Entertaining Angels Unaware: Welcoming the Immigrant Other
From the Preface to his book, Entertaining Angels Unaware, author and philosophy professor Philip Gottschalk aims to convey two main ideas: 1) We “need to have compassion on refugees and immigrants,” and 2) We “must be involved in helping refugees, internally displaced people (IDPs), and immigrants” (xi). His audience is presumably North American Christian evangelicals, although Christians in other Western countries will certainly benefit from the book, especially Christians in EU countries. As one reads, it becomes clear that Gottschalk’s experiences in the former Yugoslavia, particularly surrounding the “‘Bosnian’ War” in the early to mid-1990s, were the impetus—the “motive spring”—for the book and play a major role in his views on immigration and migrating people in general (p. 127).
The book is laid out in three distinct sections. This is beneficial if one uses the book as a resource to read select chapters; the downside is that the book feels disconnected from other sections at times. That said, I can imagine that Christian professors will benefit from using several chapters for assigned reading for their students, particularly chapters 1, 2, 5, 6, and 7. Part I is titled “Welcoming Strangers,” Part II, “Making Careful Distinctions,” and Part III covers “Personal Encounters” ending with a Conclusion (ten chapters not including the Conclusion). The personal stories and correspondence, weighted at the end, have the effect of propelling the reader to the end, but one wonders if it would have been more effective to interweave these stories throughout the book.
Part I has four chapters on “Welcoming Strangers” covering topics that range from debunking the myths promulgated by former US President Donald Trump (chapter 1) to the philosophical perspective of “the Other” by Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995) (chapter 2), which spawns the subtitle for the book, and finally to biblical and practical perspectives on foreign–born persons (chapters 3 and 4 respectively).
Years ago, a Muslim imam startled me in the streets of downtown Minneapolis shouting “I’m not a terrorist!” in a strong Somalian-English accent. This incident has implanted in my memory that Muslims cannot be equated with terrorists, and, in fact, very few carry out acts of violence. But stereotypes are hard to change. Still Gottschalk dispels many myths in chapter 1 (sometimes confusing the distinction between facts about refugees versus immigrants), diving into US immigration policy and Executive Orders and setting up an academic, policy-focused tone for the book that doesn’t carry all the way through. While chapter 2 may be a bit heady for some, and doesn’t flow naturally from chapter 1, it still invites the reader to contemplate what he or she owes to someone who is strange or foreign—the Other. Speaking of Muslims, for example, Gottschalk asserts strongly that we “should receive refugees from terror-stricken countries with open arms. We must see them as the Other whom we must care for” (p. 35). And while the takeaway from chapter 2 implies a need for change in public policy, the challenge to our personal stereotypes of the Other was clear. “We will never understand God’s love for others if we insist on labeling 1.8 billion Muslims as terrorists on the basis of…sensationalist news media….We must change our mental picture of Muslims” (p. 34).
In chapter 3, Gottschalk expounds five Scripture passages to prove that the Bible requires Christians to welcome strangers (i.e., foreigners). Surprisingly, he does not deal with Romans 13 or 1 Peter 2:13–17, both of which are key texts for prominent conservative theologians such as Wayne Grudem, nor does Gottschalk deal with Galatians 6:10 or 1 Timothy 5:8, also key texts for the “communitarian” viewpoint. This leads to a somewhat imbalanced biblical perspective that leaves the more informed reader wanting. But chapter 4 rebalances some the scales with practical advice for four different camps—governments, churches/denominations, schools, and individuals—calling for more awareness and personal outreach to refugees. These could include leading Bible studies or donating clothing and household items. Additionally, the suggestions for further reading at the end of these chapters are helpful, especially for students or researchers.
Part II contains three chapters on making careful distinctions between refugees, immigrants, IDPs, and others who migrate or remain stateless. Although the distinctions are helpful for those unaccustomed to field of migration studies, they begin to feel arbitrary and unnecessary. In fact, even up to the Conclusion the author clarifies that IDPs are not technically refugees. Perhaps some refugees reading his book will be grateful for the careful distinctions of their status, but it makes the common reader feel overwhelmed with the differences and begs the question why it all matters so much. At the very least, the repetitive clarifications betray a lack of orderly progression in the book. Still, the “grassroots solutions” at the end of chapter six are very helpful and practical to most readers: 1) “[W]e must understand who is an immigrant… and why [he] desire[s] to immigrate to our country,” 2) “[W]e simply must not stereotype people,” assuming immigrants are talking about us behind our backs in a foreign language, and 3) “[W]e need to be compassionate towards people who are under threat of execution or persecution if they return to their homelands” and have pity on the refugees who have lost everything they own because of war. In chapter 7, Gottschalk is quite clear: “Whether or not governments can resolve the problems of immigration…. Christians are called to help the least fortunate” (p. 112).
If approached from an academic setting, I would have appreciated more point–counterpoint discussion of the issue of “brain drain.” Yet, the author counters with anecdotal evidence of how high the return rate is (72%) for graduates at the seminary where he teaches simply because they are expected to return to their home countries. What is missing is engagement with the different theories of migration. Nonetheless, the personal appeal—Would you be willing to live in this immigrant’s home country?—and the mandates of Jesus in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–20) change the direction of the discussion to one of opportunity for the gospel, Gottschalk argues. Certainly all Christians must ask themselves whether their desire for the gospel of the kingdom has taken a lower priority than their views on economic migration or cultural comfort.
Part III has a very different feel as the author turns to include many personal encounters with refugees and immigrants, including his own detailed letters from two weeks of volunteer service in the Moria Migrant refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. I personally, enjoyed these chapters the most, because I learned about the Bosnian War and the difficulties the author encountered living before and after this tragic time in the former Yugoslavia—a time of genocide that cost the lives of over 100,000 persons and displaced over 2 million, the most in Europe since WWII.
Overall, I appreciated many sections in Gottschalk’s book, Entertaining Angels Unaware. The section about governments in the EU and how they have dealt with immigration and his chapter on “My Yugoslavia” (chapter 8) detailing the plight of Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs in the Bosnian War in the mid-1990s and the author’s own dilemmas and frustrations were very insightful. That said, there were times the book appeared scattered and disjointed. But despite the disjointed feel at times, Gottschalk’s two goals for the book were clearly accomplished from different angles and through different means via appeals to reason and passion. In the end, I left the book feeling more compassion for refugees living in temporary “prisons” (pp. 167–68) after fleeing devastation, a seeming purgatory on earth, with my heart stirred to reach out to the Bosnian refugees in my own city. I hope this book has the same effect on others.