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
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The Independent Online
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.