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Why do we reject the stranger at our door, but run after the one outside our solar system?
Last week, NASA revealed their discovery of the new solar system TRAPPIST–1, where life may have evolved on three planets. Astronomers at NASA have detected no less than seven roughly Earth–sized worlds orbiting a dwarf star, with earth–like, rocky ground hospitable for life. Three of the planets are believed to sustain oceans. Thomas Zurbuchen of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate told a press conference in Washington: “This gives us a hint that finding a second Earth is not a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when’.”
The findings are being hailed as an accelerated leap forward in the search for extra–terrestrial life, but why is this so exciting to the general public? An article in Forbes last week claims to know the answer: “it brings home to people that we might have neighbours.”
There is no doubt that we are fascinated by these discoveries. Yet this claim in Forbes, that people care about finding “neighbours” (alien ones, at that), makes us question if we are talking about the same people who voted for Brexit on the back of anti–immigration stances and endorsed the travel ban. To call someone a “neighbour” is not to just appreciate them from a distance, but suggests a duty of care. Humanity, or at least certain subsets, has recently been prey to the accusation it is frightened by the “other”, and hostile to difference.
Trump’s updated ban this week, for instance, places a 90 day ban on people from six mainly Muslim nations – including a 120 day ban on refugees. The UK government this week has also narrowly avoided an amendment which would have forced councils to reveal their capacity for the intake of refugee children, in an attempt to restart the Dubs scheme. In Hungary, the government is charging refugees €1,200 to be removed from their own detention centres.
Incidentally, some of these very Western nations under charge are also leading the search for extra–terrestrial life – the US accounting for one third of operational spacecraft in orbit. This brings us to an interesting sticking point: we seem to be completely transfixed by the idea of finding non–human “others” whilst behaving atrociously toward our human neighbours.
Certainly for Christianity, embracing the “other” is central to who we are as humans: we are made in the image of a God who is inherently relational. Our spiritual DNA is created to run after that which is totally different to us. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan embraces the Jew outcast, despite the political and geographical differences that set him apart as “other”. Though stepping outside the accepted code of conduct, the Samaritan qualifies the Jew as a neighbour by embracing him, despite his alien status.
The etymology for alien from the Latin alienus literally translates as “to belong to another”, “not one’s own”, “foreign” or “strange”. This is probably why the King James Version of the Bible uses the term to refer to people from foreign lands. We can see where this is going. In extra–terrestrial terms, ‘stranger’ has become a point of fascination, of excitement and intrigue. “Otherness” is a desirable thing when applied to creatures that we haven’t yet met. For very many within our planet, ‘other’ remains a term which is more likely to provoke anxiety, defensiveness and hostility.
Is it that difference is more appealing in thought than in reality? That we like entertaining the idea of things really different to ourselves when we don’t actually know what they’re like, or have to extend any kind of duty of care?
If this is the case, then we should be sure to slow down actually discovering alien life, lest it actually exists.
All of this is not to say that the drive to find alien life is negative in principle, but if we take a second to admit that is our motivation to find things that are drastically “other”, that we might embrace our earthly neighbours too. Maybe our insatiable excitement to run full pelt beyond the walls of our atmosphere, searching for something wholly alien to ourselves, should also prompt us to open our borders to the war–fleeing foreigner.
In opening our atmosphere, should we not also open our doors?
Rachel Fidler is an Assistant Researcher at Theos
 See recent study by Pew research showing 76% of white evangelical Protestants say they approve of the travel ban http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/27/most-white-evangelicals-approve-of-trump-travel-prohibition-and-express-concerns-about-extremism/
 The amendment introduced by Conservative MP Heidi Allen was defeated by 287 votes to 267
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