Love the Stranger at our Gates
By Dr. Leanne Van Dyk, President
March 17, 2017—Some Bible texts are difficult to understand and baffling to interpret. When Jesus spoke to his disciples in parables, they often scratched their heads in puzzlement. But the dozens of Bible texts about strangers are clear and unambiguous. When Exodus 23:9 says, “Do not take advantage of a stranger; you know what it’s like to be a stranger; you were strangers in Egypt,” it is awfully hard to understand that as anything but commanding our hospitality and generosity to those in need. Likewise, when Jeremiah 22:3 says, “And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow. . .”, we are certainly right to conclude that Scripture not only invites but commands us to care for the stranger. There are, in fact, dozens of passages in the Bible that refer to strangers and that call us unambiguously to welcome rather than reject, to extend hospitality rather than hostility.
We have all seen ugly political rhetoric and intimidating actions in recent months about the stranger at our gates. Steve King, a Congressional representative from Iowa, tweeted a particularly ugly reference to immigrants’ babies. Immigrant communities have been targeted with hate speech. Visiting scholars with brown skin are stopped at airport security checkpoints. All of this has become wearingly familiar.
Although there is much to lament and mourn, I have also been heartened that Christians have spoken up about this nasty political tone. Many Christian leaders have declared firm resolve to defend the stranger at our gates. This message is not unanimous, it is true, but it comes from a broad spectrum of voices. The conservative Southern Baptist Convention leader, Russell Moore, sent a letter to President Trump this week advocating for refugees. Progressive evangelical Jim Wallis, founder of the magazine Sojourners, invited Christians to take the Matthew 25 Pledge which calls for compassion, mercy, and justice for all people, particularly those vulnerable and poor. A wide spectrum of Christians believers is sounding this same note. After all, they read their Bibles. They know God’s call about welcoming the stranger. I do not intend to minimize concerns about security or legal process, but vile hostility is contrary to God’s heart of love.
Last summer, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) adopted into its own Book of Confessions the Confession of Belhar which states, “We believe…that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly…” Those words, “We believe. . .” include us here at Columbia Seminary. This is what we believe as well. Here on campus, we have just finished our second “Big Read” using the book Outcasts United by Warren St. John. The story is about a youth soccer team called the “Fugees” (from refugees) based in Clarkston, GA right next to our own home of Decatur, near Atlanta. Out of our multiple small groups, we are gathering insights from the book and thoughts about how we can be engaged on these issues of immigration and refugees.
At the suggestion of a group of students, faculty, and staff, we recently posted lawn signs in front of the seminary using Exodus 23:9 cited above, with the final sign stating simply “Love the Stranger.” Many hundreds of cars will pass these signs and see that Columbia Theological Seminary is committed to love God and neighbor, including the stranger at our gates.