A Psychological Analysis of Strangers and Hospitality, Part 2: The Root of All Our Problems

The great moral problem facing humankind is actually very simple to describe. It is the great source of our sin, the psychological root of evil. You can see it for yourself in this YouTube clip I found. The fundamental problem of humanity can be seen right around the 1:35 mark. Watch, tremble, and weep for our species:

Did you see it? Up until the 1:35 mark the child is happy and lighthearted. Then, at the 1:35 mark we see him looking into a room of strange people (many of whom sound like children). Suddenly, the child grows quiet and hesitant, not wanting to go into the room.

Psychologists call this stranger anxiety. It is a normal psychological development in all children. And yet this feature of human psychology is the root of human evil.

Why do I say this? Well, early on in development, while we are infants, children don't display stranger anxiety. You can pass a baby around a room of strangers and the baby won't generally mind. But eventually, as a developmental milestone, stranger anxiety will emerge. When it does the child will resist being in the company of strangers or at least display a dose of hesitance or wariness. This onset can be shocking to grandparents. The last time they visited the child was warm and welcoming, but now she is standoffish and shy.

The reason stranger anxiety is the root of human evil is because it shows how the brain during the natural course of its development begins to carve the world up into two groups, family and strangers. Family, as we see in the YouTube clip, are treated warmly while strangers are approached with wariness and suspicion.

This aspect of human psychology--a natural inclination to carve the world into "family" and "strangers"--persists into adulthood and provides the foundation for the dark side of group psychology. Most -isms sit atop the psychological foundation of stranger anxiety. Racism, jingoism, sexism, and classism all are rooted in stranger anxiety. As we can see, most of these -isms tend to cluster around observables, skin color, language differences, physical differences, attire. And given the psychology of stranger anxiety this makes sense. Observable differences between you and I immediately mark you as different, as not a part of my tribe. This is why humanity always fractures along these lines as these observables are the trigger for stranger wariness. And this is why I call stranger anxiety the root problem of human morality. Deep in our human psychology there is a bias, a moral soft-spot, a psychological tendency to locate the stranger and pull back. This bias is generally managed. But it always is lurking, like dry kindling waiting for a spark. When group psychology grows bad it cracks along this latent fault line, pushing upon this moral weak spot in human psychology. Stranger wariness grows into fear and fear into loathing or hatred. The progression is fairly predictable.

This is why I think hospitality is so critical to the Christian ethic. If stranger anxiety is the root cause of human evil then hospitality, welcoming the stranger, goes directly to the heart of the issue. Many in our church can be dismissive of hospitality. How is welcoming people going to change the world? The intervention seems so mild. And yet hospitality is the key ingredient in changing the world for it confronts and seeks to transform the facet of human psychology that, as I've argued, is the source of most of what ails us.

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3 thoughts on “A Psychological Analysis of Strangers and Hospitality, Part 2: The Root of All Our Problems”

  1. Richard

    Good stuff. I'm interested here in how important family is to many people as a designation for church. In working with churches, I am finding that the higher the use of family/intimacy language, the less capacity a congregation has to welcome the other.

    I know family is a prominent biblical metaphor for the people of God. However, I think it is being used in a very different way than what we typically mean when we use the word.

    I know one church that has intentionally moved away from family as their metaphor for belonging, and has instead adopted the term neighborhood. It's no longer so much welcome to the family as it is welcome to the neighborhood. The story of the Good Samaritan stand behind this usage.

    So, there's that...


  2. Hi Mark,
    In my next two posts (or single post if I combine them) I'm going to talk about the psychological dynamics sitting behind "family" that create the very problems you raise.

    BTW, I like the use of the word neighborhood in the church.

  3. Found your bog doing some follow up research to a TEDx Des Moines Talk titled: The Positive Power of Being Strange.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5VP5Ua3BXSMYou're writing and thinking about some of the same things I have been.Thanks for stirring things up.Keep creating...it freaks out the predictable ones,Mike

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