The Alphabet of Grace: X is for Xenophilia

“Love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” Leviticus 19:34

We’re used to hearing people being referred to as xenophobic. Whether it’s attached to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France, or Nigel Farage’s British UKIP party, or Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party in Australia, it refers to those who stir up anxieties about foreigners and their perceived negative contribution to society. They usually want to limit immigration from certain countries and cut the refugee intake.

No one appears to have been more shamelessly xenophobic than former President Donald Trump, whose ‘Muslim travel ban’ and his unsavory remarks about Mexican immigrants are now infamous.  

And, of course, we know the opposite of xenophobia is xenophilia – the love of foreigners.

While xenophilia is a Greek term, not a Hebrew one, it refers to the very thing the Book of Leviticus commends Israel to do – to welcome the foreigner. Broadly speaking, xenophilia describes an openness to the human diversity of the world. The levitical injunction to Israel to love the foreigner is based on Israel’s own experience as aliens in a foreign land. They should know what it’s like to live as vulnerable strangers and should therefore practice hospitality to the stranger in their own land.

But the French Medieval monk, Hugh of St Victor commended xenophilia for an even loftier reason. Writing about the difference between xenophobia and xenophilia (without actually using those terms), he referred to the xenophobe as being like a child, while the xenophile was a “strong man.” In other words, a broader perspective comes to the more mature among us. Please forgive the gender-exclusive language here, but this is how he explains it:  

“The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.”

Like an immature child, the xenophobe fixes their love on one place – one nation, one province, one culture. But grown-up people see every culture as a place in which they can be at home. To love all places – and the people who live there – is the posture of the xenophile.

But Hugh of St Victor also refers to the “perfect man,” the one who sees every nation as a foreign land. This one has extinguished his love for all places. The 12th-century monk was referring to the ultimate xenophilia: the boundlessness of divine love.

God, who has no nationality and is free from parochial interests, and isn’t bound by any culture, belongs to none of us and loves all of us. In other words, the more like God you become, the more you will love foreigners and their culture.

This idea is presented in St Augustine’s famous maxim, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.”

The more cultures you engage, the more of a God’s-eye perspective you get. While we never achieve the completely objective stance of God, we get closer to it.

But more recently the French anthropologist, Dionigi Albera, in his paper Beyond Xenophilia, has questioned whether the classic dichotomy between xenophobia and xenophilia is a helpful construct. And he does so on the basis of two concerns.

Firstly, the “xeno” in xenophobia/xenophilia usually refers to a whole culture or a large people group. Donald Trump was charged with xenophobia for his collective statements about all Mexicans. Nigel Farage’s comments about all Eastern Europeans were labeled xenophobic. Even in Hugh of St Victor’s definition, the xenophile is one who loves “all places.” Albera fears this way of talking only leads us into a posture toward foreigners based on fixed identities and categories.

As an Australian, I’ve heard American tourists tell me how much they love my culture and how we’re all so friendly, relaxed and easy-going. And even though it’s intended as a compliment, it feels like a form of cultural reductionism. It’s like saying you love Bali because the Balinese are all so hospitable. There’s more to us than the stereotypes.

Secondly, Albera says the antinomy of the terms xenophilia and xenophobia leaves us with only two choices — “a demand for love or an expectation of loathing.” They are all-or-nothing terms. But if I truly encounter a foreigner, won’t there be things I do love about them as well as things I find objectionable? Doesn’t true love demand I show hospitality to even those I don’t particularly like?

Albera’s suggestion is to replace xenophilia with another Greek term, philoxenia, “friend to the stranger.” He argues that philoxenia understands the xenos to be a quite specific individual, not a whole people group. To be a friend to a stranger, to practice hospitality, to honour the other – this is philoxenia.

In this way of thinking, we aren’t simply called to love all refugees as a category, caricaturing them as the salt of earth, as if they are all as pure as the driven snow. Rather, we are to love each refugee, showing grace and kindness whether they are particularly nice people are not.

In that example, xenophilia might be expressed through lobbying governments to have more generous immigration policies toward refugees, but philoxenia would be taking a refugee family into your home.

In Genesis 18, we find one of the most celebrated instances of philoxenia where the patriarch Abraham hosts the Lord at his tent under the oaks of Mamre, depicted in this beautiful icon.

Seeing three men approach, Abraham rushed toward them, bowing down to the ground as an expression of honor and welcome. Because of his general posture of submission and hospitality, Abraham was deemed worthy to welcome the Lord of all to his table, where Abraham and Sarah would wait upon them.

No doubt reflecting on this story, Paul wrote, “Do not forget to show hospitality (philoxenia) to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Heb 13:2) In this same vein, Christ himself said, “And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matt 18:5, see also 25:40, 45)

Philoxenia doesn’t disregard the visitor on the basis of what you can see, but considers that in welcoming the stranger you are in fact welcoming your Lord. In a world of suspicion and fear, racism and high anxiety, where everyone is building walls and repelling the stranger, we need philoxenia more than ever.

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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2 thoughts on “The Alphabet of Grace: X is for Xenophilia

  1. Great post Mike. This has been such a great series. I love the concept of philoxenia. On my 59th birthday, I got the greek letters for philoxenia tattooed on my arm. It is not only a good reminder for me personally but it has been a great conversation starter.

  2. A deep & thought-provoking post! There is indeed a difference between xenophilia & philoxenia.
    On a basic structure, as you said, the 1st means “strangers are friends” but the other means I am a friend to strangers.
    If we were all friends of strangers, the world would be better, wouldn’t it?

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