On Friday, Jan. 27, President Donald Trump
signed an executive order that placed a stay on refugees from seven Muslim
majority countries. Entrance of refugees from Syria, however, will be banned
for the next 120 days. Two days prior to that, he committed the United States to
building a wall on its border with Mexico. Soon after the order, Mexican
President Enrique Peña Nieto cancelled an upcoming trip to the United States.
President Trump has also proposed that
Mexican goods be taxed at the rate of 20 percent to provide funds for building
the wall. This would fulfil his campaign promise that Mexico would actually pay
for the wall’s construction, in spite of America’s southern neighbour’s
For Christians, the questions about
building the border wall or permitting immigrants and refugees into the United
States involve a host of associated considerations not just about the specifics
of immigration law, the economics of cheap labor coming across the border or
potential terrorist threats.
At issue are both broader and deeper
questions about what it means to welcome the stranger.
As a Roman Catholic scholar who lived in
South Asia for a total of four years, I know what it is like to be initially
considered a “stranger” but be quickly welcomed with open arms. And I, like all
Christians, look to the Bible for guidance when asking about how to best
welcome the stranger.
what does the Bible actually say?
will all be strangers, sometime
The Bible affirms—strongly and
unequivocally—the obligation to treat strangers with dignity and hospitality.
In “Love the Stranger,” an article written
for the annual meeting of the College Theological Society in 1991, biblical
scholar Alice Laffey stated that in the Hebrew Bible, the words “gûr” and “gēr”
are the ones most often glossed as referring to the “stranger,” though they are
also translated as “newcomer” and “alien” or “resident alien,” respectively.
In the Pentateuch, the first five books of
the Hebrew Bible, the word “gēr” appears almost 50 times, and the fifth book,
Deuteronomy, delineates a number of specific provisions for treating “the
stranger” not just with courtesy but also with active support and provision.
For example, the book of Deuteronomy sets
out the requirement that a portion of produce be set aside by farmers every third
year for strangers, widows and orphans. In the “temple sermon” attributed to
the prophet Jeremiah, the Jewish people are exhorted to “not oppress the
Within the Hebrew Bible the requirements of
hospitality are sometimes affirmed in very striking ways, as in the story from
the book of Judges in which a host offers his own daughter to ruffians in order
to safeguard his guest.
Of course, the Israelites themselves were
“strangers” during their enslavement in Egypt and captivity in Babylon. The Hebrew
Bible recognizes that every one of us can be a stranger and, for that very
reason, we need to overcome our fear of those who live among us whom we do not
Stranger Is Jesus in Disguise
Within the New Testament, which Christians
read in continuity with the Hebrew Bible or “The Old Testament,” the most often
cited passage dealing with welcoming the stranger is from Matthew 25: 31-40.
This section speaks of the Final Judgment,
when the righteous will be granted paradise and unrepentant sinners will be
consigned to eternal fire. Christ says to those at his right hand that they are
“blessed” because, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you
gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” The righteous then ask,
“When did we see you, a stranger, and welcome you?” Christ replies,” ‘Truly, I
say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it
As Matthew 25 makes clear, the Christians
should see everyone as “Christ” in the flesh. Indeed, scholars argue that in
the New Testament, “stranger” and “neighbour” are in fact synonymous. Thus the
Golden Rule, “love your neighbour as yourself,” refers not just to people whom
you know—your “neighbours” in a conventional sense—but also to people whom you do
Beyond this, in the letters written by Paul
of Tarsus (one of the most notable of early Christian missionaries), often
known as the Pauline “Epistles,” it is made clear that in Christ, “There is
neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave[g] nor free, there is no male and
From this perspective, being “one in
Christ” should be taken literally as acknowledging no fundamental differences
in kind among human beings.
Is Unambiguous In Its Message
Of course, in Christianity the strong admonitions
toward treating the stranger with dignity have coexisted with actions that
would seem to indicate an opposite attitude: pogroms against Jews, slavery,
imperialism and colonialism have been sanctioned by Christians who nonetheless
would have affirmed biblical principles regarding caring for those who seem
“other” or “alien.”
Indeed, when it comes to the specific
questions concerning building a wall on America’s border with Mexico or
welcoming immigrants and refugees, some Christians would argue that doing so
does not violate any biblical precepts concerning hospitality to the stranger,
since the issue is one of legality and, of course, a good number of Christians
did indeed support Donald Trump’s candidacy for the presidency.
Other Christians have taken a diametrically
different position, and have called for cities and educational institutions to
be set apart as “safe zones” for undocumented immigrants.
It is true that the application of biblical
principles to contemporary matters of policy is less than clear to the many
Christians who have taken opposing sides regarding how the United States should
deal with immigrants, undocumented workers and refugees.
However, in my reading of the Bible, the
principles regarding welcoming the stranger are broad-reaching and unambiguous.
Schmalz is Associate Professor of Religion, College of the Holy Cross