Caring for the stranger

By Alan Bean

Deuteronomy 10: 12-19

“So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.  Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the LORD your God, the earth with all that is in it, yet the LORD set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today.

Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Why must we love strangers?  Because we are all strange in one way or another.  With the exception of Native Americans, there are no homegrown Americans; we all came here from somewhere else.

Alexis de Tocqueville

“American exceptionalism” was once an expression reserved for  historians and sociologists, but it has become the catch phrase du jour.  America is an exceptional nation, as every careful observer since Alexis de Tocqueville, has noted.  “I know of no country,” de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, “in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.” 

Or consider this: “The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other; and with them this conviction does not spring from that barren traditionary faith which seems to vegetate in the soul rather than to live.”

In other words, we are exceptional for better and for worse.

 In current usage, “American exceptionalism” means that America is, in some special way, chosen of God.  When people speak this way, the “Americans” they have in mind are almost always of Anglo Saxon ancestry.  White folks with foreign-sounding names are considered American, but are always slightly suspect.  Asians may be admired, but they are not true Americans unless they abandon their ancient customs, languages and accents.  Latinos, even if legal citizens, can never be “exceptional” in that distinctly American way, and African-Americans stir up far too much guilt and confusion in the exceptional American mind to equalify for true citizenship. 

The Book of Deuteronomy was addressed to a group of wandering ex-slaves who, though less than nothing in the eyes of the world, were God’s chosen people.  This didn’t mean they were better than other nations, more intelligent, even more religious: God had simply decided, for reasons only God comprehended, to work through this nation of slaves and outcasts.  And it was precisely because God had placed a special claim upon the sons and daughters of Abraham that they were repeatedly exhorted to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger. 

God is the help of the helpless, and any people chosen by God must follow suit.  In fact, whenever this nation of ex-slaves forgot their obligation to the stranger, they were in danger of losing their status as an exceptional people.

If America is a chosen people in the sense that the descendents of Abraham and Sarah are a chosen people, the blessed obligation to love the stranger falls to us as well.  Why then, do those who talk the most about American exceptionalism have such an unbecoming passion for exclusion. 

America is a nation of immigrants, a nation of strangers–this, and this alone, is what makes us exceptional.  There is nothing exceptional about stopping your ears to the cries of the poor and the stranger–that’s default human nature. 

But there is always hope.  Because Americans have a deep respect for the Bible, there is always a chance that some of us might read it and rediscover therein the staggeringly high cost of being exceptional.

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