The Singularity of Biblical Ethics

“Nowhere is the singularity of biblical ethics more evident than in its treatment of the issue that has proved to be the most difficult in the history of human interaction, namely the problem of the stranger, the one who is not like us. Most societies at most times have been suspicious of, and aggressive toward, strangers. That is understandable, even natural. Strangers are non-kin. They come from beyond the tribe. They stand outside the network of reciprocity that creates and sustains communities. That is what makes the Mosaic books unusual in the history of moral thought. As the Rabbis noted, the Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ but in no less than thirty-six places commands us to ‘love the stranger.’”

“Time and again it returns to this theme. ‘You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger – you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ ‘When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not ill-treat him. The stranger who lives with you shall be treated like the native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’ It does not assume that this is easy or instinctive. It does not derive it from reason or emotion alone, knowing that under stress, these have rarely been sufficient to counter the human tendency to dislike the unlike and exclude people not like us from our radius of moral concern. Instead it speaks of history. ‘You know what it is like to be different, because there was a time when you, too, were persecuted for being different.’”

The Dignity of Difference, p. 50