Volume 16 - Issue 3

And who is my neighbour?

By Christopher J.H. Wright

‘Say NO to strangers!’ That is the message on numerous stickers and posters issued by the local police to homes, schools and children in our area. What a tragic commentary on our society that the horrific abuse of children by a very few has made it necessary for us to instil suspicion and fear into tender minds, urging them for their own protection to treat all strangers alike with rejection. Children can no longer be seen as a blessing to the whole community, bringing pleasure to unrelated adults or a ray of cheer and company to the elderly or lonely. They must be confined to the narrowing circles of the inner family and known neighbours. The isolationism of our fragmented society bites deeper and deeper. Even children become private property to be jealously guarded by suspicion of every unknown other person. My own teenage son was the butt of hostility and suspicion for playing with the child of a customer in the garden centre where he works. There was a time he might have received gratitude.

The Bible is, of course, concerned for the health and safety of children. The Torah protects them in various ways and the vision of the age to come explicitly includes children as proof of environmental safety (Isa. 11:6–9; 65:20–23, Zech. 8:4–5). But the Bible also has a concern for strangers. What struck me about the posters was the cold reversal of the biblical command to ‘Love the stranger as yourself’ (Lev. 19:34). The stranger (‘alien’ in recent translations) was the outsider, the person who was not part of the ethnic Israelite community, but who resided and worked among the Israelite households. He was one of a category of people regularly included among those most vulnerable to exploitation and oppression—the landless poor, the widow and orphan, the Levites, etc. Such groups are frequently commended to the practical social care and support of the community in the Torah. The invisible posters in Israelite villages imbued with the ethos of the Torah, read, ‘Say YES to strangers’. Now of course the context and the circumstances are very different. The point is, however, that Israelites were encouraged to see the stranger as a fellow human being whose needs must be attended to in the name of the God of saving compassion. Our society drills us to see the stranger as a dangerous unknown, to be treated with suspicion and kept at arm’s length. I remember a poster I saw in an Indian hotel once, ‘There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t met yet.’ We warn our children to see all strangers as enemies they mustn’t meet at all.

Rejection of the stranger cuts deeper still than the instinct to protect our children. Biblically, the stranger is included among those in greatest need in society: the refugees and captives of war, the stateless, the landless, the homeless, the debtor, the bonded worker and day labourer. These are the same great swathe of humanity that we habitually say NO to. The urban and rural poor in the Two Thirds World are strangers to western Christians. So are the economic migrants that are driven like driftwood around the war-torn parts of the world. But then, so too are the homeless in our own lands. It is still disconcerting (to say the least) to come face to face in London’s Underground with sights one took for granted in Bombay—homeless people of all ages begging. But beggars are strangers too, and you say NO to strangers, don’t you? Anything else is awkward, time consuming, embarrassing and possibly (thought the priest and Levite on the Jericho road) dangerous. It was the hated stranger himself, in Jesus’ story, who proved neighbour to the one who was a stranger to him. Took the risk. Paid the cost.

The British television News at Ten recently carried two stories in the same programme. One was the harrowing and heartrending suffering of the Kurdish people in northern Iraq. Here is a people already accustomed to generations of oppression and abandonment, in their latest agony trapped between the bombing, burning and torture of ‘their’ government, and the snows and starvation of their mountains. A people suffering the vengeful aftermath of a war they didn’t start, a war fought by the wealthy for the wealthy, whose cost is measured in the shattered lives of millions of the world’s poorest and most powerless. All it seems to have achieved is a ghastly reversed Magnificat. It has left the mighty on their thrones and devastated those of low degrees; it has restored the rich to rebuild their wealth, but the hungry it has sent empty away into even greater hopelessness. For in international politics, it seems that whether you say NO or YES to strangers depends entirely on your own interests, not theirs.

The other story in the same programme was a report on the evangelical gatherings at Spring Harvest—a British event which attracts almost 100,000 people of all ages to four holiday venues around the country over the Easter vacation, for worship and teaching. It appeared, however, that the event was newsworthy because it coincided with the installation of Dr George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury. Already the media have made much of Dr Carey’s evangelical and charismatic background, with some pundits warning the nation that the Church of England will be reduced to simplistic, happy-clappy, aisle-dancing triviality. A clip of Spring Harvest worship was presumably intended to reinforce that caricature.

The news editor explained that evangelicals ‘believe in a literal Gospel’ and go in for informal styles of worship. My heart sank. First, because it was unfair to George Carey, whose faith means a lot more than that. He has demonstrated his commitment to the growth of the local church as a parish minister, to theological training for practical ministry as the principal of a theological college, and to the wider mission of the church as a member of the council of the missionary society which supported my family in India.

But secondly, it was depressing to realize that evangelicals are notorious these days in Britain only for their informal and enthusiastic worship. A hundred years ago evangelicals were equallly mocked for their beliefs, but even their detractors acknowledged their indefatigable labours in costly involvement with the poor in the appalling slums of Victorian England. A critic of evangelicals had this to say about them in 1860:

The Evangelical party is redeemed by its … manifold labours of Christian love.… When the history of the Evangelical party is written, it will be told of them, that with narrow-mindedness and mistaken traditions, with little intellectual acquirements and ill-directed zeal against their brothers in the Church, they yet worked manfully in the pestilent and heathen by-ways of our cities, and preached the gospel to the poor.1

This was not what News at Ten noticed about modern evangelicalism. There are, of course many evangelicals committed to social action among the poor, the homeless and deprived. But they do not seem to have registered on the public image of evangelicalism. Nor, more sadly, does such concern seem to have penetrated deeply into the growing ranks of evangelicals at large. For I too was at Spring Harvest and greatly enjoyed the power and joy of the worship. But whereas a seminar on healing is packed to standing room only, those on the homeless, or on the poor, or on overseas mission, draw relatively few. Say YES to all that God has to give you. Say NO to strangers. Such a discrepancy cannot be blamed on Spring Harvest itself. It is merely symptomatic of the virus of self-indulgence to which western evangelicalism puts up little resistance. Our religion is as much infected by the ‘I want it all and I want it now’ idolatry as the world around us. We just spiritually rephrase it. Jesus is the friend who meets all your needs. The Christ who calls for practical obedience, for costly discipleship, for a self-denying, cross-bearing commitment to mission, has become a stranger. Say NO to strangers?

1 Quoted in a fascinating book on the amazing variety of evangelical urban mission strategies in the 19th century: Donald M. Lewis, Lighten their Darkness: The Evangelical Mission to Working-class London, 1828–1860 (New York and London: Greenwood Press, 1986), p. 276.

Christopher J.H. Wright

Principal, All Nations Christian College, Ware