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Strangers and Scapegoats: Extending God’s Welcome to Those on the Margins

Matthew S. Vos
Published by Baker Academic in 2022

Jesus was once asked “Who is my neighbor?” His answer was to tell a story about caring for an enemy, implying that his followers are to serve others in spite of any social barriers between them. Matthew S. Vos explores such barriers as he examines the theme of “the stranger” in sociological theory, Christian theology, and our lives.

Beginning with a survey of the theme of the stranger in sociological theory, Vos intersperses personal anecdotes, scripture verses, pop culture references, and contemporary and historical case studies with brief explanations of the theories of Émile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, Emory Bogardus and Eugene Hartley, John Turner, Robert E. Park, Karl Marx, Pierre Bourdieu, and W. E. B. Du Bois. He explores the theme of stranger in light of the different exclusionary mechanisms examined by these theorists: race, class, in-groups and out-groups, identity formation, social capital and location, among others. Vos presents at an introductory or popular level, though a sociologist could still enjoy the way he weaves the stranger theme through this string of theories. In chapter three he turns to a more explicitly biblical/theological approach, identifying the theme of the stranger and the scapegoat throughout scripture, examining those stories through the sociological lens he developed in the previous chapters. He engages René Girard’s theory of mimetic rivalry and scapegoating and describes it through an account of a famous lynching in Georgia near his own home, bringing the ancient biblical theme of the stranger—interpreted sociologically—into the very streets he walks. Throughout this section Vos makes the subject both personal and impersonal: he tells engaging and relatable stories to contextualize the issue and draw out ethical implications, even as he describes the sociological phenomena that explain the behavior of those who fail to embody the Christian ethical imperatives he points to, rather than heaping judgment on them. If we understand the nature of identity formation, in-groups, and social location, we can understand our own community and behavior (or misbehavior) in terms of those group dynamics rather than as personal moral failure. There are reasons that we make others into strangers, he says, and rather than showing us how bad that makes us, he shows us how understanding it can make us better.

The second section of the book engages particular “strangers,” examining the social challenges faced by women, intersex persons, immigrants, prisoners, and unseen low-wage workers, all with particular relation to the church and the gospel. Given the current political enmeshment of American evangelicalism, each one of these topics is provocative in the author’s social environment, but Vos (and perhaps especially his contributors, Valerie Hiebert and Scott Monsma) does not shy away from making moral claims and describing a Christian ethic that contradicts current conservative political trends. Hiebert’s choice to examine the realities of intersex persons is strategically startling, shedding light on a little-known group of strangers whose very existence challenges many of the assumptions and judgments used to make strangers of people on the basis of both sex and sexuality. Monsma’s chapter on racial injustice in the prison system challenges both the left and right with careful analysis and deep insight that shows that the system is indeed subject to systemic racism, though not as simply as one would gather from political tweets. While the analysis is balanced, it is so by virtue of focusing on the facts rather than trying to give equal billing to both sides of a given debate; the authors offer cogent critiques without inflammatory language or hyperbole, and puncture inflated polemics along the way.

In the third section of the book, Vos makes a more concentrated ethical case for the various implicit calls to action from previous sections: Christians are called to serve and care for the strangers among us, and that has significant ethical implications for our lives. He draws from Walter Brueggemann to explore the ways that we read the biblical text to reinforce our social paradigms, and how acknowledging the strangers among us can help us to read the Bible as a counter-text in support of a counter-hegemony, i.e., to allow the perspective of the outsider to show us just how revolutionary the Bible is. In this he sees theology and sociology as mutually beneficial, exploring the sociological theories of George Mead on symbolic interactionism and Lewis Coser on conflict to show how we’re biased toward a dominant reading of the text, and how an alternative reading can change our paradigm. He then examines the sociological implications of this-worldly religion vs other-worldly religion: if we’re heaven-bound, why should we care about the strangers here on earth? With N. T. Wright he points out that eschatological escapism is not theologically sound: this earth is our home, and it belongs to the stranger as much as to us. He ends with stories of Christians finding and expressing their true Christian identities in connection with and service of strangers, including the example of the church he attended, choosing for the majority to make concessions and inconvenience themselves for the sake of including cultural minorities in their congregation. The remainder of the chapter is advice on how to live out this challenging aspect of our Christian calling, to welcome the strangers among us.

The strength of the book, and seemingly its purpose, is in the way that Vos and his contributors speak to conservative Christians about current ethical issues, very explicitly addressing the ways that the churches have failed to embody Christ to the stranger, but without being judgmental or scapegoating. They wade hip-deep into some of the most contentious issues of our time, carefully explaining and offering gentle rebukes. While one can imagine that the issues involved in this book, much less the view the authors take, might alienate some from conservative and fundamentalist traditions, this book is for those very people. At the same time, progressives will also be challenged by this book in both the depth of its insight into the sociological phenomena that define North American conservative religious culture and the caring and patient tone it maintains throughout. In a book largely about the political divides on which we form our identities, caricatures of the other are exposed as antithetical to the gospel of Christ. Nobody can use this book to crow over their enemies. Beyond asking privileged Christians to welcome in those who have been made strangers by social barriers of race, class, sex, etc., Vos also implicitly invites privileged Christians to relate to other privileged Christians across political and ideological divides, emphasizing our common identity as people Christ calls to care for and deliberately identify with those who are less privileged. This patient and hopeful tone and universal call to care for the other is risky in our polarized political climate. Whether this book manages to speak to everyone, or alienate everyone, might be a worthy study in itself.

Even a cursory read of the New Testament clearly shows Jesus in the same position and posture: refusing to align with factions, always siding with the stranger, and calling everyone to a higher account. It didn’t go very well for Jesus; hopefully Vos will get a better reception. I suspect that writing this book was an expression of Vos’s own discipleship, and while it isn’t preachy, it does invite the reader into a deeper, more informed discipleship of our own—one that is lived out in community with people we might never have seen or associated with, but are now called to recognize as not just being among us, not just being like us despite our differences, but as being embodiments of Jesus Christ in our midst. Such ethical discipleship requires recognizing the social barriers that we perpetuate and removing or transforming them instead. Vos specifically suggests practices of hospitality, recognizing and abdicating privilege, and advocating for the common good. The impact of the church removing social barriers instead of erecting them would be profoundly transformative of North American society as a whole; that this is not happening is not only obvious in light of the analysis in this book, but just might be its most potent critique. We have the power to welcome in the “stranger,” and we are called to do so. While Vos stops short of condemning us for the continued presence of these harmful social barriers, the evidence he presents speaks for itself.

(This book has been previously reviewed on the CSR blog on October 10, 2022).

Jeff Wheeldon

Jeff Wheeldon, Independent Scholar, Ontario, Canada.