Xenophobia is born of the absence of familiarity. It is the determination that whatever is unlike what I know is a basis for discomfort. Whether rationally articulated or otherwise, it is the fear of things or people based on their foreignness. Our protest against West African ackee or Southeast Asian durian may simply be that we have never eaten either, which gives us no right to be confident about them. We have more right to be uncertain, suspicious, afraid.
Naturally, we think the same way about God.
As Adam’s fallen children we are xenophobic about the Bible’s God. For the Bible’s God is surely the most foreign of all foreignness to fallen humanity, utterly different from everything we naturally conceive of and incline to. We are “covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient . . . , without natural affection, trucebreakers, . . . fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:2-4, KJV). We invent gods like ourselves: “Every culture has evolved its own mythology,” and the archetypes our gods constitute “help to deepen our understanding of human psychology.”1 We invent a promiscuous Zeus, he of the many lovers both male and female—he is, after all, the head god; we create champion Marduk splitting open the carcass of Tiamat, his great-great-grandmother, whom he has just conquered—for it is the young who win in intergenerational struggle; our South Asian Kali, born out of Durga’s head when she is angry, revels in carnage as much as does Near Eastern Astarte. For isn’t carnage the stuff of our joy? “Beat ’em up,” “hack and slash,” “shoot ’em up [shmup]” are three of the dozens of genres of games we play on screen today. The contention, jealousy, brutality, and immorality of our ancient gods is the stuff of our modern prime-time newscasts and ESPN entertainment, or simply the peace of our private dens. We pay money to relax by attacking people on a screen. Grand Theft Auto V, a game of criminal activity (as its name suggests), raked in $1 billion in sales in its first three days of availability.2
God, the God of Scripture, is too frighteningly different from these sordid preferences as life and these gory appetites as fun. We would be more at ease turning Him into a brute who indiscriminately slaughters Canaanite animals and children, instantaneously strikes down a man and woman who were trying to support His church work, and consigns everyone who doesn’t do as He says to the flames of eternal torment. Which may help explain why the ignorance expressed in these distortions outbellows the documented truth of His caring, self-sacrificing, eternal love. What then is a compassionate God to do?
God answers human xenophobia with the Incarnation, living in a tent “in the midst of His people . . . He pitched His tent by the side of the tents of men, that He might dwell among us, and make us familiar with His divine character and life.”3 The God of all things became one of us. It could have bred contempt. But no! He walked our streets and rode our donkeys, ate our food and gave us His. He hugged our kids and our lepers. Contempt? Xenophobia? Not now that we’ve met Him. We can trust Him—for life, and death, and whatever else there is. Love Him for always, because He came and showed us who He is.
Now we know: Sometimes, instead of contempt, familiarity breeds love.