The Story that Shapes Us

Rev. Dr. Rachel Coleman

Last week I was at an academic conference, an event filled with many delights—intellectually challenging dialogues, renewal of old friendships and the start of new ones, and display after display of books! (I only yielded a tiny bit to the book-buying temptation.) One brief conversation I had with a respondent to my presentation during the conference has been rolling around in the back of mind since then, so I decided to take it out and have a closer look at it today.

My paper was on the boundary-shattering hospitality of Jesus and the early church. The number one criticism that religious leaders leveled against Jesus was at the very point of his hospitality practices. His critics accused him of “eating with tax collectors and sinners” and they were offended that he didn’t maintain a proper degree of separation from “outsiders” (Luke 5:30; 7:34). “Hospitality” is literally “the love of the stranger” (philoxenia), which stands in stark contrast to the all-too-common “fear of the stranger” (xenophobia), this was a topic that led naturally into conversations about the reality that much of our public dialogue is being shaped by fear rather than love. And the question that has stayed with me is how people whose identity is first “Christian” and only secondarily “American” should be approaching the pressing hospitality issues of our day. This includes, of course, the immigration issue, but reaches beyond it to all contexts where “welcoming the stranger” is at stake.

What has really been weighing heavily upon me is not so much the WHAT of our responses to these issues, but HOW we arrive at those responses. It seems to me that there are two competing stories for those of us who enter these conversations as Christians. One is the great biblical narrative of the God who shatters every boundary imaginable in his passionate quest to restore humanity to a right relationship with himself and who calls the restored ones to live in a way that reflects his character and his radical hospitality. The other story is whatever version of the dominant rights-oriented and anxiety-driven cultural narrative happens to be the common currency of our particular social group. Those two narratives are mutually incompatible at many points, so how does their collision play out?

I fear that in far too many “Christian” conversations about “outsiders and strangers,” it is the dominant story that is allowed to shaped our convictions, attitudes, and actions, with bits and pieces of the biblical perspective shoved into the cracks, distorted to fit into whatever space is available. What if that were turned upside down? What if the radical hospitality of God were allowed to be the shaping story of our conversations about “the other”? What if a biblical perspective were allowed to have the formational power in our approach to “the stranger”? What if theology shaped our responses as citizens? What if we chose to lay aside the dominant narrative at those points where it clearly stands in opposition to the biblical story? How might our conversations be different? I’m guessing that we wouldn’t all come to the same conclusions in terms of civic response to the pressing issues of the day, but what if we shared a common starting point that was grounded in the character and faithful action of the God who shattered boundaries to come and rescue us? Prayerfully pondering the possibilities. . .

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