Review: Including the Stranger

including the stranger

Including the Stranger (New Studies in Biblical Theology), David G. Firth. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A study of the former prophets that makes the case that God was not an exclusivist who hated foreigners, but that God welcomed the stranger who believed and excluded the Israelite who repudiated him.

Many people have the idea that in the Old Testament, God hates foreigners. At worst, some have called him a genocidal monster. David G. Firth argues from the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings)  for something far different. He believes that these books reveal a picture of a God who includes the foreigner who believes, works through such people for the benefit of Israel, and that ultimately, the people of God were defined not by ethnicity but by faith.

In Joshua, he contrasts the faith of Rahab the Canaanite prostitute (and ancestor of David and Christ), with Achan, who takes for himself what was to be devoted to destruction, to the destruction of his fellow Israelites and his own family. Firth also points to the inclusion of the Gibeonites and their subsequent role. In Judges, he contrasts Othniel the Kenite (an outsider), the paradigm judge who saves Israel from the invading nations, with the nation itself, divided by tribal rivalries and becoming more like the surrounding nations.

The books of Samuel contrast Israel who wants to be like other nations and Saul, whose kingship is shaped more by his responses to foreign adversaries than obedience to God, with David, the man after God’s heart, who slays Goliath who dares to taunt against Yahweh. Later, we see David the unfaithful adulterer and murderer of the faithful Hittite soldier Uriah. And when David’s actions bring a plague ln Israel, it is Araunah, the Jebusite, whose threshing floor becomes the site of an altar to Yahweh at the point where the plague stops.

In the books of the Kings, once again, it is the vindication of the greatness of Yahweh over the nations that results in the defeat of the Assyrians confronting Hezekiah. Often, as in Judges, the incursions of the nations are a judgment for Israel’s faithlessness. When Yahweh acts, it is that the nations may know him (2 Kings 19:19). Perhaps the height of this expression of concern for the foreigner is in Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple:

As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name—for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name. (I Kings 8:41-43, NIV).

Later, Naaman is a striking example of one who finds healing through faith in Israel’s God. Firth then concludes his treatment by tracing this trajectory of concern for including the stranger into the New Testament, and makes application to the church.

Firth’s point in all this is to show that the people of God may include foreigners, and exclude unfaithful Israelites. Foreigner nations face judgment not because they are foreigners, but when they embrace rivals to the living God and represent a threat to lure Israel into the same. Sometimes, these nations are instruments to draw Israel back to God through invasions.

Firth does a service in calling our attention to the numerous instances of the inclusion of the foreigner in the Former Prophets, and God’s revealed intentions, material overlooked by those who attack these books. In so doing he demonstrates that there is a greater continuity in the two testaments than may be thought. Some may find his inference that the people were destroyed or driven out not because of their ethnicity but because of the rival gods they believed in inadequate to justify this destruction. To fully address this would require a much longer book. What Firth does is show us that the actual case is far more nuanced than is popularly portrayed. While we cannot get away from violence against the nations, there is also an ongoing thread of the inclusion of foreigners from Rahab, to the paradigm judge, Othniel, to Naaman and many others that reveal God’s over-riding concern for his glory among the nations and the inclusion of all who believe into the people of God.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Who Is Not At Our Table?

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Photo by Whitney Greenwell, [CC0] via Pexels

Yesterday, I wrote about the table as an important symbol of the realities Christians enjoy in Christ–God’s gracious welcome to intimate relationship both with him, and with each other as communities nourished by Christ. For many of us, we can think of sweet experiences of table fellowship, where we know and are known and share life together offering everything from emotional support to material help to helping each other see Christ more clearly.

The question is whether it is fitting, and in keeping with God’s intention for the table, to keep these good things to ourselves. It reminds me of the four lepers in 2 Kings 7 who are living just outside the city gates while Arameans beseige Samaria in order to capture Elisha, the prophet. The city is delivered when the Lord causes them to hear the sound of chariots, horses and an approaching army, causing them to flee and fear. But the people hiding behind the gates do not know this. The lepers discover the flight when they decide to risk death to plead for food from the Arameans and discover no one there. They find tents full of food, clothing, and treasure that they accumulate until they conclude that this is too good to keep to themselves but ought to be shared with the rest of the city.

Truth is that we often don’t want our others to come to our table, for fear that we might lose the intimacy we enjoy. To welcome others to our tables will change everything, we fear. And of course we are right. To welcome others to our table, and particularly those not like us will take us out of our comfort zone. Yet just like cardio exercises strengthen our hearts, so also the hard work of welcoming the stranger will strengthen our capacities to love with the heart of God. Learning to love those different from us (and really that is just about anyone) reminds us that we were once strangers both to God and his people.

When we unintentionally, or sometimes intentionally fail to welcome the other to our table, particularly those who differ in some way the world reckons difference–race, economic status, or even church denomination–we deny the power of the saving work of Jesus. In Galatians 2, when Peter was with Paul in Antioch, he joined in table fellowship with Gentile believers until a group of Jews associated with James came from Jerusalem. Peter, the other Jews with him, and even Paul’s companion Barnabas stepped back. Paul harshly rebukes Peter publicly, not for a social faux pas, but because “they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). The great scandal of naming the name of Christ while advocating racial supremacy of one race, or simply justifying segregated tables, and other arrangements is that we hollow out the gospel message of its power to bring together people across these divides.

So a question I encourage the communities I work with to wrestle with regularly is that of who is not at our tables? In the world I work in, this can include those from ethnic minorities, academic departments that are not represented in our group, particular national groups represented on our campus but not among us. It might include those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans-gendered. It might include people from Muslim countries studying in the U.S.

It might be that our first step is not inviting them to our tables, but rather spending some time at theirs. I can’t think of a time in scripture when Jesus turns down an invitation to someone’s table–tax collectors, “sinners,” and teachers of the law and Pharisees, unattached women like Mary and Martha, and others. Once, Jesus even invited himself to the home of the most notorious tax collector in town–Zacchaeus. To accept hospitality, to be the guest and not in control, to be the one on the outside coming in both prepares us to be better, more sensitive hosts, and may open the hearts of our hosts.

Another step is that of making room at our tables. If we have just enough chairs for those who always come, it is awkward if our guests are left standing. Or maybe our tables are crowded and we need to add tables (and make sure to mix up who sits at them!). The physical instances of this are the most easily remedied. The structural and cultural ones may be harder. If we only sing Hillsongs, and only in English, what does this say to those from other countries and backgrounds? Does our conversation divide the world into “us” and “them,” or reflect our conviction that Jesus is making one new humanity. Greg Coles, in Single, Gay, Christian speaks of how weird it can be as a celibate, gay man to be in a church context where people are unaware of his sexual identity and listen to them talk about the “LGBT community” as a “them” that lives a certain way, has a certain agenda, unaware that someone who would identify as gay, but doesn’t fit any of these stereotypes and loves Jesus, is right in front of them. I could multiply examples of this kind of talk about “the Black community,” “the Muslim community,” the “Asian community,” or even “English majors”! I’ve even been guilty of them!

Perhaps my greatest challenge is simply, how intentional and persistent will I be in this effort? After a dinner with some Pharisees where Jesus is treated rather shabbily, he tells the parable of the great banquet, where a host sends his servants to notify his previously invited guests that the dinner is ready. A number of them snub him for a number of lame reasons. But he doesn’t give up or content himself with those who came. He sends his servants out onto the town streets to invite anyone they encounter. And when that doesn’t fill up his tables, he sends them out to do another round of invitations in the countryside (Luke 14:15-24). I love that the master and his servants keep inviting until he has a full house. Will I love the Master, and people well enough to keep inviting until the Master’s house is full?

It all begins with the question of “who is not at our table?”

Review: The Inclusion Paradox: The Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity

The Inclusion Paradox: The Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity
The Inclusion Paradox: The Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity by Andrés T. Tapia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Andres Tapia has lived diversity and inclusion, not only as a Peruvian married to an American living in Chicago, but also as a chief diversity officer for Hewitt, and eventually CEO of Diversity Best Practices. More than that, Tapia believes that the hard work of inclusion in our businesses and other organizations is worth it–that when we call out and welcome the differences that our diverse population bring, this has a multiplier effect in our organizations in terms of the performance of our people and performance in the marketplace. This is very different from the guilt or quota driven or advocacy driven approaches to diversity and inclusion.

Tapia distinguishes diversity and inclusion as follows: diversity is the mix and inclusion is making the mix work. The first part of the book focuses on the rapidly changing landscape in our country where whites will be a minority by 2040 or sooner, where we elect an African American president and operate in a global marketplace. Tapia would argue that in this landscape, the organizations that do inclusion well are those that will thrive–that we need the differences we all bring.

Part Two recognizes a simple truth–we often think of difference as evil or incompentence, rather than as just different. Part Three then goes on to “call out” the differences that exist in our cultural landscape: white and minority ethnic, women, millenials, disabled, LGBT, and artists. Each of these chapters identifies key cultural differences and the challenges of inclusion in each group. I was most struck by the fact that as groups, whites differ from African Americans on six of seven cultural dimensions (and from most of the rest of the world): universalist vs. particularist, task vs. relationship, individualist vs. communal, sequential vs. synchronous, internal vs. external control, and neutral vs. affective. Tapia’s point is that neither of these is “better” but rather that understanding that the way others engage the world, and then creating systems and working relationships that leverage these differences is key to good inclusion.

Part Four looks at organizations and their policies and systems and how inclusion can become part of the fabric of organizational life. His chapter on retention of people of color was especially striking in his emphasis on four pillars: community, recognition, mentoring, and advancement. There was a discussion of risk-taking that noted that organizations tend to advance those taking calculated risks and that whites tend to follow this approach while others either are more cautious or more risky, and the importance of working with this during mentoring and advancement processes.

There will be those that balk at the material on LGBT inclusion. Throughout, Tapia emphasizes that we do not need to give up the ways we differ to recognize and work with the differences in others–at least in businesses and other organizations in the public sector. He does not address faith communities that have moral reservations around sexuality and gender identity questions, except to infer that one’s views might change as one relates with LGBT persons. He doesn’t address the question that is peculiar to inclusion work with persons in this group of how inclusion works where one may show deep respect for the whole person and their gifts, where one can be a genuine ally in many regards, while retaining moral reservations about sexual practices and gender expression. Exploring how this might work would actually be more consistent with his approach of “calling out differences.”

Overall, however, I have to admit that I liked this book more than I thought I would. Its emphasis on calling out difference, and the opportunities for the advancement of organizational mission through inclusion, as well as the specific practical recommendations were all quite helpful. Tapia’s passionate enthusiasm for the opportunities that arise out of inclusion work is infectious and helps one move from a “have to” to a “want to” mentality.

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