Friday, July 3, 2009

The Stranger Within Thy Gates

I'm a Master's student in the English Department, which is a very strange place. After all, most of us in the program have been speaking English since we were in diapers--have we really still failed to master it?

In many ways, the answer is yes: I am constantly learning new words, and I still get puzzled when my students ask me anything but the most basic of mechanics questions. Learning English is not really what most courses focus on, however, and when professors get together, they don't spend much times swapping grammatical fun facts. You see, English departments, through the medium of literature, are actually philosophy/history/culture/ethics departments (topped, in many cases, with a lovely pretension sauce). I don't actually learn English in classes, I learn Theory (=philosophy/history/culture/ethics) and how to read and see in light of any insights said theories may give me.

One of the common strains in Theory is to pay special attention to power dynamics: how they work in literature, and how they inform the create of literature. Which group has what power? How are they using and abusing it? How do groups without power find ways to express themselves? Because these strains are often identified with Marxist literary criticism, it's tempting to dismiss them as mindless communist drivel...but I have learned not to do that. The same concerns, after all, run all through our religion.

Maybe the best-known example is D&C 121: 34-46, dealing with unrighteous dominion, but other examples abound. The one running through my head today is the Old Testament's obsessive concern with "the stranger within thy gates." The Law seems to have recognized that unequal power relationship are inevitable and call for special ethical attention.

Injunctions are given, on the one hand, against stripping the stranger of the protections of God's law: even in the Ten Commandments, the stranger is specifically included as one who should not be forced to work on the Sabbath. There are also contrasting regulations that imply a need not to enforce certain standards on the stranger: Deut. 14: 21 suggests offering certain kinds of unclean meat to the stranger because the commandment not to eat belongs specifically to those who wish to set themselves apart as God's sacred people, as opposed to a commandment with universal ethical significance. Underlying both principles is the most fundamental commandment: that the stranger, along with the fatherless, the widow, and the landless Israelite, should never be denied sustenance, whether physical (they are to be fed, see Deut. 26: 12), emotional (they are to be included in festive occasions of rejoicing, see Deut. 16: 11, 14), or spiritual (they are not to be denied sacred teaching, see Deut 31: 12). You have a special obligation, God says, to the stranger because he is a stranger and because you have gates for him to be within!

The trick to living these commandments today, I think, is to learn to recognize what lies within our gates, so that we don't dismiss these commandments as only applying to those who spend time in our yards. Only if we are able to see the less obvious interactions in which we have the upper hand, a priveleged kind of power, can we avoid abusing it.

After all, one of the best questions anyone ever asked the Savior was "Who is my neighbor?" Isn't it time that we, too, profited by trying to be specific about who we should recognize as having the vulnerability of the stranger and what areas lie within our own gates?


  1. You have a lovely opportunity to include Emmanuel Levinas in this post. You know, the neighbor/stranger is the Other. That's the value of a master's program in English.

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