Today our nation seems plagued with xenophobia: fear of foreigners. Xenos is Greek for alien. Yet in ancient times, xenos was not a term of derision, but a sacred word. Indeed, the fundamental law binding civilization together was the law of hospitality, the welcoming of perfect strangers. “Do not oppress the alien, for you have the heart of a stranger, you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21)
In Leviticus 23, we hear this law of hospitality made tangible as food: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field. ... Leave some for the poor and for the alien residing among you.” Be a little sloppy in your harvest. Or be extravagant in paying taxes.
The Hebrew word for alien, “gur”, is central to Biblical community. In Jesus’ time too, refugees from surrounding nations wandered through Palestine, uprooted and literally “dirt poor.” They were called, Yom ha’Eretz, “People of the Land.” Jesus not only ministered to them, he identified with them. In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus tells his disciples, “Be a wanderer.” And he certainly was: “Foxes have dens, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)
In the Greek world, from the dawn of literature, we hear the same call to embrace the wandering alien. In Homer’s Odyssey (1:145), Telemachus welcomes a homeless beggar: “Greeting, stranger, here in our house find royal welcome. First eat and drink, then tell us your story.” Who is this stranger in disguise? Athena, goddess of civilization.
The Greeks remind us that God is “Zeus Xenios,” God of Strangers. Homer writes, “The God of Strangers guards all guests: for strangers are sacred.” Likewise, a Hindu proverb declares: “Athithi devo bhava,” the stranger is God. In Persian tradition, when a stranger knocks, one greets them with the words, “Mehman habibe khoda ast,” the guest is God’s friend.
Christian scripture advises us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.” (Hebrew 13:2) And Hebrews 11:13 declares, “We confess that we are strangers and pilgrims on the Earth.”
Confessing this, we embrace the immigrant as the image of our own liminality. The word liminal is from the Latin “lmen,” meaning threshold. It describes the disorientation we feel moving through a rite of passage, or crossing a border from one world to another. Descending from the Mount Sinai, Moses set up the tabernacle of God’s law in the Tent of Meeting. There the wandering tribe would gather for guidance. Wherever these nomads camped, they set up this tent containing the Arc, not at the center of their encampment, but at the edge, on the borderline of wilderness. Later, God called Jesus and the Prophets to that liminal borderland to hear “the voice crying in the wilderness.”
Tibetan Buddhism calls this borderland the “Bardo,” between death and rebirth. But the Bardo can be any transition to a new expanded life. We must all identify with the immigrant, for we all pass over borders, Bardos, to become fully human. As life-pilgrims we are vulnerable, yet vulnerability is our strength: the very glue that bonds us as a covenant community.
Most Americans come from immigrant stock. In the deeper sense, we’re all wayfaring strangers. Immigration reform begins with self-knowledge. Who is not a stranger in a strange land, looking for work? The true work is serving our fellow traveler, hand in hand, helping each other cross border after border, on our way to the boundless heart.
Xenophobia? Yes, some Americans fear the stranger. Because the homeless wanderer is the very image of our own pilgrim soul.Fred LaMotte is a Quaker, serving as Interfaith Chaplain of Common Bread at Evergreen. He works for Thurston Co. Ministries in Higher Education. He is also a teacher of world religions. Perspective is coordinated by Interfaith Works in cooperation with The Olympian. The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by Interfaith Works or The Olympian.