Xenos: Foreigners and Christian Faith

At times like these, I wonder if we've decided we'd rather not let the God of creation hold the earth in his hands. We'd prefer, I think, to hold onto it ourselves, regardless of God's intentions.
Over the past few weeks a discussion (it may be too generous to call it that) about immigration and foreigners has captured the nation’s attention. I know better than to expect a blog post to move the needle on such “conversations.” However, I do think moments like these are excellent times for us Christians to take a deep breath and investigate how our faith in Christ might shape our perspectives on difficult subjects. And so, I offer below a brief survey of Christianity and “foreigners:”[1]
The Early Church
The first interpreters of the New Testament, ancient Christians, viewed race and ethnicity quite differently than their secular neighbors. The Roman world thrived on ethnically divided ghettos. Metropolitan areas were divided into strictly enforced ethnic enclaves: Jews here, Greeks there. Romans thought this provided peace and stability in the empire. What it added in ethnic pacification, however, it surpassed in keeping particular ethnicities poor and excluded from economic gains. The earliest Christians subverted this system—deliberately growing racially mixed congregations. They built churches along the borders of these ghettos and met under the protection of darkness—so that inquiring parties could not take offense at the ethnically diverse gathering. 

These early Christians claimed that what Christ had done on the cross, in his resurrection, and in their lives had undone the boundaries of ethnicity. When brought before courts to be persecuted, Christians would face the question: what is your ethnicity? They would insist on a single answer: I am a Christian. They called this the “third race” teaching. The other two “races,” being Jews and Gentiles. They gathered this idea from their own understanding of Jesus and the New Testament.[2]

The Gospels
In the Gospel of Mark religiously pure people witness Jesus’ ministries and keep asking the question: who is this man?[3] In Mark’s telling, only two people in the whole book answer the question correctly.[4] First, Simon Peter, who immediately follows his confession by demanding that Jesus avoid his destiny. Jesus’ response is not subtle, “Get behind me Satan” (8:27-33)! So who else gets Jesus’ identity right? It comes just at the end of Mark’s account. The ground is shaking and the sky darkening, when a centurion, still stained with his victims’ blood, says, “truly this man was God’s Son” (15:39)! Mark’s saying, Gentiles can get it. They can inherit the Kingdom through Christ, even the worst of them!  And they’re getting it before all the devout religious leaders!
Take your deepest, darkest caricature of a foreigner and put them in the story of Jesus’ execution. Watch as the true identity of Christ rolls from their lips. Then imagine the Christian leader you respect most among the scoffing crowd, heaping derisive insults upon him.  Do that and you’ll get a bit of what Mark was going for. 

Matthew’s Gospel includes perhaps the most radical of Jesus’ teachings on foreigners:

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (25:35b, NRSV). 

That word, “stranger,” is a bit of a muddled translation. It is the Greek word, Xenos. The word does not mean a person who you do not know. It means a person from a foreign land. Translated literally it would say, “I was a foreigner and you took me in.”[5] How we treat foreigners is how we treat Jesus. The early Christians took this sentiment very seriously. In the fourth century it was common for Christians to establish homes for hospitality along all the major trade routes, providing fresh water, baths, medical care, and warm food for weary xenos.  

The book of Acts illustrates that this shift in perspective was not an easy one for even Jesus’ closest disciples. Peter has to be drawn into a divine trance and explicitly told by the voice of God that it is okay to minister to Gentiles.[6] Many biblical scholars find this to be a puzzling passage. If indeed Jesus said the things he is reported to have said about foreigners and unclean foods, then why would Peter have needed such a drastic lesson on the matter? Some of these scholars think that this means Jesus just didn’t say these things and the writers of the Gospels and Acts made a mistake. I think it’s a testament to how difficult it is to dislodge racial biases. Thankfully, Peter gets it and goes to a fateful meeting with the Gentile, Cornelius. 

In Romans, Paul goes to dramatic lengths to convince the Christians in Rome that faith in Christ is enough to hold together a divided group of Gentile and Jewish believers. Repeatedly his theme is that the Spirit, through the accomplishments of Christ, is bringing together all people who would believe. The kind of unity he calls for was radical in his day and remains so. The church in Rome flirted with disaster by holding onto old ethno-religious dividing lines. For Paul this was inconceivable:

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (15:5-6, NRSV).

The Gospel must produce harmony, even between the circumcised and uncircumcised. Races must and shall find unity in Christ Jesus. 

What’s more, Paul did not only think this peace-making went inward. He urged the Romans to understand that the reality of Christ’s peace among them must also burst forth to the world:

Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers [xenos]. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them (12:11-14, NRSV). 

The natural outflow of the Spirit’s church-building is that the people of God would extend hospitality to xenos and even to those who would treat them violently (i.e. persecutors). Paul could hardly have raised a higher bar for Christians and their attitudes on the racial divides in Rome. 

In Paul’s letter to the Colossians he makes another rather telling statement on Christianity and foreign peoples:

 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all (3:11, NRSV)!

Who were Scythians?[7] Nomads of the Iranian steppe, Scythians spent centuries herding horses and waging war across Asia. They were known for their savagery. It was reported that Scythians would drink the blood of their enemies. They were said to be constantly drunk on undiluted wine.[8] They scalped their enemies and used the dried skin as washcloths. There is some evidence that around the time of Paul’s letter a few of them had come as refugees to Colossae in search of water. They were likely not received well. The term Scythian, by that time, had become an empire-wide slur for the wildest of uncivilized people. The lowest of the xenos. 

Perhaps the Christians of Colossae were tempted to short-change the Gospel as it concerned the Scythians. Perhaps they came up with all manner of reasons that the Scythians did not deserve their hospitality, generosity, and fellowship. Perhaps they had excluded these lower classes from full membership in God’s work in Colossae. Perhaps they judged them unworthy because of their questionable origins. We don’t know. We do know that the Apostle felt it important to remind these Christ-followers of the expansiveness of Christ’s renewal. Christ holds out his hand in hospitality to the barbarians and Scythians, will you? 

Finally, the biblical narrative ends with a vision of worship in heaven. And every tongue and every tribe is represented, even the ones we and our ancestors might deem undeserving. And there does not appear to be any distinction between the xenos and “us.” All bow. All worship. All confess the worthiness of Christ. All lay aside the sorry divides of the Earth’s peoples—xenos no more.[9]

Where do we as Christians in North America go with this information? I am no policy or legal expert. I don’t know what the answer is to the global challenges we face. What I desire most is to lay my wishes at Jesus’ feet and allow him to lead me and us through these turbulent times. I know that he knows better than anyone how to care deeply for the hungry, hurting, thirsty, and scared xenos of the world. And, at least in part, I know he means to do so through us.[10]

*A Curious Exception*
Jesus did treat at least one foreigner with hair-raising rhetoric. A Syrophoenician (read: xenos) woman fell at Jesus’ feet, begging him to cure her daughter (Mt. 15:21-28; Mk. 7:24-30). At first Jesus says no, because he’s been sent to the Jews. This is truly curious, because he’s not been shy with any other non-Jew in the Gospels. He travels throughout the Decapolis, a non-Jewish territory on the Sea of Galilee, he praises the faith of a centurion, he’s not shy with Samaritans, and he tells the people of Nazareth that he, like Elijah before him, will carry the restoration of God beyond the borders of Israel (Lk. 4:23-28). So why be so hard on this poor woman from Syrophoenicia? It’s my own opinion that Jesus is using this as a teaching moment for the disciples. Jesus seems to have been fond of using human interaction to prove a point. 

In Mark’s Gospel the story comes immediately after Jesus declares all food clean. Perhaps the disciples were having a hard time getting the message. Maybe they thought this desperate mother was disqualified, but Jesus gives her a chance to show just how deep her faith goes. Her Syrophoenician heritage in no way inhibits her ability to cling to Jesus. She too is “clean.” Or as Jesus puts it, “Woman, great is your faith!”

[1] I’m going to focus only on early Christian history and a few big points from the New Testament, but these themes run straight through scripture. I’d encourage reading some of these OT passages on the subject:
[2] For an excellent read on the subject pick up Gerald Sittser’s Water from a Deep Well, pp. 50-72.
[3] See 1:27, 4:41, 6:2, 6:14 (where the question is implied), 8:27, 11:27-28, 14:61, and 15:26-32 (where it is also implied). His identity is at play in several other key passages, such as before Pilate and the debate over Beelzebul (15:1-5 and 3:20-27).  
[4] Of course, some demons get it right too (see 1:24, 5:6-7). And God answers it as well, but I’m only going to deal with human characters (1:11, 9:7).
[5] From xenos we derive the term xenophobia—a fear of foreigners.
[6] See the entire tenth chapter.
[7] “Barbarian,” was a term used to describe a foreigner who could not speak Greek well.
[8] Apparently the Greek-speaking world thought this to be uncouth, because they preferred their wine diluted.
[9] See especially these verses and the context that surrounds them: 5:9, 7:9, 21:3-5, 21::24-26.
[10] There is a deep irony in the way I’ve described this. I’ve written as if I’m not a xenos. I’ve done it unintentionally; probably because it is so much easier to write that way. The reality is, however, that I am a xenos to Christ. I have been invited in to his presence and care by grace; not because I belong there or deserve the hospitality he offers me.


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