Fear (and Love) of Foreigners and Strangers

Leviticus 19:33-34 / Deuteronomy 10:17-19

Fear (and Love) of Strangers and Foreigners

March 12, 2017


          Fred Craddock told this story: He stopped off at the Winn Dixie to get some peanut butter.  He was in a hurry, and those stores are so huge.  So he saw a woman pushing a cart, and he thought, She’s comfortable here. I’ll ask her.  He said, “Um, lady, could you direct me to the peanut butter?”

          She jerked around, stared at him, and said, “Are you trying to hit on me?”

          He said, “No, ma’am. I’m looking for the peanut butter.”  As he backed away from there, he saw a store employee, so he said, “Where’s the peanut butter?”

          “Aisle five, I think, way down on the left.”

          He went there, and sure enough—big jars of peanut butter.  As he turned to leave, that woman was there and she said, “You were looking for the peanut butter!”

          He said, “I told you I was looking for the peanut butter.”

          She said, “Well, nowadays you can’t be too careful.”

          And Craddock said, “Lady, yes you can. Yes you can.”1


Hold that story in the back of your mind as I think with you, in a biblical and moral context, about fear (and love) of foreigners and strangers. I want to start with an idiosyncratic list of scriptures relating to foreigners.  It's not a scientific selection—just whatever occurred to me in a couple of hours with a Bible in one hand and a notebook in the other. 

  • At the very beginning, Adam and Eve become foreigners, having to leave their original homeland, to which none of us has ever returned.

  • At God’s command, Sarah and Abraham left Ur of Chaldees to sojourn in a land God would show them, only to have to leave that land for a time due to famine.

  • The city of Sodom was destroyed, not because of sexual orientation, but because of its violent refusal of hospitality to strangers.

  • The people of Israel spent years as honored guests, and then as slaves in Egypt, and centuries later were exiles in Babylon.

  • Ruth and Naomi both spent time is immigrants—Ruth as a Moabite in Israel and Naomi an Israelite in Moab.

  • Esther was part of the persecuted Jewish minority in Persia.

  • In the New Testament, Jesus and his parents were refugees in Egypt, fleeing King Herod, who was killing babies in Bethlehem.

  • In Matthew 8 Jesus praises the faith of a Roman soldier—not only a foreigner, but a despised foreigner—and heals his servant.

  • Jesus makes frequent favorable mention of Samaritans, an ethnic group his people hated with a passion

  • Jesus separates the sheep from the goats based in part upon whether or not they welcomed strangers.

  • And when Revelation 7 paints a picture of heaven, there is a multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing together before the throne of God.


The Bible is a big book; there’s other stuff in it too. I know that. When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they took it as their divine mission to destroy everyone else living there.  Gentiles weren’t allowed to enter the holiest parts of the temple.  After the exile, Ezra expelled all foreign wives.  And even Jesus once refused healing to someone because she wasn't an Israelite (though he later changed his mind). 


What does the Bible say about how to regard foreigners? We begin at the beginning of the Bible.  Every human being--citizens and foreigners, friends and strangers--every human being is created in the image of God.  In his book Christians at the Border, Daniel Carroll points out that this does not mean there should be no border control or that no one should ever be deported.  But it should inform the tone of Christian talk about immigration.  Decisions about how to treat foreigners may get to legal status and documentation, but it begins with the recognition that all immigrants are people, created in God's image.2 That fact doesn't end the complicated moral and political discussion; but it is the Bible's place to begin the discussion.


What does the Old Testament law say about how to treat foreigners and strangers? We just read a couple of relevant passages, and I'll summarize some others.  If you want to read them for yourself, just Google "Bible and immigrants" or "Bible and foreigners" and you'll find enough scriptures to keep you busy for a while.

  • For example, the Old Testament says that the same laws have to apply to Israelites and aliens alike. You can't have one set of laws for citizens and another set for everyone else.

  • Israelites were prohibited from exploiting aliens. Foreign residents deserved their wages and had to be allowed to rest on the Sabbath like everyone else.

  • Like other vulnerable people, such as widows and orphans, Israelites were required to provide for aliens among them—food and clothing is mentioned in Deuteronomy.

  • Leviticus goes so far as to say, "You shall love the alien as yourself."

All of this shows that Old Testament law has a strong bias in favor of aliens and their rights. However, this doesn't mean that anything goes. 

  • The Hebrew word used in these laws—ger—seems to refer to foreigners with some kind of recognized, long-term standing in the community. A different Hebrew word referred to short-term visitors, who had fewer rights. And still another word could have quite negative connotations about foreigners. And foreigners from different places could be treated differently in Israel—those from friendly countries could become what we might call citizens in three generations, while those from hostile countries required ten generations. (Deut. 23:3-13)

  • And Daniel Carroll points out that foreigners were expected to learn and respect Israel's language and culture.3 If you’re going to live here, learn what it means to live here.

Again, Old Testament law requires fair, generous and loving treatment of aliens. But this is balanced with requirements of practicality and safety.  Okay?

Ultimately there are two main reasons why the people of Israel were commanded to respect and love foreigners:

  1. The first is their own history: The Israelites themselves had been oppressed in Egypt. They were not to do to others what had been done to them.

  2. And second, Israelites were to treat foreigners well because there's a special place in God's heart for the weak and vulnerable. Daniel Carroll says, "Israel is to love sojourners. because God does."4


Why does fear of foreigners and strangers matter so much? Scott Bader-Saye says, "Fear is a moral issue insofar as it shapes the kind of people we become."5 As we're learning, fear causes our muscles to tense up, our breathing to grow rapid, our hearts to race, hormones to pump, and our brains to revert to fight-or flight thinking. We don't make our most rational, let alone our most loving, decisions out of a condition of fear.

Some foreigners, of course, should be feared.  Most, however, should not.  And even when some foreigners are worthy of being feared, they’re still not usually our greatest fear.  Courage, Bader-Saye insists, depends on learning "what to fear and how much to fear it."6 So, for example:

  • Throughout the 1990s US crime rates were declining, yet two-thirds of Americans thought they were rising.7 This doesn't mean we shouldn't have been concerned with the crime that was happening. But for a decade most Americans felt an unnecessary level of fear about crime and our criminal justice policies got shaped by unrealistic fears.

  • Now a great fear of Muslim terrorism has gripped our country. Again, we need to be vigilant about real dangers. I personally know people affected by the event at OSU back in November. Yet the Dispatch reported last month that your likelihood of being killed in the US by a radical Islamic terrorist is less than being killed by lightning. And since 9/11 nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists and other non-Muslim extremists than by Muslims.8 Are we fearing the right things?

  • And in our Lenten study book, Rabbi Kushner tells about a study finding that people who were acutely stressed after the 9/11 attacks and continued to worry about terrorism—about 6% of the population—were at least three times more likely to develop heart problems. If even a tiny fraction of those people suffered a fatal heart attack due to that stress, it would mean more people will have died of fear than died on 9/11.9 Fear is literally killing us.


    Here’s the thing: If we allow our fear of terrorism and foreigners to fundamentally change who we are and how we live, then terrorism has won. Terrorists aren’t trying to kill all of us; they don’t need to. They’re trying to make all of us live in fear. If our fear causes us to overreact with suspicion of all Muslims or by torturing terror suspects, all we do is perpetuate the cycle of terror.

    I was in Britain in the 1980s when the IRA regularly bombed English businesses. Now, of course the police tried to bring bombers to justice and the military tried to prevent attacks—all of that is needed. But after every bombing, that business would reopen the very next day, even if all they could do was set a card table out front with a few doodads to sell, and the sign would always say, “B.A.U.” Business As Usual. Necessary caution? Yes, please. Firm responses to dangerous actions? Absolutely. But fear should not change who we are and how we live. In the face of terrorism, we need some Business As Usual.


    In response to recent rhetoric about foreigners in Alabama, Bishop Will Willimon wrote a little book called Fear of the Other. He says, “Courage is not the absence of fear but rather having a reason for doing the right thing in spite of our fear.” And where does that courage come from? From revering, honoring and devoting ourselves to something greater than our own safety--to God, our Rock and Redeemer, the Creator of every human being. And think of church, Willimon says, “as schooling in how to manage our fears, how to fear our fears getting the best of us, fearing the right things in the right way.” 10

    So much of our fear—okay, I’ll own this: so much of my fear—has to do with the safety of my children. Hurt me if you need to, but don’t mess with my kids! And welcoming strangers and loving foreigners may in fact put our kids at some risk. But not welcoming strangers and not loving foreigners also puts our kids at risk—at risk of having cold hearts and of not following Jesus. Do you remember that story about the peanut butter, how the lady said, “Well, nowadays you can’t be too careful.” Yes you can; yes you can.


    My 21 year-old daughter, Emily, spent a semester last year studying in Senegal, a predominantly Muslim country in West Africa. She spent the end of that time in a city called Kaolack, where she was one of two white people and possibly the only Christian among 175,000 people. If anyone has ever been, she was a stranger, a foreigner. Every day as Emily walked to work, she saw the same old woman sitting on a stool. After a few days, the old lady motioned her over. And even though Emily had grown used to Senegalese hospitality by that time, she felt some trepidation. Is this old woman going to try to get money from me? More likely, is she going to try to marry me to one of her grandsons? Is someone else waiting around the corner to get me? But Emily went over. The old lady took Emily’s hands in hers, pointed up to God, and began to pray. The woman knew no English or French; Emily knew very little Wolof. But from then on, every morning this old lady prayed for my daughter, saying whatever black Senegalese Muslim old women say to their God for white American Christian college students far from home. I will never meet her. I don’t know her name.  But I am eternally grateful to this woman for her gracious, prayerful welcome of a stranger.


         So here’s your assignment. Some time in the next week or two, spend an hour with someone you might feel some fear of. You don’t need to tell them that’s what you’re doing! Maybe worship in a church made up of immigrants or go to a mosque. Visit someone in prison. Volunteer at the Free Store or New Life Church. Visit the Somali Community Association near Northern Lights or the Bhutanese Community Center on Tamarack. Your assignment is to spend one hour with someone, facing your fear.

    It’s natural to fear strangers and foreigners. The point is to learn to do the right thing anyway.



1 Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, ed. Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 45-46.

2 M. Daniel Carroll R., Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, & the Bible, second ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press,2014), 45-51.

3 See Carroll R., 99-100.

4 Carroll R., 91.

5 Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 26.

6, Bader-Saye, 25.

7 Bader-Saye, 15.

8 Alan B. Miller, "The Inside Story," The Columbus Dispatch, February 12, 2017, G1.

9 Harold S. Kushner, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World (New York: Anchor Books, 2009), 8.

10William H. Willimon, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 35-36.


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