Last week, Christianity Today published an article describing how the president’s immigration ban has divided evangelical churches. Some evangelical Christian leaders support the ban, including Franklin Graham, founder of Samaritan’s Purse, an organization that has provided aid to refugees in foreign countries for three decades. But others, including Tim Keller, Max Lucado, and Bill and Lynne Hybels, signed a letter written by the leaders of World Relief protesting the ban. As of Wednesday, the letter had more than 6,000 signatures.
The disagreement among evangelical leaders is, in part, over the meaning of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, a scripture passage central to Christian ethics. The World Relief letter states: “In the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus makes it clear that our ‘neighbor’ includes the stranger and anyone fleeing persecution and violence, regardless of their faith or country.”
But Franklin Graham, representing many evangelicals who support the president’s ban, said in a recent Facebook post: “As Christians we are commanded to help all, regardless of religious background or ethnicity, like the Good Samaritan Jesus shared about in the Bible. Our job is to show God’s love and compassion. I believe the best way to help is to reach out and help these people in their own countries.”
The difference between the two groups seems to consist of this: one group believes that the Good Samaritan passage is about providing aid to people in need; the other group believes that the passage is about being in close relationship to people in need.
In the early centuries of Christianity, discussion about the obligation to help strangers also occurred with frequency. Based upon what we know of the surviving letters and sermons of early Christian leaders, like Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssus, Ambrose and Jerome, most believed that helping the stranger was not only a duty, it was also an opportunity to welcome Christ into one’s life. John Chrysostom, speaking of people in need, wrote: “Let us run about everywhere, let us drag them in, let us seize our prize. Greater are the benefits we receive than what we confer. He does not require you to kill a calf, but only to give bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked, shelter to the stranger.”
And Benedict, writing about the reception of guests, said: “In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because it is especially in them that Christ is received.”
But no matter how much theologians write about it, no matter how much pastors preach about it from the pulpit, the lessons of hospitality are really only learned in the actual experience of being in relationship with the stranger.
One afternoon I received a phone call from a youth pastor in Milwaukee seeking advice on conflict resolution. His ministry took place after school with a group of African-American youths in an urban high-rise. The mostly white residents of the apartment building were intimidated by the young men and had circulated a petition to have the group removed from the building. When I asked what he was doing about it, he said the youth came up with a plan to cook dinner for the residents and invite them to a meal. They did so, and in conversation over dinner discovered that many of the elderly residents shared a common difficulty: getting their groceries from the parking lot to the elevator of the apartment lobby. The youth proposed setting aside two afternoons a week when they would be available to help carry groceries. They planned to distribute fliers throughout the high-rise.
I had no advice to give the youth pastor, but I thanked him for the good work he was doing. It seems to me that no conflict resolution strategy has ever been invented that works as well as sitting down together for a meal. The early Christians knew this, and the youth group in Milwaukee was in the process of discovering it for themselves.
One good result of the public debate over refugees is the way it is forcing churches to have significant discussions about the heart of the Christian mission. Is it mainly to deepen the faith of believers through the experience of communal worship? Is it to supplement the work of secular governmental agencies through acts of charity? Or is it to somehow to do both at the same time, to deepen believers’ relationship to God by helping them find God in the encounter with the stranger?
If there is a way out of the dead end of identity politics in which we find ourselves stuck, it may be by looking back at the ancient wisdom of religious communities. Specifically, we may find that in prioritizing face-to-face encounters, through simple acts like sharing a meal or providing shelter, we turn out to have more in common than we thought. And we may even experience grace in the encounter, discovering that the person I am helping turns out to help me in some unexpected way.
The practice of hospitality, especially its emphasis not just on providing aid but on seeking relationships, may seem to our fast-paced, highly efficient, technological culture like a legacy of earlier times. But the lesson it teaches is perhaps more important than ever: when we make abstractions of people, we turn strangers into enemies; when we share a meal, we turn strangers into friends.