There is a tradition within Christianity, strong in Scripture and in the early church but now sadly in danger of dying, of welcoming the stranger. In the early church there was a custom of welcoming strangers with the belief that they, being foreigners, were specially privileged in their capacity to bring new promise and fresh revelation from God. It was with this in mind that the author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote: “In welcoming strangers some of you have entertained angels without knowing it.” Thus, every family was encouraged to set aside a room in its house to serve as a guest room, a room within which strangers could be welcomed and hospitality shown to them.
In scripture, God’s promise, revelation, and new truth are most often brought not through what’s familiar or through those whom we know and who are like us, but through a stranger or an angel (an angel being even more foreign than a stranger).
Thus, for instance, we see: Sarah and Abraham receive the promise of a son not from a family member, a neighbour, or the local doctor, but from a stranger who has wandered into their camp at night and to whom they have shown hospitality. Jacob meets God by wrestling with a stranger. Christ is visited in the crib not by the Jewish rulers but by the Magi, strange foreign kings. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the wounded man is helped not by his own kinsfolk and those who were of his own religion, but by a samaritan, a stranger. With the stranger lies surprise, new possibility, contact with that part of God and reality that we have never experienced before.
Why is that? Would it not it be more logical, and indeed in line with the principles of the incarnation, that God should speak to us most deeply through that which is familiar to us?
The familiar is important. In the end, the real test of charity is our own family. Charity begins at home. However, precisely because it is home, it is not the place where we are often surprised. It is too familiar and because it is so familiar it is also not the place where we are likely to have our hearts stretched. God is not familiar. God is other. Accordingly, those who are other to us, strangers, are in a privileged position to reveal God to us.
As Parker Palmer puts it: “The role of the stranger in our lives is vital in the context of Christian faith, for the God of faith is one who continually speaks truth afresh, who continually makes all things new. God persistently challenges conventional truth and regularly upsets the world’s way of looking at things. It is no accident that this God is so often represented by the stranger, for the truth that God speaks in our lives is very strange indeed. Where the world sees impossibility, God sees potential. Where the world sees comfort, God sees idolatry. Where the world sees insecurity, God sees occasions for faith. Where the world sees death, God proclaims life. God uses the stranger to shake us from our conventional points of view, to remove the scales of worldly assumptions from our eyes. God is a stranger to us, and it is at the risk of missing God’s truth that we domesticate God, reduce God to the role of familiar friend.” (The Company of Strangers, p. 59)
There is a double challenge in that: The first has to do with racism, sexism, provincialism, and sectarianism of all sorts. Invariably we are afraid of, and un-welcoming to, strangers – be they different vis-a-vis race, colour, creed, gender, or sexual orientation. We fear what is different from ourselves. We are comfortable only with our own. However, within our own circles much of the otherness of God cannot be revealed. Within familiar circles, good as these might be, there it too little in the way of promise, of newness. God can speak only a limited word here. Nothing is impossible with God, but that is only true when we move outside of our own circles. Like Jacob, we must wrestle in the dust with the stranger. Who knows? The person who puts your hip might well be God!
But we must welcome the stranger in another way too. In a world and in a church polarized by competing ideologies and torn by factionalism, we must welcome the stranger, show hospitality to, those who are different from ourselves: Conservatives must welcome liberals and liberals must welcome conservatives. We are strange to each other. Feminists must welcome those who are afraid of them, and those who are afraid of feminism must welcome feminists. The same is true between pro-life and pro-choice. In welcoming the stranger, in showing real hospitality to those who seem foreign to us, whom we do not understand, we are given the opportunity hear new promise, to hear a fuller revelation of God.