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A Nuanced Response to Loving Your Neighbor

How Christians have responded to the issue of immigration is often shared in articles and videos.

However, the prior question of why they should is not necessarily as easy as we might think.

And while there are people in our churches who would throw open the borders tomorrow, there are also those who – for equally well-considered reasons – would take a more cautious approach to our sense of national responsibility and local engagement.

Nailing my colors to the mast: I lean toward the first category. But I cannot deny that the issue is knotty and ambiguous. Here are a few thoughts on the complexities of loving my neighbor.

I begin here: The assumption that Old Testament laws of hospitality provide a paradigm for Christian behavior should not be accepted unthinkingly. After all, these same Old Testament texts also prescribe the annihilation of foreigners.

In the Old Testament, a surprising amount of hospitality is commanded toward the “alien” living in the land.

They were under the protection of the law (see Numbers 35:15); they were to benefit from Sabbath regulations (see Exodus 20:10); and the way was open for them to become part of the covenant community (see Numbers 15:15-16).

The roots of this ethic of hospitality lie in three things: the people’s memory of their own time as aliens, their recollection of the prior hospitality of God toward them, and their self-identity as his people, called to be like him.

This rudimentary virtue ethic (an ethic derived from one’s historical narrative, one’s virtuous goal and one’s self-identity) is reflected in places within the Pauline corpus, where the imperative of how to live emerges from the indicative of what God has done for us (see Colossians 3:12).

As those who have received much, we should mirror our heavenly Father’s generosity to those around us. However, hospitality cannot be unconditional.

In the Old Testament, it is also seen as a threat to holiness because of the risk that the pagan peoples around might lead God’s people astray (see Deuteronomy 7:1-6). So, the ethic of hospitality is held in tension with the need for ethical purity.

In the New Testament, this tension is partially resolved by the example of Jesus, who shows that hospitality is not a danger to holiness, but a means of it (see Matthew 25:37-40).

Nonetheless, the threat that a guest might represent remains clear (compare 3 John 5-8 with 2 John 9-11). Hospitality always has limits.

Further, modern theorists of hospitality point out that the very offer of welcome simultaneously asserts one’s ownership of what is being shared. Surely, only divine hospitality can be entirely unconditional.

The other striking tension in the Old Testament is the ambiguity between the role of guest and host.

Consider Abraham’s reception of the three men under the tree at Mamre (Genesis 18).

Initially the host, he soon finds himself the recipient of the hospitality of the Lord. The writer to Hebrews picks up on this (see Hebrews 13:2), and the life of Jesus is characterized by encounters where he inverts the guest-host relationship.

Welcome is never a one-way phenomenon: Hospitality enriches the host as well as the guest. But even this is problematic, for there is a danger that we pursue hospitality for our own benefit.

Multiculturalism enriches us, but we must take care not to cheapen our guests’ cultures to a theme park for our amusement.

Finally, who is my neighbor? In the global village in which we live, it is hard to determine our prime areas of responsibility.

Here the words of Augustine might help us. “Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you.”

This would include those on our streets and living in camps on our borders, perhaps. May we learn to navigate our way through the paradoxes of hospitality, and the tensions in our churches and our society.

Helen Paynter is a Baptist minister and lectures at a number of theological colleges and universities, based at Bristol Baptist College. She is the author of “Immigration and the Church: Reflecting Faithfully in Our Generation” (Grove). A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2018 edition of Baptists Together magazine – a publication of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It is used with permission. Paynter explores these themes in greater depth in her article, “Make Yourself at Home: Tensions and Paradoxes of Hospitality in Dialogue with the Bible,” which will appear in the forthcoming April/May issue of “The Bible and Critical Theory” journal.