Strangers and Scapegoats is the culmination of some 20 years of my learning to think sociologically while teaching undergraduate students to cultivate their own sociological imaginations. The concept of imagination—of perceiving old things in new ways—plays a central role in the book, and is, for me, key to addressing the perennial problem of the stranger. My colleague in our sociology department at Covenant College explains that while we’re all looking straight ahead down familiar paths, sociology invites us to adjust our gaze to catch a glimpse of things a little to the right and a little to the left of center. What do things look like when we move, even if slightly, away from the lens of our normal? When we bracket the familiar and wipe a bit of smog off the glass through which we see dimly, we can sometimes perceive things from the perspective of the other.
Through repeated practice, our new way of seeing may help us edge in the stranger’s direction, and over time recast them as neighbor or friend. Decentering in this way, is a crucial part of what it means to be the people of God “for the world,” or in more sociological language, for the strangers. As God has done for us, so we should do for others. The alternative is to be the people of God for ourselves—election as an in-group possession that reaches consummation in Jesus whisking us away to enjoy heavenly paradise in a members-only mansion. But if we exist as a people for ourselves, the good news of Jesus Christ becomes a hoarded commodity, and evangelism, as the embodied life ethic of God’s people, offers little good news for those on our margins. Outside of genuine care for the stranger, our mantras of “Come share in what’s ours; this world is not our home,” dissolve to a fetishized, “hands off our stuff,” “our land,” “our security,” and so on. “You with no coat . . . get your own coat.” But for the people of God, who believe the good news of Jesus Christ, open-handed evangelism—not the technique, but the encompassing life-ethic of a distinctive people—is the required and appropriate response. And evangelism is all about strangers. Our embrace of strangers is a big part of what should give us distinction from “the world.”
But looking for, and caring for strangers is difficult, and it takes a lot more than most of us have to give. If you’re like me, you have difficulty adequately meeting all the needs present in your own family. Dr. Paris’ critique of Strangers and Scapegoats is, I think, rooted in the overwhelming enormity of what it means to love the stranger. And her critique is a valid one.
After some praise for the book (for which I’m grateful), Paris points out that I tend to place White, heterosexual, non-disabled, financially stable American men in an isolated group who, as people of privilege, should orient themselves toward helping strangers, but hang back when it comes to voicing their own needs. She comments that such men suffer alongside others in contemporary society, dying in pandemics, facing mental health challenges, addictions, and suicide like everyone else. No one is exempt from suffering, nor from the feelings of estrangement and identity threat that are our shared lot in this world. Her concern, I believe, is that a community divided by type, where one privileged group is categorically isolated from the others may in itself constitute a form of we/they stranger-making that produces a response of shame, and by so doing, exacerbates the social fragmentation at issue in the first place. It’s a fair point. I’m reluctant to abandon completely the idea that much is required of those to whom much has been given. I feel the tension she raises within my own person. I’m a member of the privileged group, and even while I feel acutely the weighty responsibility of extending to those on the margins, I’m frequently overwhelmed by my own needs and the needs of my family. Paris offers the example of a White man who, in a professional setting, divulged his plan to “listen, not talk” during diversity discussions. On the one hand there’s a loss when any voice is silenced. On the other, there’s something I like about members of privileged groups just listening for a while. I’ve always had voice; there are those who have not. For example, I’m 54 years old, and until recently have never been under the authority of a woman or racial minority in a formal organization. The normative structures of both my church and my workplace have routinely encouraged me to speak publicly about various issues. I have, however, heard plenty of testimonies from women who have found it difficult to carve out space amidst people in my social location who have much to say and the social standing to say it. I wonder if the man Dr. Paris identified who withheld his voice had opportunity to speak into the issues raised during his silence at a later time? Listening is itself an important component of communication, but one that is sometimes foreign to those used to inhabiting the powerful positions in a structure.
A second observation Paris offers about Strangers and Scapegoats is as follows: “Vos explains that in-groups require out-groups, and he contrasts this earthly reality with ‘Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice [that] means that the people of God no longer need to define themselves in opposition to strangers… No more scapegoats. No more strangers. Instead, living water and a new identity. No need for out-groups.’1 Implementation of this extreme ideal seems both impossible and harmful.” As an example, she writes about a Christian man who worked for a global humanitarian agency, and who recognized that he needed to back away from some of the crushing need he worked to address for the sake of his personal safety and to increase his availability to the needs of his own family. I applaud the choice he made. In Strangers and Scapegoats, I do not intend to suggest that there are no longer any group distinctions in a society. That is, as Dr. Paris points out, impossible. However, I do envision learning to see other groups less in terms of downward social comparison, simply because an identity that is “in-Christ” no longer requires the identity props of those to whom we compare favorably.
At the end of Chapter Eight, where I examine the relationship between North Americans and the poor strangers who make our Nike shoes for a couple dollars a day in factories in Southeast Asia, I offer a postscript. In this addendum to the chapter, I acknowledge how overwhelming it is to even try to make a difference when the unanticipated consequences of even our most selfless acts can create serious problems in other social arenas of a complex global society. Contemplating the significant needs of the many unseen strangers who press in on us, in the face of our own inadequacy and finitude, I ask: “What do we do with such unsettling information, when disentangling ourselves from one corrosive capitalist enterprise usually necessitates turning to another that is likely as bad?”2 I conclude:
. . . a Christian approach to addressing such complex matters as labor abuses in supply-chain global capitalism is found not in a moral list of dos and don’ts but rather in the distinctive life ethic of a people of imaginative faith, who by doing justice loving kindness, and walking humbly with God question the things of this world and, by example, offer society an alternative to the dominant reality.3
Caring for, loving as fellow image-bearers, and drawing strangers into “our” resources is, I believe, the heart of a Christian alternative to the dominant reality. Pushing away strangers to guard resources for ourselves is the dominant reality we are called to uproot.
I close the chapter with a practical suggestion that the reader choose something modest from which they can abstain. For me, it’s Nike products, for them perhaps something else. I am under no illusion that what I do makes any appreciable dent in the Nike machinery that I argue is exploitive to strangers I see as the “least of these.” But, I offer my small act of fasting to God. “As I do so, I try, every so often, to pause, remember, and mourn for the young people of color who in faraway, hidden places make my shoes for less money a day than I spend on coffee. And just maybe, as I—as the people of God—do this sort of thing, a distinctive life ethic will settle over us. Who knows, maybe together we will accomplish a profound undoing.”4
Maybe your work on behalf of strangers is simply to mourn.
In a number of places in the book, I advocate for an “edging” toward strangers. My Nike abstention is one such edging. People in various social locations have different limitations. A father may not be able to do what a college graduate with a newly minted degree in community development can do. But he may be able to teach English as a Second Language for immigrants at his church or a community college, or visit someone in prison that others may simply dehumanize. We cannot change the world. But we can edge toward strangers. We can adjust our gaze a bit to the left and a bit to the right. We can bring fresh imagination to a world of strangers that desperately needs it.
Paris has one final observation, that I found most interesting, and which I will briefly address. She notes that I write, “We people of God are exhorted to avoid the ‘patterns of this world’”5, and she comments, “Avoiding is too strict a verb. We cannot avoid language, socialization, stratification, or social norms, all patterns of this world. We can test them, however, seeking to know God’s will as we live in the midst of them.” Good catch. I think I inadvertently substituted “avoid” for “do not be conformed” to the patterns of this world. Had I transcribed the reference more carefully, and written, “Do not be conformed,” I would likely encounter the same problem. Do not be conformed to language? Do not be conformed to social norms? Intrigued, I explored how different translations handled Romans 12:2. I found quite an impressive array including:
Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world. (New Living Translation)
Do not be shaped by this world. (New Century Version)
And be not fashioned according to this world. (American Standard Version)
Don’t become like the people of this world. (God’s Word Translation)
Don’t live any longer the way this world lives. (New International Reader’s Version)
Most of these exhort the person of faith to do that which seemingly cannot be done. And so, I find Dr. Paris’ idea resolves the problem in a most satisfactory way. We can test the patterns of this world, seeking to know God’s will as we live in the midst of them. And what better way to test these patterns than by edging toward strangers?
- Matthew Vos, Strangers and Scapegoats : Extending God’s Welcome to Those on the Margins (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2022), 66.
- Vos, Strangers and Scapegoats : Extending God’s Welcome to Those on the Margins, 194.
- Vos, Strangers and Scapegoats : Extending God’s Welcome to Those on the Margins, 195.
- Vos, Strangers and Scapegoats : Extending God’s Welcome to Those on the Margins, 195.
- Vos, Strangers and Scapegoats : Extending God’s Welcome to Those on the Margins, 12.