“Xenophobia” is Dictionary.com’s 2016 “word of the year.”
This recent announcement probably did not surprise many, as this fear or suspicion of the “other” has been on full display throughout this volatile political year.
This is especially true when the other is portrayed as a threat or danger to something that one fears is being disrupted.
It has been the feature of human experience most likely to be exploited by efforts to gain enthusiastic support for this or that policy that promises to eliminate the fear.
That exploitation portrays what or who is “foreign” or “strange” in the most frightening terms possible.
Longer memories remind us how Native Americans were portrayed in the lore of the Old West, or how “the Russians are coming” became a rallying fear in the middle of last century.
In any period of uncertainty, barriers to protect from the “others” become more attractive than bridges to connect with them.
Large-scale alienations often result from such portrayals and the fears they nourish. Societies become polarized and paralyzed as lines between “us” and “them” are solidified.
We seem to be experiencing the unhealthy result of that now.
More personally for most of us, perhaps, is the way that “otherness” is defined along racial, gender, religious, national, economic, political or social lines.
We find ourselves more inclined to be separated by the differences than united by our common humanity.
It is strange and more than a bit ironic that a culture that popularly fashions itself as influenced by a Judeo-Christian ethic should find itself infected by and actually celebrating the kind of xenophobia that leads to its choice as the word of the year.
In both testaments, there is a clear and frequent emphasis on the importance of offering hospitality to the “stranger” (“xenos” in Greek).
Deuteronomy 10:17-18 says, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords … who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
And in Matthew’s judgment scene we see an unambiguous connection between what Christ reveals about who God is and the stranger. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).
Historically, the church has not done its witness to the biblical covenant faith any favors whenever it has defined itself in opposition to the “other” who is outside the lines of its own exclusive doctrines and beliefs.
Such patterns of thought have led to persecution of heretics, crusades against “infidels” and resistance to efforts to right injustices that have perpetuated various forms of discrimination and alienation within the human family.
But at their best, the church and other communities of faith have embraced the essence of Paul’s affirmation. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself … and he has given to us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
The widening experience of interfaith dialogue and relationships has demonstrated the power of genuine community across the lines of “otherness.”
Overcoming initial fears and suspicions of motives that might involve efforts to convert, sustained efforts to cultivate friendship and respect have brought about both community where it did not exist before and an increased commitment to counter the effects of xenophobia.
When people become friends, they are much less likely to fall victim to an effort to portray the other as someone to be feared.
People and communities of faith can choose whether to tolerate and even encourage xenophobia or to call it out and challenge it as contrary to the clear teachings of many faiths that affirm community over estrangement and reconciliation over alienation.
If the latter could be chosen consistently in the day-to-day patterns of our lives and in response to the more public expressions of our national identity, perhaps next year’s “word of the year” could be “xenophilia” (from the Greek words “phileo” and “philos” – friendly affection toward the “other”).
Wouldn’t that be a nice change?
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.