Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, part 3

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The Test of the Church

This month Abingdon Press publishes my book, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love. It is my attempt to think through the sin of Xenophobia, fear of the other, in a Christian, biblical way. The book has discussion questions for individuals and groups after each chapter, so I hope it will be useful in churches for study and growth.

Receiving Others as We Have Been Received

Xenophobic, exclusionary fear of the Other is more than a matter of preference for people whom we enjoy hanging out with, or those with whom we feel most comfortable. In deep fear of the Other we separate ourselves from others in order to better oppress, exploit, expulse, confine, hurt, or deny justice and access to others whom we have judged to be so Other as to be beyond the bounds of having any bond between us or any claim upon us.

A subtext of recent debates over whether or not to admit Syrian refugees, has been, If we let them in, what’s the cost? Will our nation be less secure? Will property values in my neighborhood be diminished? Will these newcomers help or hinder the economy?

While these are not unreasonable questions, Christians ought to admit that in debates about others Christianity’s default position is hospitality, even as we received hospitality on the cross of Christ. Sure, we can argue about how we ought to be hospitable and what steps to take to integrate these newcomers and to enable them to thrive in North American cultures. We can be honest about the challenges involved in their coming to and being received as strangers in a strange land. However, as Christians we are “prejudiced” toward hospitality, particularly for those in need, because that’s the way God in Christ has treated us and commanded us to treat others.

Christians believe that the one, universal God is known in a particular way in the one who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly—Jesus Christ. God has refused to be obscure. In this one who was fully human like us, and fully God unlike us, we believe that we have seen as much of God as we ever hope to see in this world.

God’s move toward us enemies went against just about everything we thought we knew about God. It still does.

God? God is righteous, holy, high, and lifted up, glorious and good. We are not. God is up there; we are down here. Can’t say anything for sure about God because God is aloof, obscure, obtuse.

And then came Jesus, challenging and refuting by his words and his deeds just about everything we thought we knew for sure about God. He was Emmanuel, God With Us, but not the God we wanted to meet. Where we expected judgment and exclusion, he enacted mercy and embrace. Where we craved unconditional affirmation of our righteousness and insider status, he slammed us with judgment upon our presumption and a call to even higher righteousness. He practiced unconstrained hospitality, inviting to his table people whom nobody thought could be saved, people whom nobody wanted saved. Resisting the clutches of the powerful and the proud, he condescended, touching the untouchable and lifting up the lowly. In his suffering, loving outreach to us, in his truthful preaching, and in his resourceful, relentless drawing us unto himself, Jesus was other than the God we expected.

This is the Christological basis for Paul’s command to the church in Rome, “So welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you, for God’s glory” (Rom 15:7 CEB).

The cross of Christ mysteriously, wondrously unites Jews and Gentiles, without regard to ethnicity, gender, race, or class (1 Cor 12:13). God refused to stay singular, a monad. God is inherently self-giving, connective, and communicative. Not merely our otherness toward God but our downright enmity has been “put to death” and peace made “through the cross” (Eph 13:17 CEB). The power of the cross was so great over the imagination of Christians that Paul could say, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20 CEB).

We Wesleyans believe this is not some heroic stance reserved for a super saint like Paul; it is a presently available life based upon not only what Jesus did for us in the cross but also what Jesus daily does in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. God is not simply love but love in action, love making a way for us to overcome evil with good and to miraculously unite with others despite our various separations.

The great liberator, Frederick Douglas, made a speech in the tense days before the Civil War. The equally courageous Sojourner Truth was in the audience. Douglas spoke honestly and eloquently of the plight of African Americans in this country where they were held as slaves. Douglas thundered that there was no hope that white America would ever grant freedom. Whites only understood violence.

“Frederick,” Sojourner Truth called out, “is God dead?”

Will Willimon




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