of this enterprise “unleashed mass murder of a different order.” (22).

From this beginning Makari traces the practice of xenophobia through the emergence of nationalism in the 18th-19th centuries:

Once the feudal European states secularized and adopted more republican values, by which sovereignty was vested in the people. Weakened traditional elites and religious authorities, once wielding the crown and cross, could no longer as effectively use such time-honored methods to ensure social order. Into this vacuum, nationalism emerged with different self-defining strategies intended to cement the commitment of the citizenry (41).

From then on, the illusion of a homogeneous “pure” citizenry justified all kinds of exclusionary hostility toward “the other,” that is, toward immigrants who could be perceived as a threat.

Makari exposits one other remarkable awareness. The European powers, in the wake of Columbus and his ilk, undertook aggressive colonizing of the non-European world, including the Americas, Asia, and Africa. They did so in the conviction of God-authorized righteousness:

Missionaries, school teachers, and functionaries carried the flags of freedom forward. They rubbed up against fortune hunters, ex-criminals, libertines, slave traders, and pirates. So confident were they in their righteousness, the good of their God, the supremacy of their lineage, and the superiority of their culture that the reaction of their hosts begat some confusion. Western travelers noted that in foreign lands, they would be met by accommodation and servile assistance, then suddenly rage and violence (53).

Eventually here and there, notably in China with the so-called “Boxer Rebellion,” some of the would-be colonized lands mounted resistance to Western “civilizing” pressure. Quite cleverly Western propaganda, in the service of European predation, managed to label that resistance as “xenophobic,” that is, resistance by China was parsed as “hostility to foreigners.” This clever trick turned the tables on historical reality, for it was the West that refused foreigners. In defense of their own land and economy, the resistance of European colonization was labeled as “xenophobia.”

More recent expressions of this tricky reversal have come in the form of claims that establish the inferiority of non-whites, stereotypes that categorize second-class citizens, the notorious “church schools” that sought in violent ways to de-culture native children, and finally genocide that exercised and justified wholesale elimination of the “other.” Makari summarizes:

A decade after its invention, xenophobia had become a powerful biopolitical tool tied to science and race; it defined who was a primitive Easterner or Oriental, and who was a civilized Occidental Westerner. As applied by Western journalists, diplomats, experts, and observers, xenophobia was linked to a kind of primitivism that afflicted only the colonized, non-Europeans (67).

Most recently in our own context this flag-waving superiority-cum-violence has been intolerantly preoccupied with non-European immigrants, culminating in the notorious Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 with its harsh exclusionary provisions. This sense of a white-European America being threatened by “others” has come to various expressions of nativism, not least the recent ideological chant, “We shall not be replaced.”

There has of course been a steady stream of protests against this dangerous chauvinism. Makari in particular mentions Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, and Joseph Conrad.

But now the second book I note is The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas by Robert Zaretsky (University of Chicago Press, 2021). Zaretsky presents the ideas of Weil who was a radical public figure in France with dangerous words, dangerous ideas, and dangerous actions (1909-1943). She wrote, spoke, and lived in solidarity with the exploited labor class in France. Among her “outrageous” ideas is this:

The essential nutrient for the flourishing of patriotism, as Weil sees it, is not pride, but compassion. Patriotism is fueled by sympathy, and not antipathy, for others (116).

Zaretzsky can judge that her words are “bizarre,” and slots his own comment alongside that of Charles DeGaulle who dismissed her words as those of a raving lunatic. Weil, of course, was not deterred by such dismissals, but kept to her conviction that was grounded in her Jewishness and in her embrace of Christian faith. She asserts that,

Compassion is an equal-opportunity sentiment, one that is able, without hindrance, to cross frontiers, extend itself over all countries in misfortune, over all countries without exception; for all peoples are subject to the wretchedness of our human condition … We must not portray our country [she means France] that is not only beautiful and precious, but also is imperfect and very frail (117).

In this judgment of “patriotism as compassion,” Weil is of course moving upstream against very heavy currents of opinion. To be sure, that does not deter her as she intends to upend the ideological claims of supremacy and privilege by focusing on the inescapable reality of the commonality of the human community. To uphold Weil’s “compassion” as subversive of and alternative to conventional nationalism and ordinary imperialism is a very long shot. But of course it is a long shot on which human lives have always depended.

So, consider the subject of Makari and Zaretsky, of xenophobia and compassion. I have no doubt that we are compelled by gospel faith to weigh in on this interface. The simple claim, “Love thy neighbor,” is at the heart of our ethical reflection. It is easy enough but no less urgent, I believe, to insist on this claim in the church. It is easy enough because it is a widely shared conviction across the spectrum of the church. No one will argue against that mandate.

It is nevertheless urgent because the church, its members, and its pastors, must be uncompromising about our most serious faith commitment at the center of which is the “other” whom God loves.

That, however, is not the hard work. The hard work, as every pastor knows, is to make the case that the ethical primacy of the “other” pertains not only to the privacy of faith, but to the body politic. We are now in a dangerous moment concerning the future shape of our society. The fears of exclusionary nativism are strong and encouraged by ample hidden money. The claim for the primacy of the stranger, however, is more elemental than anything that hidden money can propagate; the claim is grounded in nothing less than our shared, created, bodily commonality that refuses the false claims of eugenics, that resists the dismissive practices of stereotype, and that abhors genocide.

Just now we as a society are engaged in a question about our future, about whether compassion, as a shared practice might impinge upon public policy and public practice. The force of nativism is of course all for compassion as long as it remains privatized so that we keep control of the process.

But with compassion kept privatized, fear will always prevail in public matters over any substantive compassion.

When compassion becomes a mark of public work, it issues in deeply-felt justice initiatives and in greatly-altered economic distribution.

We must not forget that xenophobia is a not a virtue; it is a fear. It is a fear that our humanity is too frail for generosity and too vulnerable for social justice. We know better than that! That is why we pray for God’s rule to come quickly “on earth as it is in heaven,” a rule of consummate generosity and determined restorative justice. Beyond such a wondrous prayer, there are specific risks to run, policies to enact, and strangers to welcome.

Faith does not linger in fear because it is confident that our future may indeed embrace a more excellent way.

The phrase that lingers in my awareness is in the words of our almost-national anthem, “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies.” It includes these amazing lines:

O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life (Glory to God, 338).

Imagine: “mercy more than life!” We sing, moreover, that even our “success shall be “nobleness.” Who knew?


Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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