Love the stranger as yourself

Love the stranger as yourself
by Safwat Marouk, PhD

Sara Wenger Shenk, AMBS president and host of the Practicing Reconciliation blog, is pleased to share this reflection from Safwat Marzouk, associate professor of Old Testament at AMBS. Safwat is on sabbatical this semester, focusing on reading the story of Joseph (Genesis 37–50) through the eyes of forced migrants.

You and I might be citizens or legal residents of the United States, but at some point in history we or our ancestors immigrated or were forced to migrate. The stranger is not out there, but is within us, close to us, a part of who we are and an aspect of our story.

When we lose this memory and cling to the fact that we are lawful citizens, we bury a part of our history — the stories of when our ancestors immigrated, were forced to migrate or invaded other people’s land. Burying these aspects of our story because they are painful or shameful — or dismissing them because they seem irrelevant since there is a new political system —does not represent the best of us as human beings, who are capable of being formed by these memories to do better.

Remembering our stories and the stories of our ancestors can spark compassion and empathy towards the migrant, the sojourner, the alien, the undocumented and the refugee. Thus the author in Leviticus 19:33-34 says, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

The divine command is grounded in the covenant between God and the people: “I am the Lord your God.” The commandments that precede “I am the Lord your God” are not a matter of preference or choice on the people’s part; the people are bound to these ethical standards as partners with God in the covenant. The text exhorts the people of Israel to deal justly with the alien who resides in their midst. Justice in these verses is expressed both negatively and positively. Not only must the Israelites not mistreat the alien, they must treat the alien as a citizen. Equality is granted to the alien. The law here is a law of love.

Justice and love are not opposed to one another. Love and justice coincide when people stop abusing their power and mistreating the alien and when they realize that it is God’s will for the alien to be treated as an equal citizen. We, the people, will be capable of loving the foreigner when we recognize the alien within ourselves. Love flows out from empathy, and empathy can be deepened by what we remember.

The work of justice for strangers and aliens cannot be done without loving them, and it is difficult to love them without remembering our own strangeness and alienation. I encourage us all to form circles of people and invite them to tell their stories: where we have come from and what we remember about our ancestors. It is time for each of us to learn our own and our neighbors’ stories of sojourn and migration, because we all have them — no matter from how many generations ago.