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Who Will Proclaim Hospitality to a Hostile World?

Editor’s note: Below is part two of a two-part column on immigration and theology. Read part one here.

Theology is by definition the result of an interaction between a faith experience and the intellectual and cultural setting in which it finds itself.

In Christian theology, time-honored foundational concepts have been forged in response to challenges faced by the Christian community as it has sought to live out and understand its faith.

For example, it was the controversial challenge of receiving Gentiles into the Christian family that was the context of Paul’s formulation of the concept of salvation by grace through faith and not by works.

“Works” for him meant the specific religious behaviors and beliefs prescribed by the Law, not humanitarian acts of compassion – “good deeds” – that were included in his concept of “faith” as a response of the whole person, not just one’s beliefs.

The Reformation’s emphasis on the authority of Scripture (sola scriptura) grew out of the challenge posed by authoritative church tradition in the 16th century.

The “social gospel” was a response in the late 19th century to the tendency to privatize faith and neglect its social implications in the industrializing world.

In more recent history, signature emphases for theology have emerged from cultural circumstances.

The secularization of the Western world in the mid-20th century gave rise to “secular theology,” and religious activism in response to various issues produced what came to be known as “political theology.”

Oppressive regimes and exploitation in Latin America gave us “liberation theology,” and the civil rights movement occasioned both “black theology” and the reconciliation theology of Martin Luther King Jr., which sought to liberate both oppressed and oppressor from the debilitating bondage of oppression.

In the same period, concerns for gender awareness in faith’s reflection generated feminist theology.

All of these theological emphases represent correctives to faith’s understanding when it is distorted, unbalanced or neglectful of significant dimensions of life.

In each case, there was a direct application of the gospel to the concrete circumstances of the time.

This has led me to wonder if our current challenge with the immigration issue and the extremely severe laws that are being passed so rapidly in response to it might lead to another “signature emphasis” for theological reflection among people of faith.

I’m not sure what we might call it, but perhaps a “theology of hospitality” would be a good framework for thinking about faith and its application to our present situation.

There is certainly ample biblical foundation for such thinking in both the Old Testament and the New.

And it could easily reach beyond the specific issue of immigration to affirm the inclusiveness of the gospel toward other parts of the human family that are marginalized by our baser qualities of fear, self-centeredness, greed and ignorance.

Time will tell whether communities of faith will embrace and proclaim a gospel of hospitality to what seems to be an increasingly inhospitable world.

It is a pleasant thought to hope that when the history of this period is written, it will be able to say that Christian theology embraced a vision and a focus that led to a more wholesome and just community among all of God’s people, even as liberation, reconciliation and feminist theologies have done in a previous generation.

The alternative, of course, is for the operative theology of our time to become the sanctioner of the structures, systems and policies that perpetuate the fragmentation of the human community; and there are many forces that pull it in that direction – security, protection of what is “ours,” fear of the change that new faces of community will bring.

Experience has taught us that it is a powerful alternative.

The theologian in each of us (and I believe there is one in each of us) has a choice: to think, speak and act in a way that affirms the gospel’s call to hospitality, or to think, speak and act in a way that builds and maintains barriers instead of bridges.

Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.

Visit GospelWithoutBorders.net for more information about EthicsDaily.com’s new documentary on faith and immigration.