This week in the Australian parliament a newly minted senator called on the government to stop accepting any immigrants who do not reflect “the historic European Christian composition of Australian society and embrace our language, culture and values as a people.”
In particular, he wanted to ban all Muslims from entering the country, a return to what was termed the “White Australia Policy”, a discriminatory immigration policy dismantled way back in the 1960s.
Of course, this doesn’t sound too different to the stated desires of Mr Trump regarding US immigration policy, albeit a less sophisticated version (although when you think about it, being less sophisticated in policy to Donald Trump is quite an achievement).
Britain has its own versions in Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.
What might surprise some is that Fraser Anning, the Australian senator in question, and the US president, both claim to be committed conservative Christians. Indeed, in the case of the senator from Down Under, he wants a discriminatory immigration policy precisely because he is a Christian.
Farage, who has confessed to only praying “sometimes”, nonetheless wants the UK to stand up for Judeo-Christian culture and values.
So, is it appropriate for Christians in Western countries to call for the banning of Muslim immigration to their shores?
These attutides are usually characterized as xenophobia, a term that comes from the Ancient Greek words ξένος (xenos), meaning “strange”, “foreigner”, and φόβος (phobos), which means “fear”.
Fearing strangers, especially those of a different religious belief, is becoming more and more in vogue these days. So it begs the question, how xenophobic are Christians allowed to be?
Well, not at all! Both the Old and New Testaments insist on the love of the stranger.
Exodus 22:21 says, “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” And two verses later, God says ominously, “If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry” (v23).
And Jesus’ teaching, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” (Mt 22:39) seems clear enough. Indeed, Jesus says you can summarize Old Testament teaching this way: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Mt 7:12)
So if the Bible is pretty clear on this point, why are some Christians xenophobic, and proudly so?
Reflecting on the psychology of xenophobia in her book, Strangers to Ourselves, French-Bulgarian philosopher, Julia Kristeva writes this,
“Strangely, the foreigner lives within us, he is the hidden face of our identity, the space that wrecks our abode, the time in which our understanding and affinity founder. By recognizing him within ourselves, we are spared detesting him in himself. The foreigner comes in when the consciousness of my difference arises, and he disappears when we acknowledge ourselves as foreigners, unamenable to bonds and communities.”
Did you get that?
We fear foreigners or strangers because they represent something within ourselves we’re too frightened to acknowledge or confront. When we recognize what the stranger represents within ourselves, and come to terms with it, then we can dispense with our fear and loathing.
When politicians try to stir up such fear they are unwittingly reacting to the darkest shadows in their own psyches. And when religious politicians, like the Australian senator, demonize Muslim immigrants especially, I suspect they are as much repulsed by their own capacity for fundamentalism (albeit unconsciously) as they are afraid of Islamic versions of it.
As Kristeva reminds us, recognizing the stranger within ourselves is a way to gain a better understanding of ourselves as strangers as well.
Or as Jesus said, loving your neighbour is directly equated with self-love.
But there are further dimensions to the Christian view of the stranger. Not only is the stranger within. And not only is the stranger by definition every other human being. But the stranger must also be God himself.
British scholar Krish Kandiah picks up on this extraordinary implication in his book, God is Stranger. He’s not saying we can’t know God, but that God is other, a foreigner, unrecognized and often scorned. Practising hospitality to God – making room for him in our lives – can be measured to some meaningful degree by our willingness to make room for the foreigner, the outsider.
Picking up on Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan, Kandiah draws out three important implications: when it comes to the practice of Christian hospitality there can be no limit to our responsibility, respect, or response.
He says the parable teaches there is no limit to our responsibility because our neighbor is each and every stranger, wherever they are from.
By making the hero of his story a despised Samaritan, Jesus is suggesting there should be no limit to our respect for others.
And furthermore, the costly nature of the Samaritan’s generosity to the assaulted Jew implies there should be no limit to our level of response when it comes to hospitality.
Krish Kandiah says,
“There is no amount of religious knowledge sufficient to replace hospitality. Our knowledge of the Bible, our church attendance, our standing within the christian community are no measure of spirituality, no evidence of relationship with God, and no guarantee of eternal life. Jesus consistently warns us and encourages us: mercy is what is required. Our natural prejudices and inbuilt xenophobia manufacture excuses for us, they procrastinate or seek to limit our duty of care, but Jesus insists on tearing down all boundaries. ‘Do this and you will live,’ as he says in Luke 10:28.”
So the question isn’t so much whether Christianity is xenophobic, but why do churchgoers keep giving in to xenophobic impulses? Why are they so fearful? Why aren’t they learning the way of Jesus, the way of hospitality and generosity?
Until churches embrace a form of discipleship that encourages Christians to confess the darkness within, and to embrace the love of God and the corresponding love of self, we will keep throwing up Christians like Senator Fraser Anning who fear the stranger and want to close our doors to everyone who is different.