The Absence of Racism and Xenophobia in the Early Church

by David W. T. Brattston.

Any article on attitudes to racism in the Christian church’s foundational period would be necessarily short. There simply was none. The matter was sometimes different for foreigners and strangers in general.

Racism was absent in the earliest church and in the non-Christian society surrounding it.  Christians and other subjects of the Roman Empire simply did not make distinctions based on race.  In fact, mentions of a person’s skin color are so rare as to be insignificant.  For instance, the Christian Bardesanes in early third-century eastern Syria mentioned the fact that people come in different colors as an example of what everyone agreed was inconsequential.

The only discriminations were based on cultural factors.  Jews divided the world into themselves and Gentiles, while for Greeks the distinction was between themselves and “barbarians” i.e. people who did not share Greek language or culture.  The Romans divided people between citizens and non-citizens, and then among various economic classes of citizens.  The main Roman xenophobia was of hostile peoples outside the Empire. 

In each case, however, individuals could cross the divides by joining the preferred group through financial or military achievement or changing religion.  Any antipathy was cultural, not ethnic, and was directed most against “oriental cults” or “superstitions”, of which Christianity was one.  In fact, there is only one ethnic slur by a Christian in the whole of the New Testament, and even that is a quotation from a member of the maligned group (Titus 1.12f).

On the other hand, Scripture and other ancient Christian writings say much about how to regard individuals new to a community, whether they come for employment, business opportunities, or conditions in their homelands.  The term “immigrant” nowhere appears in the early literature, because strict separation into nation states did not yet exist, with its restrictions on travel, employment, and trade. The ancients did not generally think much about the reasons why newcomers had come, other than military invaders.

The use of the term “stranger” in the early Christian period was thus wide enough to include all persons new to a locale.  Christian writers before AD 200 encouraged welcoming and generous treatment of immigrants and other strangers.

The earliest instruction about strangers is Christ’s preaching that they be welcomed and protected, and whoever does so to the least of strangers does it to Jesus himself (Matthew 25.34-45).  One apostle wrote that Christians are loyal to God when they render any service to newcomers (3 John 5).

A description of Christianity for heathens written around AD 125 in Athens reported that it was the Christian custom to take strangers into one’s home and rejoice over them as if brothers and sisters.  A similar book by a Christian teacher who was martyred for the Faith in Italy around AD 165 records that local Christian congregations used their funds to provide for orphans, widows, the sick, the needy, and strangers.  It also details that among the effects of conversion to Christianity was that “we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them”.

In showing how elevated were Christian ethics, a bishop in France in the AD 180s encouraged giving lodging in one’s own home to “the roofless stranger” and to “give rest to those that are shaken”, which would cover a newcomer experiencing culture shock from moving to a new country.  About the same era, the bishop of Antioch in western Syria wrote similarly.  Both clerics quoted Zechariah 7.10 in support.

Clement of Alexandria in Egypt was dean of the world’s foremost Christian educational institution from AD 192 to 202.  He praised hospitality, which he described as “akin to love is hospitality, being a congenial art devoted to the treatment of strangers.”  His illustration of its width and why Christians should welcome and assist newcomers was “Hospitality, therefore, is occupied in what is useful for strangers; and guests are strangers; and friends are guests; and brethren are friends.”  Even more universal is his statement “those are strangers, to whom the things of the world are strange.”  Christian morality, wrote Clement, obliges us

to love strangers not only as friends and relatives, but as ourselves, both in body and soul …. Accordingly, it is expressly said, “Thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian, for thou wast a sojourner in Egypt;” designating by the term Egyptian either one of that race, or any one in the world.

These authors lived so early and were so geographically widespread that their sentiments could have originated only with Jesus himself.  Because they predate the division into present-day Christian denominations and before racism and immigration were subjects of controversy, well before Christianity was a state religion, their comments are relevant to Christians of every shade and hue in Canada today.

David W. T. Brattston resides in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada.  His articles on early and contemporary Christianity have been published in every major English-language country.  Most recently, he is author of Christian Peace Principles (St. Polycarp Publishing House, 2017).

This article was first published in Cape Town, South Africa, in The Southern Cross weekly newspaper for 22 to 28 July 2009.  A 531-word condensation appeared on Examiner.com on 20 October 2009 under title: “Immigration: What does the Bible say about it?” The full text was also published in the April 2010 issue of The Presbyterian Record in Canada. The Pakistan Christian Post reprinted it the same year. In Zimbabwe, the 360 Vision website posted it on 17 January 2013. It also appeared in the Australian magazine Compass in 2014. The Episcopal Journal in the United States published it in March 2017.

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