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Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. – Hebrews 13:2.
If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world, and that his heart is no island cut off from other lands, but a continent that joins to them. – Francis Bacon
…behold all humankind as leaves and blossoms and fruits of the tree of being. Let them at all times concern themselves with doing a kindly thing for one of their fellows, offering to someone love, consideration, thoughtful help. Let them see no one as their enemy, or as wishing them ill, but think of all humankind as their friends; regarding the alien as an intimate, the stranger as a companion, staying free of prejudice, drawing no lines. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 1-2.
As a child or as a parent, I know you’ve heard the phrase: “Never talk to strangers.” Even as a little kid, I questioned the wisdom of that one. I can remember saying to my mother: “If I never talk to people I don’t know, how will I ever meet anyone new?”
So let’s examine the word “stranger” for a moment. It comes from Latin, like so many of our words do, and probably migrated to English during the late 13th Century. In the Latin form “extraneus,” it means “foreign, external, from without.” The English word emerged from Latin and the Old French estrange, which meant “foreign, alien, unusual, unfamiliar, curious; distant; inhospitable; estranged, separated.”
In the days when those words came into common use, human beings lived primarily in tribal groups, city-state empires and small kingdoms. The world had only a few million people; most travelled on foot and never went far beyond their birthplace; local and regional wars raged; marauding bandits and criminals were common; no cures existed for frightening and deadly pandemics like the Black Plague; and if you saw a stranger, you immediately suspected that his presence could do you harm. This human instinct to mistrust strangers may have made sense for prehistoric peoples, and probably became adaptive, as the evolutionary biologists say, as long as “the other” continued to present a danger.
Today, however, that hard-wired human instinct to automatically mistrust, avoid and demonize strangers has become maladaptive. It hinders our collective development, rather than helping it. When we lived in small bands and villages, strangers often warranted suspicion and fear—but today, in our largely man-made, crowded, urbanized world, that instinct works against us, keeping us apart and frustrating our hopes for peace, unity and harmony. Instead, our old tribal instincts and loyalties have now become the tools of unscrupulous political and religious leaders, who attempt to pit beliefs, nationalities, race and ethnicity or political ideologies against one another for their own personal power.
This often happens with the controversial, polarizing subject of immigration.
But as several countries around the world have successfully and amply demonstrated, immigration can positively benefit the strength, the vibrancy and the economic sustainability of a nation. This realization has made many nations and regions rethink their immigration policies, and welcome migrants and refugees. They’ve begun to understand that diversity, far from being a hindrance, contributes to cultural life, encourages innovative new ways of thinking, enriches the gene pool and brings new concepts and inventions to all. Just like biodiversity makes the natural world healthy and productive, cultural and racial diversity give civilizations vigor and ultimately contribute to synergistic progress and prosperity.
From a Baha’i perspective, strangers don’t typically represent danger—they represent the very foundation of unity and peace. The Baha’i teachings encourage everyone to see strangers as friends:
When you meet a stranger, say, “Yonder is coming to me a letter sent me by God.” The outside of the envelope may be dirty, and torn and broken, but if we could open the envelope of the life that comes before us and look within the envelope and learn to read the writing, we would find in every human soul which crosses our threshold or which is yonder over the man-made national border, a message from God, and if we could understand the message it would be God’s benediction to us. There is only one hope for humanity today and that is to see all human beings as rays of the one divine sun which is God, as pearls of the one ocean which is God, flowers of the one garden whose Gardener is God, and to see all as potentially the light of the one sun which shall be diffused, waves of the one sea which shall overflow the world. This is the foundation of peace upon the earth… – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 6, p. 46.
The next time you encounter someone you haven’t met before—especially if they’re from another country or culture—try to go beyond your immediate instincts and treat them as a friend, not a stranger. Introduce yourself, extend the hand of friendship and get to know them. Make an attempt to warmly welcome them, and you’ll likely be surprised by the positive response. After all, when any of us travels to a different culture or nation, we would love to have someone do the same for us, right?
This kind of love and kindness toward others reduces the barriers of foreignness, removes the typical suspicion between strangers, builds bridges of peace and understanding, and takes one more positive individual step toward bringing humanity together in unity:
Act in accordance with the counsels of the Lord: that is, rise up in such wise, and with such qualities, as to endow the body of this world with a living soul, and to bring this young child, humanity, to the stage of adulthood. So far as ye are able, ignite a candle of love in every meeting, and with tenderness rejoice and cheer ye every heart. Care for the stranger as for one of your own; show to alien souls the same loving kindness ye bestow upon your faithful friends. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 34.
Let all your striving be for this, to become the source of life and immortality, and peace and comfort and joy, to every human soul, whether one known to you or a stranger, one opposed to you or on your side. Look ye not upon the purity or impurity of his nature: look ye upon the all-embracing mercy of the Lord, the light of Whose grace hath embosomed the whole earth and all who dwell thereon, and in the plenitude of Whose bounty are immersed both the wise and the ignorant. Stranger and friend alike are seated at the table of His favour. – Ibid, pp. 256-257.