During our first five years as newlyweds, my husband, Tom, and I watched every episode of The X-Files. I was convinced that demented serial killers worked the late shift everywhere that my small town of 7,000 could possibly employ them.
Granted, as a pastor’s kid I had grown up without television, so my imagination was maybe making up for lost time. Or maybe I’m just uniquely susceptible to calculated suspense. But even the smallest clunk from our ancient apartment building meant, in my hyper-vigilance, that the socially awkward single guy down the hall probably was installing some kind of spy camera behind our bathroom mirror. Or that something mutant and drooling stalked us in the ductwork, biding its diabolical time.
It took months after the final X-Files episode before the buzz of fight-or-flight adrenaline wore off. But when it did, I was genuinely surprised at how kind and warm and helpful most people seemed to have become. And was there way more daylight and sunshine that year—or was it me?
It was me. I had succumbed to what one researcher called “mean world syndrome.” As Scott Bader-Saye describes in his book Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, research on television violence has found “not so much a direct link between TV violence and real-world violence as a link between TV violence and exaggerated fearfulness.” In fact, “people who watch a lot of TV are more likely than others to believe that their neighborhoods are unsafe, to assume that crime rates are rising, and to overestimate their own odds of being a victim.” Evangelicals, presumably, included.
Though I had grown up without television, regular screen time during that season of my young adult life had convinced me, all the way down to my adrenal glands, that I was one commercial break away from an abduction, every hour, every day.
And social media hadn’t even been invented yet.
We Are Not Helpless
Recently I’ve found that sense of impending doom cycling back up again. Except, this time it’s not some irrational fear of paranormal predators, but the clickbait headlines that turn all my social media newsfeeds into the digital version of a tornado siren. (This involves both ends of the political spectrum, by the way—I haven’t “unfollowed” everyone with whom I disagree, though it’s tempting.) You would think that after a while I’d become immune to the sirens, like those three years I lived near an Amtrak line and eventually didn’t even hear the trains. But no, just like in my X-Files days, the blue light of a screen transfixes me for hours every evening, my heart rate climbing with each new stimulus of fear.
The difference is that real trouble is happening to real people, including people I know and love, and there are no commercial breaks. But my visceral response is the same: the greater the amount of screen time, the greater my sense that I’m helpless to act meaningfully beyond hunkering down with my doors locked or traveling the internet with the cyber equivalent of pepper spray.
We are not helpless. That is a lie.
Yes, there are real dangers in the world. And no, not all people are kind and warm and helpful—especially if you’re on the receiving end of their deepest, most vile prejudices and abuses. We are all sinners. But this doesn’t stop even the most broken among us from engaging the world every single day, for better or worse, because we can hardly do otherwise. We need to eat, we need to work, and we need to survive. We learn coping mechanisms, we learn strategies, we convince and cajole ourselves, we pray prayers of protection, we read Scriptures that remind us to be strong and courageous, and we act with agency in the world.
And hopefully, on our better days, we take Jesus seriously when he says, “I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Matt. 25:35). We offer hospitality to “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40), to those who are not like us. We give food to the struggling, to those on the margins. We invite them for Easter dinner. We invite them to stay—in our homes, in our land.
Because Jesus isn’t particularly interested in how many hours of television we’ve watched or clickbait articles we’ve scrolled this week; he’s showing up in our life anyway, ready or not, in the “distressing disguise” of those who don’t look, talk, act, or smell like us. The question is not whether we’ll become victims—please consider your hours of screen time and your social status before you argue the likelihood of that—but whether we’re going to welcome Jesus anyway, despite the risk.
Inside a Parable
Toward the end of what my husband and I now think of as our X-Files era, we moved into our own home, away from the apartment and its spooky ductwork, away from access to cable television. We decided to go screen free. And we decided, against all cultural norms, to offer a room to a homeless guy.
You can imagine the panicked emails from our friends and extended family. “Have you done a background check? What about when Tom leaves town overnight?” Tom, meanwhile, had been volunteering at the local homeless shelter and gotten to know the guy over the course of several months. The guy’s pastor, his boss, and the director of the shelter had all spoken well of the man (and the shelter director had seen the entire spectrum of homelessness). We were not going into this blind. At the same time, we were not far off-script from any standard-issue X-Files episode where the young couple—so nice, so middle class, so naïve—sets themselves up for disaster.
But this was not taking place on a screen. This was real life. This was a real person whom God created, whom Jesus loves and died for, whom the Holy Spirit was prompting us to befriend. A human being, not a mutant. The kind of person Jesus referred to as “the least of these.” We weren’t inside an X-file; we were inside a parable.
So Tom and I weren’t alone, not in the long history of Christian tradition, and not amongst the wave of newer “monastics” like Shane Claiborne (The Irresistible Revolution) and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Strangers at My Door) whose urban communities are known for their intentional, ongoing relationships with the poorest of the poor. As I narrate in my new book, The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us (co-authored with Erin Wasinger), Tom and I spent three years of graduate school in an inner-city new monastic community, sharing daily meals and prayer with our housemates, practicing simplicity, sustainability, and racial reconciliation—and, yes, offering housing to homeless strangers.
That kind of faith sounds pretty radical, possibly even needlessly risky. But the truth is, all of us take risks every day. In fact, at certain points in our lives, despite overwhelming potential for trauma, we risk outrageously. Take childbearing. Were it not for modern medicine, my oldest son and I would have died during delivery (“Look at his head!” exclaimed everyone at my unplanned C-section). Both my sons might grow up to become, contrary to nurture, abusive jerks who abandon our grandchildren and rob us blind in our old age. And yet my husband and I risked becoming parents.
Parenting was, we felt, something God wanted us to do, the fulfillment of a divine calling that bears out in Scripture. Please know that when I send my kindergartner off to our local public school—picture a place like Sandy Hook, say, where a troubled white American male with a gun could show up at any time—I am not letting him go lightly. I could lose my son to violence. For that matter, he could be the perpetrator. These are risks I knew going into parenting. But that didn’t, and doesn’t, stop me from doing what I know God has called me to do.
I Had to Open My Door
That divine calling extends to radical Christian hospitality too. Tom and I have been sharing life with the homeless, on and off now, for over 15 years, long before we ever had kids. Our current guest has been with us for five years; she was here when my children said their first words and took their first steps.
This is what your screens won’t tell you. No headline is going to depict our little boys and our guest’s grandkids hunting Easter eggs together. We’re not live-tweeting her evenings babysitting the boys so Tom and I can go out on a date, nor those breakfasts where she says, beaming and crying, “Do you know how good our God is? Let me tell you.” I know the fear from the inside; but I know the transforming power of Jesus’ love too. It’s bigger. But I had to open my door.
As with childbearing, we knew going into it that there are risks to loving another human being. It’s healthy to set expectations and limitations. For instance, Tom and I are not equipped as social workers or medical professionals; we can’t take on psychosis, addictions, or extensive and unrepentant criminal history. Rather, our particular call seems to be with people who are capable of working or who are taking initiative to get the help they need. Often they simply need time to get back on their feet after job loss, divorce, unstable housing, or health issues. When we do take someone in, it’s with a written set of expectations on both sides that we review regularly. There are risks to living the parables.
Even with these caveats and boundaries, things have not always gone swimmingly. But make no mistake: Having a child after 14 years of marriage was the single most demanding act of hospitality we had ever tackled—and we’ve taken in single teen moms with infants and toddlers, “former” drug addicts, self-appointed prophetesses, pathological liars, borderline paranoiacs, and someone who looked exactly like the Unabomber.
Like childbearing, hospitality is risky. No argument there. But, unlike childbearing, hospitality is a New Testament expectation for anyone who claims to follow Jesus. Yes, really. If we take the words of Jesus and the practices of Christians throughout the centuries seriously, then we might want to set the dinner table right now—yes, that empty spot usually cluttered with magazines and homework and the TV remote—for someone who, on a good day, makes us uncomfortable.
And maybe that’s the real problem. Maybe it’s the assumption that love and obedience aren’t worth the risks. Maybe it’s our empty kitchen chairs, our untouched guest rooms. Maybe it’s the “harmless” shows we Christians watch or the clickbait we fall for out of boredom, because—let’s be honest—we like that little adrenaline buzz of alarm, as long as we’re actually safe at home. In the end, maybe the problem isn’t our nation’s policies or programs for or against the stranger, but our own fear-addicted hearts.
Sarah Arthur is the coauthor (with Erin Wasinger) of The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us (Brazos).