Throughout the history of human interaction, we have been faced with the problem of the stranger. For every “us,” there has to be a “them.” To describe ourselves, we have to differentiate ourselves—me and you, kin and non-kin, friends and enemies, neighbours and foreigners. Without dividing the world, we would have no identity. Since the beginning of humanity, belonging to a group has been a matter of survival and, over the ages, multiple identity boundaries have been drawn—gender, tribe, race, religions, nations, possessions, political parties.
The stranger is different from us. We are engaged with strangers in inverse proportion to the distance that separates us. With globalisation, however, the distance between “us” and “them” has been rapidly vanishing.
Through the media, in our workplace and in our families, the stranger has come close. Now, the other is not only “out there.” They have moved into our physical, intellectual and emotional neighbourhoods. The distance that used to separate us is being abolished and our perspectives are changing.
In this new relationship, we are confronted not only with a new view of those we used to consider “outsiders”
but with a new view of ourselves. They see in us what we could not recognise in ourselves and, when we let them, they tell us what we cannot tell ourselves.
They have arrived in our daily lives with their beauty, wisdom and vulnerabilities, as well as their suffering, grievances and aspirations. Like an uninvited company consultant who can see what the company cannot see, the stranger reveals. And that’s the problem with the stranger. To survive, we need to protect ourselves from the stranger; and to survive, we need the stranger to help us see.
In the Scripture, this problem has been inversed and transformed into one of the most potent commandments for God’s people. While the Hebrew Bible commands, “you shall love your neighbor”
only once, it commands no less than 36 times to “love the stranger.”
For example, it demands, “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not ill-treat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself “
In the New Testament, Jesus insists, the ultimate judgment of our acts will come from the way we treat the stranger (see Matthew 25:31-46).
In the Muslim world, informed by the Quranic texts, one is expected to take a stranger into one’s home, treat him with honour and care for him no less than three days, even when one is considered an enemy. This may seem as nothing but a simple invitation to a virtue of neighbourly love but there is far more to this insistent call of God.
Abraham, the father of the three monotheistic faiths, was ordained by the priest Melchizedek, an outsider to the covenantal family. Although a stranger, he was called “the priest of the Most High.” We have no idea where and how he became a priest before Abraham was called to follow God.
Later, Abraham and Sarah were visited in their tent by three strangers to whom they offered hospitality, only to discover they were God’s angels.
In what is generally known as the Christmas story, “wise men” from the East who looked to the stars for answers—outsiders coming to the race and religion of Israel—visited baby Jesus to confirm the identity of Jesus as Messiah. The history of people who follow God has been held together by the visits, wisdom and care of strangers, people who were not “us” but “them”— the other. But why the other? Why does God insist on speaking to his followers through strangers?
Because understanding our relationship and life with the Divine Other— the Holy One who will always confound us—is inextricably intertwined with our relationship and life with the human other—humanity that also confounds us. God comes in the form of a stranger and works through a stranger, because the otherness of a stranger is akin to the otherness of God. The human other is a trace of the Divine Other in whose image the stranger has been made. The challenge God poses to us is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image. The fewer strangers we know, the more truncated out vision of God will be.
The blessings and corrections of God come to us from outside the boundaries we have made for our groups, through those who can tell us the truths we cannot tell ourselves. If we could know these truths on our own, they would not be strangers. Strangers bring not only danger to us but also advice, solutions and beauty, opening for us new vistas into understanding humanity, the world and God. But the blessing of the stranger goes deeper.
When encountering another, we also encounter ourselves in a new way. Each encounter challenges our isolated and ingrown ideas, and helps us become our better selves. And this is where the grand invitation of God to humanity lies: without knowing and caring for the other, we cannot know either God or ourselves.
Religion has been one of the most potent identity-forming mechanisms.
It has bound people together in common purpose, joy and action, as well as contributed to prejudice, exclusion and violence toward the outsider. Now globalisation has turned our societies into societies of strangers, every religion has a chance to transcend its own limitations.
We live in a society where relativism— the claim that no differences really matter—is too weak to stop the aberrations of religious or anti-religious fervour. Mere tolerance of the other will not do. As Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of England, points out, “Only an equal and opposite fervour can do that.
Healing …must come, if anywhere, from the heart of the whirlwind itself.”
We are all part of a larger web of life in which “the other” is part of our own life. Those not in our image are, however, in the image of God. In the past, the whirlwind of religious passion came from our experiences of being visited, corrected and blessed by God. Today, God has not withdrawn Himself. He is calling us to a profound experience of meeting Him in a stranger. For those open to the strangers, the whirlwind never stops.