Faith & Reason: Tolerance is not enough, as the Good Samaritan showed

Neighbourliness demands more than respect and the abstractions of `justice'. It imposes a duty of hospitality

EXACTLY A year ago today, a tidal wave claimed the lives of a group of men and women from southern Asia. They were not on a golden beach in brilliant sunshine, but in the dark and cold of a northern winter's night, thousands of miles from home, on the sands of Morecambe Bay. As the news broke, we were horrified and shaken; disasters like that, we had thought, don't happen in nice safe Britain.

As the story of the Chinese cockle-pickers came to light, we discovered the underworld of immigrant workers sustaining our own industries, defenceless against exploitation through their lack of language, local knowledge or legal standing. We began to feel helpless in the face of what was happening under our noses. Paradoxically, it has seemed easier to respond to the tragedy on the other side of the world.

The tsunami revealed how very deeply we can be moved by the sufferings of human beings whose lives are quite unconnected with our own. For the first time ever, perhaps, the phrase "global village" became more than a cliche: we grieved for those distant people almost as if they lived next door.

The tragedy of Morecambe Bay showed us the strangers who actually do live next door. The scale of migration today means that all of us encounter vulnerable foreigners as part of our everyday lives. How should we treat them? The problem is not completely new: since cities first grew bigger than face-to-face communities, our fellow citizens have become increasingly less familiar, no longer just friends and friends of friends. One response has been to think of ourselves as linked by impersonal rather than personal bonds, as abstract units, anonymous and interchangeable. The only things that we all share are the laws of our country.

In this type of society, we tend to treat justice as impersonal. The differences between different individuals and our relationships with each other are irrelevant to justice. Indeed, to this way of thinking natural affections and personal ties are likely to tempt us to injustice - to nepotism or cronyism or even racism. What justice does is set a minimum standard, and this applies to every single person in the same way. Related to this is the idea that strangers should be treated above all with tolerance. We should take no notice of the differences between us, but rather simply live and let live.

Tolerance is better by far than oppression, but is it enough? When someone asked him who counted as his neighbour, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan not only dressed the wounds of the man who had been assaulted, but took him to an inn. Our very language captures a history in Christian European society of offering friendly assistance to the stranger in need: the Latin word for "guest", hospes, gives rise to the English "hospital", "hospice", "hostelry", "hotel" and "host". St Benedict, inspired by the parable of the sheep and goats, wrote in his Rule:

Let all guests who come be received like Christ, since he will say, "I was a stranger and you took me in." When you receive poor men and pilgrims, you should show them particular care, because in them especially Christ is being received.

The resulting tradition of monastic hospitality has provided a model for all Christians.

If we contrast hospitality with tolerance, we can understand why it gives fuller expression to the Christian life. To tolerate is to refrain from hurting those who live differently; to give hospitality is to help them. To be tolerant is to ignore their differences from us; to be hospitable is to take interest in those differences. To show tolerance to others is to let them live their own lives; to show them hospitality is to ask them to share ours. Those whom we tolerate remain strangers; those to whom we are hospitable would normally become friends.

Hospitality fits the shape of Christian living because it is something dynamic. Christianity is a way of becoming who we are meant to be, through building relationships of love. In other words, it is about making, and being made into, friends. Hospitality, the offering of friendship to strangers so that strangers may turn into friends, is, then, the richest Christian response to those who are not yet "one's own".

Whatever the politicians decide about immigration, it is clear that foreigners will continue to come to Britain in significant numbers, for jobs, for education and simply for safety. The minimum that we will owe them is impersonal justice. Are we capable of going further, and welcoming them with genuine hospitality? The honest among us will acknowledge our own temptations to become hostile or resentful or simply indifferent towards outsiders. The ideal is far from easy. But the truest test of our membership of the global village will be the way that we treat the people next door.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before