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Strangers and Scapegoats: Extending God's Welcome to Those on the Margins [a review]

I picked up this book based on the title and its general alignment with areas I'm thinking about right now, but it ended up being far more fascinating and helpful than I could have possibly imagined. What Matthew Vos does here is take the theme of "the stranger" as both a sociological theme and a biblical-theological theme (ger) and explores not only who the stranger is, but who we are and how our identities as human beings are formed in part by our status as the opposite of the out-group. That is to say that the very things that give our selves form and shape are the groups we're part of (family, friends, work, church, neighborhood, city, country, etc.) as well as the groups we're not part of (foreigners, the other political team, a different race, higher-class people than ourselves, etc.). Human beings are then often prone to taking those out-groups and forming scapegoats out of them. Chattel slavery is a pretty obvious example: forcing all people with black skin to literally bear the burdens of building your society. But we can make scapegoats out of anyone, and we often do in order to shore up the ways in which our positive identities feel fragile (think of the middle school bully who beats up an easy target just to assure himself that he's enough).

Now all of that is pretty standard sociological fare, but it's at least a compelling, reflective, and thoughtful presentation of it. Vos has a great deal of self-awareness about the fact that at least among some folks today, "sociology" is kind of a bad word, and he's pretty good-natured about that fact. What takes the book from merely interesting to genuinely helpful, in my opinion, is that Vos then takes this stranger/scapegoat concept and looks at the Bible through that lens to construct a theology of the stranger. He also applies it to many questions of interest in our current cultural conversation, such as opportunities for girls, carving out space for intersex persons, and hospitality for immigrants. He then broadens the lens really wide to look at the stranger-making dynamics of mass incarceration as well as the scapegoats that our globalized economy is built upon. Lastly, he proposes that the gospel radically reorients us not only toward God but also toward one another such that we no longer need to form our identities in opposition to out-groups. We can act in hospitality toward the other in the same way that God has acted in hospitality toward us.

I have often felt despair at how hopelessly big the world feels with all its many tragedies, crimes, and problems. It almost feels like a curse to be aware of the injustices of our modern world, because many are so broad and systemic and ingrained that it seems like basically nothing can be done about them. So as a result, it feels like we talk about justice more than we actually do justice... because where do we even start? In response to this hopelessness, Vos offers this incredibly helpful counsel:

We, the people of God, need to move beyond simplistic universal proclamations about justice to careful thinking about who has responsibility to distribute the mercy that God requires of people. Standing up for universal human rights is a good thing, but it’s also quite meaningless if no one actually attends to such rights. “Be well-fed and clothed” means little to people if they’re being pushed back to the impoverished side of the wall.

Instead of trying to boil the ocean, he recommends that we, the readers, try to pick just one thing to focus on. It may feel pointless or ineffectual to boycott Nike (his example) and yet the symbolic action of standing up against a broken system actually has real, important effects. I found this book immensely thought-provoking and it gave me useful handles for these problems that often feel too big to manage. I commend it highly!

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

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