Friday, March 23, 2007

Xenophilia: Central to the Church’s Mission

I just got the Easter newsletter from Saint Peter’s Church (ELCA), where I am a member. As always, the Senior Pastor, Amandus J. Derr (Mandy to one and all) has written something thought-provoking.
In his letter to the congregation on page 2, he discusses the idea of xenophilia, which, of course, is the opposite of xenophobia. He urges us to be xenophilic with those who share the liturgy with us. Particularly, to greet and be pleasant to those in our midst we don’t recognize as regulars in attendance at worship. Mandy encourages us to bring xenophilia to life: to love the stranger, i.e., making an effort to treat the outsider as if she or he was one of our own.
This is a tall order indeed, and harder than we might imagine. If the primatologist, Frans de Waal is correct, human mortality may be severely limited by having evolved as a way of banding together against adversaries with moral restraints being observed only toward the in group, not toward outsiders. “The profound irony is that our noblest achievement – morality – has evolutionary ties to our basest behavior – warfare,” he writes in the “New York Times” of March 20th. So, genetically, we may be programmed to be xenophobic, not xenophilic, even in church – or maybe particularly.
That said, biology is not destiny, and, if we make an effort to be conscious of our emotions, we may overcome our desire to slay the intruder. In our efforts, we certainly have the Bible on our side, which calls on us, as Mandy reminds us, to recognize and care for “the widow, the orphan and the stranger.” Moreover, it may help us to recognize that we too are strangers, to others and to ourselves, and we yearn to be welcomed into the fold. All of us know the feeling, if not being attacked, at least of being unrecognized, ignored, or passed by. To most, we remain strangers, but even to ourselves, we often don’t recognize our feelings and thoughts as our own, as in, “I never could have felt that, said that, and done that” and yet we did.
So how can we be conscious in church? The Lord’s Prayer has come into my mind in this connection, namely “Thy will be done on earth, as in heaven.” We know where earth is, but where is heaven? Answers include, “up there,” and “after life,” but another answer is “in the liturgy now.” In the liturgy, we create the world we want, and one thing we could want, if we thought about it, is a welcoming world like we hope heaven is. This would be a world where people would be glad to see us, to be near us, and to talk to us. We would matter to these people, and in turn, they would matter to us.
“This is pie in the sky,” you say. No, I say, it’s bread and wine here at this table now for us and our new friends, the strangers.” The table is central to our life together and so are strangers if any of us is to survive. So, at the table, strangers, and we come together to form a new “in-group:” all of us. We can carry that image with us, as we leave the table and go back into the “real” world. Maybe out there, we’ll remember being fed at the table and, strengthened, spread a little xenophilia.
Note: The 2007 Easter edition of The Intersection, Saint Peter’s newsletter, is available at or by going to and clicking on Newsletter.

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