When Strangers Knock

By Jeff Mallinson


Imagine it’s 2 in the morning on a Thursday evening. You’re deep asleep when you awaken to frantic knocking on your door. You live in a decent town with low crime rates. You don’t have any dangerous enemies. Nonetheless, you’re unsettled, unprepared, unkempt, and afraid. There are essentially three ways this scene plays out: a) a group of friends are outside ready to whisk you away for a surprise vacation, b) there is a dude with an axe who wants to take your life and money, or c) there is a person in distress for whom you can become a hero by opening the door and offering help.

This life occasionally presents momentous conundrums like this. To open the door to a stranger might be to invite in good guys, like the Magi from the East, who came to honor the Jewish Messiah. To open the door might bring a delightful surprise, as when a frightened girl named Mary had an angel show up, pronouncing blessings and not a curse. To open the door might also bring death. What are we to do?

Lately, we’ve heard a lot about what we should or shouldn’t do regarding Syrian refugees, who are fleeing the manifest evil perpetrated by ISIS. It’s easy for a decent person to find themselves conflicted here. We want to follow the Golden Rule and do unto others as we would have them do unto us. But in this case, the Golden Rule applies both to innocent citizens in our own country—people we want to protect from terrorism—and innocent families fleeing death, destruction and economic misery. Those who think there is simple solution here are either not paying attention or not being honest. The fact is that there are a lot of displaced people who could use our help, and in the midst of those displaced people there might be folks who want to do us unspeakable harm. Don’t deny this. Face it. Now, ask yourself: who are you going to be in this global story? And who are we going to be as a society?


On this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland podcast, Dan and I chat with our friend Dr. Adam Francisco, author of Martin Luther and Islam about religious extremism and the limits of hospitality. I was uneasy as we wrapped up the show, because we found no good solutions to our problematic situation. But having had a couple more days to reflect, I’d like to add to the cacophony of voices chiming in on whether our nation should welcome Muslim immigrants, visitors, and refugees. Here’s what I’ve got:

  • To welcome displaced Muslims is to risk the possibility that some of those welcomed in are committed to acts of violence.
  • As a Christian informed by the new logic of the gospel, I’m inclined to welcome displaced Muslims, despite the risk, assuming that a reasonable screening process is in place.
  • As a Christian committed to Luther’s concept of two kingdoms, I recognize that I ought not force my fellow citizens to assume this risk, but only entreat them to consider collectively assuming this risk in the name of love and American decency.

This all turns out to be a nice lesson in two kingdoms thinking, I believe. Typically, the political left and right appropriate aspects of Christian teaching and assume that these can be accomplished not by cultivating virtue in its citizens but through the power of the state. Sometimes, folks believe that the constitutional separation of church and state in the U.S. means that theological values play no part in our society’s deliberations about important policy changes. These are all understandable mistakes, but they are misguided notions nonetheless.


As a Christian, I am free and obliged to bring my Christian values with me when I vote and advocate for change. I am not free to use politics to force my religious beliefs on others, nor to enforce biblical ethics that no longer correspond to the culture’s general consensus. But I am free to vote and participate in public discourse and push toward a virtuous consensus. And it’s in this context that I want to challenge my fellow believers to welcome Muslim refugees. I invite us to take such a risk not because it is safe, but because to do so is a witness to goodness, truth, and beauty.

What if we were to shrug off the approach of those who want to use shame or accusations of “Islamophobia” as a shortcut to productive dialog and instead start by diligently assessing the cost, and then asking ourselves (through the political processes we have in place) what kind of people we Americans want to be.  I for one, am willing to risk being a martyr (a term that comes from the Greek word μαρτυρία or “witness”). I hope you might consider joining me in this desire to be a witness.

But I have kids, and parents, and siblings. You probably do too; thus I also understand if you want to take a different path. To welcome the stranger is to offer gratuitous kindness, after all. It’s risky. But it’s also how I want to live this life. I’d rather be the good Samaritan that gets robbed than the person who ignores a neighbor in distress and reads about their death the next day. I’d rather be a nation of loving people who are mistreated by our guests than a nation of affluent people who try to drown out the cries of refugees. I’d rather get shot by a false friend than turn a blind eye to a true friend who I could have helped.

Now, a little hippy part of me suspects that hospitality and love can in fact change things, and that hospitality will also produce a safer world overall. It may not change a particular radicalized jihadist, but it may very well keep some other person from traveling that road to militancy, and it may also help us make friends who can help us keep an eye on the nutters. Moreover, I should note that the actual statistical probability (for an individual) of experiencing terrorist violence, should we continue to welcome refugees, is likely minimal. Nonetheless, I must quickly return to something Jay Reinke said to me, something that still haunts me: “Love is not an investment; love is a gift.”


Meanwhile, we must keep our eye on the important left-hand-kingdom considerations. If we are going to be hospitable, we should lay out important ground rules, for the sake of all our neighbors. Let folks in, but vet everyone well. Likewise, unless law enforcement can show me things are safe and under control overall, we should let decent citizens remain armed. Similarly, as we welcome folks in, we can encourage citizens not to be overly timid about reporting suspicious behavior when they’re afraid of appearing xenophobic. Let’s be frank about the reality of the circumstances so we can get busy being good people. Let’s also remember that men and women of virtue have risked more for less noble goals.

If you’re a Christian, you’re free to love in a variety of ways. You’re free to balance your concerns for family safety, national security. You’re also free to pray. Therefore, permit me to borrow two calls to prayer from the Japanese Lutheran theologian Kazoh Kitamori (from Theology of the Pain of God), and one prayer from me, inspired by Kitamori and Luther:

It is our prayer that we shall be of service to God, even in the ‘tribulation’ of the last days. (142)

My prayer night and day is that the gospel of love rooted in the pain of God may become real to all men. All human emptiness will be filled if this gospel is known to every creature, since the answer to every human problem lies in the gospel. (150)

Gracious Lord, give us ears to heed the call to be courageous. Having tasted and seen that you are good, remind us that you have given us all we need. Having all that we need, help us remember we really have nothing to lose, even when we risk ourselves in order to embrace strangers, even those we would otherwise deem unloveable. Were it not for the new logic of your gospel, we could not even pray this way. Help us to pray in line with your mission for the world.  Amen.

—The Wayfaring Stranger

Composed while sipping Ito En Golden Oolong Tea, unsweetened, between chapters of Kazoh Kitamori, Theology of the Pain of God.