On Kindness to Strangers

I don't normally pay attention to poor reviews of my books, but yesterday when I saw Gerald's review of Stranger God on Goodreads I felt the desire, if we could have coffee together, to explain why Stranger God is more, in my estimation, than repeating the same idea over and over again for 244 pages.

So, Gerald, this post is for you! And really, I'm not grinding a personal axe here. The reviews for Stranger God have been awesome and wonderful. Thank you to those of you who have reviewed the book. Much appreciated. I just felt like using Gerald's review to sharpen the focus on what, exactly, Stranger God is about, and why its message is so important, not just for Christians, but for a very riven world.

I think the first thing I'd like to say is that the big point of Stranger God is that kindness to strangers isn't an idea (per Gerald's "I like the idea"). Kindness to strangers isn't an intellectual puzzle, it's an emotional obstacle, a heart problem we have to honestly face and overcome.

Which brings me to my second point.

The message in Stranger God isn't the imperative "be kind to strangers." As I point out in Stranger God, since kindness to strangers is, at root, an emotional problem, imperatives like "be kind to strangers" spectacularly fail. You can't command affections into people, yourself included.

And this is, as I point out in Stranger God, the #1 reason Christians fail so regularly in displaying kindness to strangers. The point of Stranger God is that kindness isn't an educational problem, it's a spiritual formation problem. Thus, after I have the reader do a self-inventory of all their emotional triggers when it comes to strangers, the whole second half of Stranger God is the introduction of the "Little Way" of Thérèse of Lisieux as an intentional spiritual practice aimed at seeing, stopping for, and approaching people we would otherwise ignore or avoid.

I heartily agree that the "Little Way" practices seem banal in their obviousness and simplicity (in the book I tell the story of how Dorothy Day herself had that initial, smug response to Thérèse), but these practices are 1) not very easy, and 2) not widely practiced. And as a consequence, the imperative "be kind to strangers"--whether in a short essay or repeated over 244 pages--continues to bounce off our very hard hearts.

Kindness to strangers isn't an idea or a command.

Kindness to strangers is a soul-searching, gut-wrenching interpersonal practice aimed at your affectional blindspots.

And I hope Gerald would agree that there's nothing very weak about that.

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