The news of the British referendum shook the world this week, sending financial markets into turmoil, prompting rage from British Millennials, and inspiring no small amount of fear in an American public. Few waited very long to draw comparisons between Donald Trump’s politics in the U.S. and the forces advocating for the Brexit. There is plenty of room for nuance in these comparisons, and many have rightly pointed out how the situations are far from exactly the same. Nevertheless, there is a similar force animating both movements, something we might call a fear of the Stranger.
The astonishing (if not truly surprising) rise of Trump and the staggering blow to European unity are both rooted in fear and antipathy toward the Stranger. Donald Trump began his campaign with the now infamous diatribe against Mexico and this sort of racialized fear-mongering has continued to be a hallmark of his campaign. Likewise, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and its leader, Nigel Farage, have capitalized on the fear of refugees fleeing war in the Middle East and anger toward Eastern European migrants seeking work in the UK. The Stranger, their story goes, is a harbinger of evil. The Stranger, at best, takes our jobs. The Stranger, at worst, is here to kill us in acts of terrorism. In either case, the Stranger is here to take our lives.
While it is disturbing enough that large swaths of both nations have bought into this story, it is incredibly disconcerting that those who claim to be Christians have often embraced it. A story that sees the Stranger as our enemy, as unworthy of hospitality, or fundamentally and intrinsically in league with the forces of evil — this story is not the Christian story.
The Christian story is fundamentally rooted in the kindness of a Stranger. I am reminded of the parable of the Good Samaritan. We often see the story as a call for us to be kind to the Stranger we may despise; however, the parable is also about the Stranger who is kind to us. After all, is it not we who are in the ditch and Jesus who came to our aid? Consider the parable of the Final Judgment where the judge is a Stranger to not just the goats who refuse him aid but also to the sheep who help him. And, lest we forget, were we not Gentiles to whom the God of Israel, incarnate in Jesus Christ, was a Stranger to us? When preaching to the Gentiles in Athens, Paul pointed to an altar dedicated “to an unknown god,” the Stranger. Good news came to our Gentile forebears in the person of a Stranger to us, a God we did not know. This Stranger extended grace to us, yet many of us continue to endorse and embrace a story that demonizes the Stranger and therefore rejects any accompanying grace.
As people of a Christian faith, we need to loudly reject the story of the Stranger that so many are trying to sell to us. We must unmask it for the lie that it is, in our pulpits, in our Sunday schools, in our Bible studies, even around our dinner tables. Our faith begins in an invitation to a Stranger’s table, where we break bread and share drinks, tearing down the walls between us. When we take the Lord’s Supper together, we must remember that we are strangers welcomed by a Stranger until we are no longer strangers to each other. Paul put it well when writing to the churches in Ephesus:
Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us (Ephesians 2:12-14, NRSV).
This is our story, yet as long as we embrace the narratives offered by those like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, we reject the grace extended to us.
As long as we use constructs like race and gender to demonize each other and denigrate the God-given worth and value of one another, we reject God’s grace. As long as we use someone’s sexuality as a way to make them Strangers to us, we reject God’s grace. As long as we despise the immigrant and refuse to welcome them, we reject God’s grace. As long as we continue to endorse policies, politics and people that would have us hate the Stranger, we continue to reject the grace of God.
Opposing these forces in our country and around the world is not about putting politics in the pulpit, it’s about protecting the heart of our gospel.