3/23/2002

How Talking With Strangers Makes America Truly Safe

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report


Rochester, MN -- So now all swarthy young men wearing turbans are the spitting image of evil. This is as basic a problem as how white people look at blacks and what they feel when they do.

Itís a question of how we relate to strangers, to the exotic and vaguely threatening other.

We can make enemies of potential friends if we let our imaginations run wild. "All strangers and beggars are from Zeus," Homer said. In other words, the Gods appear among us mortals in disguise, and it's the strangest-looking among us who bring the precious gift of wisdom.

Strangers are even Gods, possibly. It's a very consistent message in the Jewish, Christian, Arab, and Buddhist wisdom literature: the stranger is the savior. The dusty, smelly, crippled, begging stranger bears celestial truth.

In the Christian story, God came to earth as a scruffy prophet wandering the desert. Arabs revere the principle of hospitality to strangers one meets in the desert, and Buddhists teach one route to enlightenment is to regard every person one meets along life's journey as the Buddha.

"Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares," the writer of Hebrews advises.

Angels would be good to meet, but I find another Bible passage even more helpful on the subject of strangers. King David cries out in Chronicles: "We are aliens and strangers in Your sight, as were all our forefathers; and our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope."

This makes it clear that our deepest fears originate not in strangers, but within ourselves. What makes us quail is not Al Capone with a baseball bat, or Bin Laden with an M-16. Itís the fear that our lives are without meaning or hope. That we ourselves are strangers in the world and in our own homes, strangers to our own husbands and wives and children, and strangers even to ourselves.

What would it be like to follow the instruction of the wisdom writings and open the door to the stranger? There are two answers, one religious and one secular.

The religious answer we've already covered: the stranger is God, and the reward is everlasting life. For others, such as me, there are the more down-to-earth rewards of simple hospitality that Francis Bacon, in his essay on Goodness, described: "If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world; and that his heart is no island cut off from other lands, but a continent that joins them. If he easily pardons and remits offences, it shows that his mind is planted above injuries, so that he cannot be shot."

By "easy pardons" Bacon is not suggesting we pardon mass killers. Rather, he endorses the habit of forgiveness for the practical returns it brings. By hospitality we befriend others before they become our enemies. Swarthy or dusty or poor -- we must let them in. We may have qualms about inviting strangers in for dinner, but we've got to risk it because the alternatives are no good.

What do the Greeks, the Bible, Buddha, Francis Bacon, and common sense teach on this topic?

That hospitality is a critical part of homeland security.

That learning from strangers makes us citizens of the world, lifts us above anger and self-pity, and saves us from being shot.

Copyright @ 2002 The McGill Report