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New Testament Scholar Richard Hays: Welcome Strangers in a Time of Pandemic

New Testament Scholar Richard Hays: Welcome Strangers in a Time of Pandemic

Richard Hays Richard Hays
ByKaren Luo July 03, 2020
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Richard Hays, an American New Testament scholar said in his lecture that Christians should welcome strangers in a time of the pandemic.

On June 5, 2020, the George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, gave a speech entitled, “Welcoming Strangers in a Time of Pandemic” in the virtual seventh annual Christian Forum for Reconciliation in Northeast Asia. He shared that in the midst of the hostility and hatred toward each other due to the coronavirus, nationalism, and racism, we need to go back to the early church. The early Christians were regarded as strangers in the Roman Empire, feeling the xenophobia and rejection. Hebrews 11 describes the history of God’s people as being aliens and strangers on earth. The same idea was also expressed in 1 Peter 2:11-12.

According to Romans 12:9-13, the early Christians truly understood that the core of discipleship was in part practicing hospitality, showing love towards strangers. In the Old Testament, God commanded the Israelites not to oppress the foreigner because they themselves were foreigners in Egypt (Exodus 23:9). Jesus Christ also exhorted his followers, by showing in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, that they should welcome strangers. Because Jesus Christ is a stranger to the world, when we welcome a stranger, we welcome Him. As the COVID-19 pandemic has become global, Christians need to practice the Christian custom of hospitality.

Below is the full text of the speech:

Welcoming Strangers in a Time of Pandemic

Richard B. Hays

June 5, 2020 

Hello friends. It’s an honor and a pleasure to be able to speak with you once again.  As we gather virtually for this session of the Northeast Asian Reconciliation Initiative, I’m mindful that the last time I was able to be with you was five years ago in Nagasaki when we gathered there for a meeting of the Forum. That was a remarkable time. As those of you who were there will recall, the meeting included a trip to the museum of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki—not only to commemorate and mourn the destruction of war but also to reflect on what it might mean for Christians to gather and speak of reconciliation in such a context. As we gather this time, we are faced with a new challenge, a new cause for lament and mourning and grieving because of the global pandemic that has caused us to meet in this virtual form, rather than face to face. Nonetheless I am thankful for this opportunity to be able to speak to you because I’m aware that we can’t take for granted our ability even to connect in this way.

Some of you know that just a few weeks after the Nagasaki meeting, I unexpectedly received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and started undergoing cancer treatment. Remarkably I’m still here. In fact, I just had a scan this week, which once again confirms that there’s no sign of the recurrence of cancer.  So I find myself thinking of a wonderful Charles Wesley hymn entitled ‘And Are We Yet Alive.’ It’s always sung at the initial gathering of Methodist pastors for their annual conference; it was sung initially, of course, by groups of itinerant Methodist pastors who wouldn’t see each other for an entire year, and then would gather again for an annual meeting for support and encouragement.  I would like to read for you the first couple of stanzas of that hymn because it expresses what I feel, and perhaps what many of us feel, on this occasion.

“And are we yet alive, 

and see each other’s face? 

Glory and thanks to Jesus give

for his almighty grace! 


Preserved by power divine 

to full salvation here, 

again in Jesus’ praise we join, 

and in his sight appear.” 

So we gather in one another’s sight on our computer screens here, but also in the sight of Jesus who has preserved us and brought us through many conflicts and brought us to this day where we have the opportunity to reflect together.

The parallel between the Nagasaki bombing and the current pandemic is imprecise, but both of those terrible realities indicate the seriousness of our human condition, the reality of suffering in the world, and our calling to be ministers of reconciliation in that context. So I join you as we all join together in praying for the sick and the dying, for those who are suffering, for those who are living with unemployment and fear and anxiety, and especially for all those who are seeking to minister to those who are in need in this time. I’m grateful that we can all be together, and I pray that all of you are well and faithfully bearing the challenges of this moment.

I’ve been asked by the organizers of this meeting to speak to two things. First, what was the response of early Christians, as attested in the New Testament, to the issue of xenophobia, the fear or hostility towards strangers and foreigners. And secondly, I’ve been asked to reflect on our role and responsibilities as Christians in a time of globalization.  These two issues are linked, because unfortunately, the rapid pace of globalization seems to have generated a counterreaction of rising nationalism and hostility towards foreigners and those who are different, those who are perceived as a threat simply because of their nationality or ethnicity. Those are the two issues I’m going to speak to. 

We are hearing frequently in the popular news media that the crisis we’re facing now is “unprecedented.”  I’m afraid that that is simply not true. Anyone who says that is reflecting a lack of historical perspective. The fact is that our history, not only as Christians, but simply as human beings, gives ample precedent for the phenomenon of plagues that wipe out many people, large parts of populations. This happened in antiquity, it happened in the medieval period, and throughout the pre-modern period in Europe. Undoubtedly it happened also in Asian countries, whose history I don’t know as well.  What we’re facing now is not unprecedented.  For that reason, we can perhaps learn a lot from seeing the way in which our forebears in the Christian faith responded to the challenges of plagues and pandemics in their time.  

First of all, let’s consider xenophobia. The early Christians knew all about that. The first reason they knew about it is that they themselves were targets of xenophobia within the context of the Roman Empire. In that world, Christians were regarded by most people as strangers (the Greek word for “strangers” is xenoi), and they had to confront xenophobic hostility and rejection. The Roman historian Tacitus spoke of the early Christian presence in Rome as a pernicious superstition, a strange, unsavory cult brought to Rome from some exotic near Eastern location and foreign to the traditions of the Roman city.  So the early Christians were very aware of the status they had as strangers. For example, in the Letter to the Hebrews chapter 11, the author summarizes the long past history of the people of God in this way: “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth.”

Strangers and foreigners.  Xenoi and parepidēmoi.  The latter word (parepidēmoi), translated by the NRSV as “foreigners” is also often translated as sojourners.  Strangers and sojourners: that’s how the early Christians saw the history of the people of God, and it’s also how they understood themselves. This language appears frequently in the New Testament.

We find the same thing, for example, in 1 Peter. The author of this letter begins by writing: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” The Christians addressed by this letter saw themselves as people who were sent out into an exile, a diaspora. The text that is translated here as “exiles” is once again the term parepidēmoi, the same word that can mean sojourners. These are people who are in transit somewhere. They’re not living in their own homeland.

And the text then continues as we move through 1 Peter 1 down to verses 6 and 7; “In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” So the suffering of being a people who are strangers, regarded as strangers, was thought to be not something unexpected, but something central to the identity of the early Christians.

In 1 Peter 2:11, once again we find this exhortation; “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles, to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that when they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.” So that’s the vocation of early Christians. They see themselves as strangers, sojourners, aliens—and they were regarded that way by people who were repeatedly hostile towards them, because they thought frankly that these followers of Jesus were just weird. They were regarded as weird not only for believing what they believed but also for the kinds of practices that they embodied: their communal practices of sharing in common worship that crossed boundary lines, bringing together people of different social classes and nationalities in ways that were in fact unprecedented in their time—to use that word again, and this time properly, unprecedented.  

And it’s precisely because they knew what it meant to be strangers and sojourners and to share the suffering of Christ, that they understood a central part of their discipleship to be the practice of hospitality. Interestingly, that word “hospitality” is the usual English translation of the Greek word philoxenia: it means literally “the love of strangers”—lovingly welcoming people who are foreigners. 

In Romans 12, when Paul gets to the hortatory part of his letter to the community of believers in Rome, he gives them this counsel about how to live faithfully: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 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 (Rom 12:9-13).  Philoxenia, the love of strangers, is at the heart of Paul's exhortation. That’s his fundamental description of what the life of the community should look like.

Similarly, that same exact directive about the practice of hospitality as central to discipleship shows up in Hebrews 13. “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality [philoxenia again]--Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” That’s probably an allusion to the story of Abraham in Genesis 18, entertaining the three unexpected strangers who show up under the Oaks of Mamre to speak with him.  Abraham welcomes them in and receives an unexpected blessing.

Now, as the example of Abraham shows, this practice of hospitality is not a novelty of the early Christian movement.  I want to make this point very clearly.  The practice of hospitality is already deeply rooted in Jewish tradition and Jewish law. 

One of the most powerful texts from the Torah--and I could go on quoting, but I’m just going to give you one passage here—is found in Leviticus 19:33-34. “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Here again, as we saw in the New Testament texts I was quoting, you see the same pattern of logic: because the Hebrew people who had come out of Egypt, where they had been in slavery, had formerly been aliens or strangers in the land of Egypt, they understood that it was now their calling from God to welcome others who may be strangers. That’s part of what God commands to God’s own people.

Interestingly (and I will confess I hadn’t thought about this one too much until I was asked to reflect on this for our gathering today) in the great passage in Matthew 25, where Jesus portrays the scene of the final judgment and the separation of the sheep and the goats, the one thing he says to those who are being blessed and welcomed to inherit the kingdom is this:  “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,”-- “I was a xenos, a stranger.” That word appears four times in this passage, alongside “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you welcomed me, and you gave me something to drink,” and so on. The act of welcoming the stranger is  highlighted four times in this last judgment scene as something that those who are being judged either did or failed to do. So again we see that the welcoming of the stranger is central to the discipleship; it’s at the heart of what God expects of us.  But, amazingly, in the Gospel of Matthew we are called to welcome the stranger not only because God commands it; we are called to welcome the stranger not only because we were strangers in the land of Egypt; we are called to welcome the stranger not only because we as Christians are aliens and exiles on the earth.  No, we are called to welcome the stranger because Jesus himself was a stranger, and insofar as we welcome the stranger, we are welcoming Jesus. So we begin to see how fundamental, how foundational this really is when we understand it in these terms.

And of course, we could also look in quite a different way to the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10, where the alien, the stranger, the despised foreigner not only becomes the neighbor, but unexpectedly becomes the giver of gifts and mercy, as was also the case with the angels that Abraham encountered.

So, in sum, discipleship among the early Christians was understood as integrally tied to the welcoming of the stranger. Xenophobia is antithetical to living as disciples of Jesus.  Obviously that sets for us a high bar of challenge for what we will do in our own time and how we think about our own vocation in the situation that we face now.

Now the other matter I was asked to say something about is globalization. Of course this is a topic of huge significance. Insofar as the current pandemic is unprecedented, it is unprecedented with regard to the speed with which a virus can spread around the globe, as a result of the international transportation that is available now.

But along with the spread of the COVID-19 virus, we’ve also seen the spread of a different kind of virus: the virus of ethno-nationalism. I’m speaking of an ethno-nationalism that’s born of fear, a desire to close the borders and wall off those who are different or strange to protect ourselves not only from the corona virus but also from the threat of foreign languages, foreign practices, things that may challenge our cultural norms and pose economic challenges.  That ethno-nationalist virus has also spread rapidly around the globe. You don’t need me to detail this; my own country, the United States, is among the worst offenders in this regard. We have sadly elected leaders who are spreading antagonism and hostility towards the stranger and the foreigner. It’s an antagonism that’s utterly antithetical to everything that the New Testament and the Christian tradition teach. I’m sorry to say it, but that’s the reality we have.  And of course the United States is not the only place where this is happening. We’ve seen the resurgence of an angry ethno-nationalism in many other places. 

By comparison, it’s interesting to see that the early Christians were not only interested in welcoming strangers who might happen to wander into their community; instead, they saw their vocation as integrally bound up with a thrust towards globalization, an outward movement of mission that saw the church spreading throughout the Mediterranean world in those early decades. The early church was a driver of globalization. That outward thrust is classically articulated in the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, when the apostles asked the risen Jesus if this was the time when he would restore the kingdom to Israel.  His reply gives them a commission: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).  To the ends of the earth--Jesus is undoubtedly echoing a crucial  prophecy in Isaiah:  “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Acts 49:6).

That drive, that outward movement--the movement towards spreading the good news of the lordship of Jesus Christ over the whole world--was integral to the early Christian sense of identity and mission,  and it’s one of the things that made Christianity spread in an astonishingly rapid fashion throughout the known world in that time. Of course, the great commission at the end of the Gospel of Matthew expresses exactly this same imperative: the disciples are charged by the risen Jesus to go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that he had commanded (Matt 28:16-20).

So from the resurrection and Pentecost onwards, we followers of Jesus remember that charge to go out--and insofar as that happens, we are also engaged in the breaking down of barriers. One of the most beautiful expressions of that is in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. I want you to listen to this.  (I know you know this passage; I know you know every passage I’m quoting.  But it’s good that we remind ourselves.)  This passage in Ephesians is the way it articulates the logic of the gospel as calling people who were once aliens, once strangers, to be part of a universal, globalized fellowship. 

“So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’ . . . remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers (xenoi) to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph 2:11-14).

That’s the picture of those who have been brought near and given access in one spirit through Christ through the Father. So there’s a logic of globalization there that is inescapable. It’s at the heart of who we are, our identity as Christ’s people. I could go on citing texts that illustrate this, but it's hammered home again and again in the New Testament. We are the one body of Christ in a way that overcomes barriers of nationality and ethnicity. 

There’s a famous passage in a letter called the Epistle to Diognetus. We don’t really know the date of this early Christian letter. It’s probably from the late second or early third century. But this letter articulates the way in which the movement of believers in Jesus transcends national boundaries and dissolves any nationalistic sense of identity. 

This is from the Epistle to Diognetus chapter 5: “The distinction between Christians and others is neither in country nor language or customs. They do not dwell in some strange place of their own, nor do they use any strange variety of dialect or practice an extraordinary kind of life. They dwell in their own fatherlands, but as if sojourners in them. They share all things as citizens and suffer all things as strangers. Every foreign country is their fatherland and every fatherland is a foreign country.”

Once again here we see how pervasive this theme is in the consciousness and identity of the early Christians.  And of course, all of it points towards the eschatological vision of Revelation 7, in which we are given a vision of the people of God gathered around the throne of God: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

That gathering of all tribes and peoples and languages standing before the throne is a picture of where we are headed. It’s our final destiny, our final identity. So globalization is hardwired, as it were, into who we are as the people of God and as followers of Jesus. There’s ultimately no escaping it; therefore, the way we live in the present time should be a foretaste, a foreshadowing, of that globalized reality. 

Now all of that may sound very theoretical or very visionary and abstract, but we must ask what we are to do in the situation we find ourselves in now, in which we are suffering the effects of a global pandemic that has caused the shutting off of international travel, that has caused the closing down of communities and businesses and churches. Churches in my country are not meeting, and I assume the same is true in the countries all of you represent. What then shall we do? I don’t know enough about your specific local circumstances to be able to give a lot of detailed prescriptions. I hope there will be a good discussion of that in the breakout discussions that follow this talk. I do, however, want to point to a couple of things in the history of the early church that might usefully inform our thinking. 

The first thing is this: one of the institutions that the church established in the early centuries of its existence was an institution called the xenodocheia. These were places for the welcoming of migrants and foreigners. They were housing and care facilities for people who were displaced and needed a place to go (people who were homeless). This was a remarkable thing. There was nothing like this before in the Roman Empire, and it was a matter of some astonishment in pagan antiquity that the Christians would create these places of welcome for people who were strangers and migrants. 

The second thing I want to share with you from the history of the early church is a particular story from a time of plague.  This story is pertinent to understanding how the church responded in a situation similar to what we face now. I’m going to read you an account from Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, writing about a plague that hit the Eastern Empire in the year AD 250, in the city of Alexandria in Egypt. Here is Dionysius’s description of the effects of the plague in that city.

“Now indeed, all is lamentation. And all men mourn and wailings resound throughout the city because of the number of dead and those that are dying day by day. For as it is written of the firstborn of the Egyptians, so also it is now: there was a great cry, for there is not a house where there is not one dead--and would indeed that it were but one.”

      But then following his description of the terrible suffering in Alexandria, here’s what Dionysius writes about the response of the church: “The most at all events of our brethren, in their exceeding love and affection for the brotherhood, were unsparing of themselves, and they clung to one another, visiting the sick without a thought as to the danger, assiduously ministering to them, tending them in Christ. And so most gladly departed this life along with them, being infected with the disease from others, drawing upon themselves the sickness of their neighbors and willingly taking over their pains. Many, when they had cared for and restored to health others, died themselves, thus transferring their death to themselves.” So the early Christians were caring for those who were afflicted by the plague, even at a great risk to their own lives. Of course, in those days the transmission of disease was not scientifically understood. They didn’t have any personal protective equipment; they were simply caring for the sick, because that’s what they had been commanded to do by Jesus. 

I continue now Dionysius' account of what was going on in Alexandria in the year 250. “But the conduct of the gentiles [ethnē] was the exact opposite. Even those who were in the first stages of the disease they thrust away and fled from their dearest. They would even cast them in the roads half dead and treat the unburied corpses as vile refuse, in their attempts to avoid the spreading and contagion of the death plague, a thing which for all their devices it was not easy for them to escape.” The stark contrast here is quite extraordinary—the contrast  between the Christians who took responsibility for acting in love and mercy and caring for the sick, as opposed to those who fled in fear and terror and rejected even their own families and those closest to them. 

It seems to me that the challenge for us in our time as Christians is to ask: what must we do to resist ethno-nationalism and fear? What must we do to become witnesses through service, through works of welcome and mercy for those who are sick and dying of the virus, and even for those who might reject and hate us ourselves as foreigners and strangers? What must we do to take upon ourselves the suffering of others, which is the suffering of Christ? What must we do to take upon ourselves the suffering of Christ who came and gave himself up for our sake in love?  We embody that danger as a community. If we suffer as a result of that, whether hardship or sickness, that is simply a part of our calling to be followers of Jesus. 

I want to conclude by reading you a poem by a friend of mine, Malcolm Guite, an Anglican priest who lives in Cambridge, England. He wrote this for the occasion of Easter this year, describing what Easter in 2020 has meant in the context of the pandemic. Here is Malcolm’s poem:  

       Easter 2020

“And where is Jesus, this strange Easter day?

Not lost in our locked churches, anymore

Than he was sealed in that dark sepulchre.

The locks are loosed; the stone is rolled away,

And he is up and risen, long before,

Alive, at large, and making his strong way

Into the world he gave his life to save,

No need to seek him in his empty grave.


He might have been a wafer in the hands

Of priests this day, or music from the lips

Of red-robed choristers, instead he slips

Away from church, shakes off our linen bands

To don his apron with a nurse: he grips

And lifts a stretcher, soothes with gentle hands

The frail flesh of the dying, gives them hope,

Breathes with the breathless, lends them strength to cope.


On Thursday we applauded, for he came

And served us in a thousand names and faces

Mopping our sickroom floors and catching traces

Of that corona which was death to him:

Good Friday happened in a thousand places

Where Jesus held the helpless, died with them

That they might share his Easter in their need,

Now they are risen with him, risen indeed.”

Jesus is risen. Death does not have the last word. Fear does not have the last word. Nationalism does not have the last word. Nationalism is a sad, angry defense against the universally embracing love of God that seeks to gather us all up as one people, so that the walls are broken down and we are one in Christ. Our task is simply to bear witness to that truth in whatever ways we can. I’m sure that in the conversations that will follow, many of you will have stories to share about ways you see that happening in your own contexts, ways that you found yourself called to reach out and to serve in a time in plague and pandemic. But I’m grateful that death does not have the last word, that we are in this moment yet alive and see each other’s face. The concluding stanza of Charles Wesley’s hymn is this: 

“Let us take up the cross 

til we the crown obtain 

and gladly reckon all things loss 

so we may Jesus gain.” 

May it be so; may we be one people gathered together under the sign of the cross, people who embody the ministry of reconciliation. Grace and peace be with you all. 

 (The speech has been authorized to be published without proofreading.)

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