by Donald A.G. Burling
We often say that to children, and with good reason. In our age of immorality, we are all too aware that the apparently friendly stranger may turn out to be an abuser or even a kidnapper. The trouble is, the habit sticks with us all our lives.
This habit is peculiarly British. In Italy, for example, people in a railway carriage are much more likely to talk to each other than here. It may go back to feudal times, when there was a clear distinction between the rulers and the ruled. Even in Victorian times there was a conscious rivalry between the landed gentry and the emerging business class, those who had become rich through their enterprise and ability.
Nowadays class distinctions are not so clearly defined, so we are less sure which people it is safe to talk to. The tendency is to talk mainly to the few we recognise as our friends. At any party, conference or particularly after church you will find people talking those that they know and bypassing the rest.
Is this a good or a bad thing? On the one hand, respect for people’s privacy is something to be encouraged. On the other, it means that those who are natural loners (among whom I would include myself) are left to their devices. We do not find what other people’s problems or concerns are. In particular, those who have suffered bereavement or other distress are left severely alone. Rather than say the wrong and add to their distress, we deprive them of any comfort our friendship might give.
“I was a stranger, and ye took me in” is one of the virtues attributed to the “sheep” in Matthew 25. How to translate that into practice in an age of widespread homelessness is a big question. But may it be that our whole attitude to strangers needs careful and prayerful revision?