Neighbors, Strangers, Pilgrims, Friends

I talked recently with some non-LDS friends and neighbors in Utah Valley. They’ve lived here for years, and they know us Mormons (officially, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) quite well. In speaking of their experience here, they praised us for welcoming their particular religious minority among us. I gratefully add that they were philosophical and forgiving about our occasional clumsiness and outright failures on that score over the years.

Welcome to Utah sign

When we truly welcome others into our towns and neighborhoods – and homes, hearts, and circles of friends – we’re not just being nice. We’re obeying two key commandments. Both are literally as old as Moses.

Love Thy Neighbor

One is well known, though mostly from the New Testament. Jesus said that to love God completely is the greatest commandment in the Mosaic Law, and the second greatest is, “Love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:35-40; Leviticus 19:18; see also Deuteronomy 6:5).

Asked, “Who is my neighbour?” the Master answered with a parable. (See Luke 10:29-37.) Its hero is from a people the Jews despised, the Samaritans. Yet it is the gentle and generous Samaritan who saves and cares for the robber’s victim, when a priest and a Levite pass by.

At one level of the parable, the Savior himself is our Good Samaritan – he who was “despised and rejected of men … and we hid as it were our faces from him,” as Isaiah wrote (Isaiah 53:3; Mosiah 14:3). Thus Jesus is Neighbor even to those who reject him. When we have fully absorbed this parable and we are determined to follow him, we can point to anyone on earth and say, “Neighbor.”

Vex Not the Stranger

The other commandment is more obscure. The Law gives special attention to the stranger. This is not just the Jew from the next town or the adjacent kingdom, or (in our time) the fellow Mormon from the next county or halfway around the globe. These words in Exodus and Leviticus contemplate a stranger from another faith and another nation:

“If a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

“Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21).

Torah

So we’re not to vex or oppress the stranger. The Law suggests that we should already embrace this principle – and empathize – because we were once the strangers.

If this were our entire obligation, the bar would be set very low indeed. In fact, our role is much larger than simply not oppressing the stranger. The stranger should be to us “as one born among [us].” We’re to love him as we love ourselves.

Sometimes we’re content to do far less – and pat ourselves on the back anyway. We may be content to have “strangers” among us, as long as they are content to remain outsiders. As long as they don’t interfere with our doing things our way. As long as they stand back and let us order our society and government in a relentlessly Mormon-centric way. But our gospel of love obligates us to act differently. We’re not to treat a stranger as an outsider or perpetually tell him, with or without words, that he doesn’t belong. We’re not to congratulate ourselves for being tolerant of people who really don’t belong among us. We’re to understand that they do belong.

Even after the Savior’s Second Coming, those who believe differently will belong. The prophet Micah wrote, “For all people will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever” (Micah 4:5, emphasis added). We’ll all worship as we please, even after the Lord comes personally to reign.

What the Pilgrims Knew

The Pilgrims who built Plymouth Colony in 1620 understood this matter of neighbors and strangers. Their leader, Pastor John Robinson, was to come in a later ship, so he sent detailed written instructions ahead with the Mayflower. (He died before making the journey.)

Roughly half the settlers on the Mayflower were not religious refugees. They went because they had skills the new settlement would need. Because of this religious diversity, as one historian wrote, “Robinson had anticipated the need to create a government based on civil consent rather than divine decree. With so many Strangers in their midst, there was no other way. They must ‘become a body politic using amongst yourselves civil government’” (Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower, pp. 40-41).

Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower

In other words, they were to establish a secular government, in which “Strangers” would have an equal place with church members, rather than a religious government which would automatically brand the many Strangers as outsiders.

As One of Us

In many ways, not just in government, we can do likewise. Even if an outsider never becomes a convert – many won’t – the Christian principle then and now is that we esteem her as one of us, “as one born among [us].” A pillar of our religion is, we love her as we love ourselves.

(This is a slightly edited version of an article I wrote for my congregation’s July 2018 newsletter.)

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