Friday, August 27, 2010

Who is my neighbor?

In Luke 10, a biblical scholar stands up to challenge Jesus. The theologian was probably getting uncomfortable with all this new rabbi's talk of loving enemies and forgiveness (not to mention the pull your eye out bit). The reasonable religious leader probably just wanted to rein Jesus in a bit, to show that even Jesus' idealism had its limits. And so he asks
"Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "You have the Law, what do you think it says?" The man replied, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." And Jesus said "Good answer. Go do that and you will be fine."
But now the scholar felt a little silly for asking a question he knew the answer to, so he thought he would throw Jesus a curve ball. And so he asked "And who is my neighbor?"
And here is where Jesus did something amazing. Just like us, this Torah expert wanted to know when he was exempt to show love. Surely loving your neighbor doesn't include everybody- so who does it include? Who are we allowed to disrespect, to fear, or to dislike? We humans love limits- we love exemptions.
And so, of course, Jesus answers by telling a story. Its a story of a Jewish man who gets jumped by thieves and left for dead. Two of his own religious leaders walk past him and do nothing. Finally, a Samaritan stops, takes him to get medical care, and pays for all his needs.
Before this point gets lost on us, here is what says about the relationship between Jews and Samaritans:

"Because of their defective devotion to Judaism and their partly pagan ancestry, the Samaritans were despised by ordinary Jews. Because the Samaritans were sometimes hostile, and also the fact that a Jew believed that he could become contaminated by passing through Samaritan territory, Jews who were traveling from Judea to Galilee or vice versa would cross over the Jordan river and avoid Samaria.
The Samaritans often taunted the Jews. They rejected all of the Old Testament except the Pentateuch, and they claimed to have an older copy than the Jews and boast that they observe the precepts better.
The Jews repaid them with hatred. They rejected the Samaritan copy of the law and publicly denounced that Samaritans were of any Jewish birth (John 4:12).
- The Samaritan was publicly cursed in their synagogues.- He could not serve as a witness in the Jewish courts.- He could not be converted to Judaism as a proselyte.- He was excluded from the after life."

So, when choosing his hero for this little story, Jesus choses someone who is despised, rejected, hostile, unclean, deceived and exempt from God's covenant according to his Jewish audience. Then he turns the original question on its head:
"Of the three men who passed the man on the road, who proved to be his neighbor?"
And when they answered the Samaritan, he said "Go and do likewise."
The biblical scholar wanted to know the limits of God's definition of neighbor- Jesus answers by COMMANDING us to go and show compassion without limit- in essence to prove to be a neighbor even to those the world would say are our enemies. He tells his respectable Jewish audience that an unclean, misguided Samaritan who shows compassion obeys the commandments more fully than a respectable Jew who has a hard heart towards others.
I think that Jesus's goal in telling this story was to emphasize that God doesn't have human enemies, nor does the boundaries of his compassion exclude ANY person from ANY background. People draw lines, God erases them. People exclude and chose who we love- God chose us while we were yet enemies.
Just like much of the discourse in many churches and christian circles concerning Islam and Muslims is rooted in criticism, distrust and fear, the rabbis of first century Judaism had plenty to say about why Samaritans were wrong, and they were right. But Jesus did not come to reinforce that message. He came to give living water to a Samaritan woman who was living in sin without heaping guilt upon her. He came to show us who are neighbor is. Like the loving woman on the second floor of our building who buys my daughter presents and sings songs to her. Or my friend at the nearby coffee shop who never lets me pay for anything and always tells me that I am a co-owner of the shop. Or the baker down the street who tells me he has been thinking about me every time he sees me and has our family over to his house for hours of food, coffee and funny conversation- never asking anything in return. Some voices tell me that these people (or at the very least their religion) are my enemy- yet which one of them would not pull my body out of a ditch if I were left for dead?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The High Calling of Love

I said previously that my primary aim on this blog was do deal with the question: How should followers of Jesus view Muslims? Well, I cannot start a discussion of that topic without a discussion of love. If you really want to obey the words of Jesus, you have to work really hard to make a theology or an interpretation of scripture that excuses you from the weighty demand of loving Muslims. Whether you consider them your enemy (which I don't, and wouldn't recommend) or you consider them your neighbor (which is true for me in the most literal sense) the new testament is clear- God has demanded that you love them. He created no loopholes or exceptions; all humanity, all lifestyles and religions and ethnicities and cultures and classes, are the object of his very tangible love, and thus we who would dare call ourselves his followers are asked to be conformed to that fundamental divine affection.
The problem that arises when you talk about love, though, is that love tends to mean whatever you want it to mean. Love can be something emotional and sappy and devoid of real action, or it can be something sterile and lifeless and philosophical- a tough love that is simply a commitment to the greater good. We can fight for peace or start wars, execute criminals or initiate protest marches, and claim we are working, at the end of the day, in the name of love.
And so if love is to be anything (and is MUST be everything) then we have to have a definition- a definition that has application and meaning and boundaries.
Thank God that Jesus did not leave us to follow a rhetorical, flowery love. No, on the contrary Jesus gave love meaning, he tied it to a very real standard by which we can hold our own hearts accountable. As I read the gospels, I see two pictures Jesus gives us from which we can draw our understanding of love. The first, that we treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated. The second, that we love in the way he loved us.
Thus, for us who follow Jesus, those two standards are not, and must never be, merely inspirational slogans used to sell Christian decorations and bumper stickers. They comprise the call of heaven itself. And so, with these two mirrors placed carefully in front of our hearts, we may turn our discussion back to the original question.
Do we treat Muslims as we would want to be treated? Do we think about them, talk about them, interact with them, pray for them, the way we would want others dealing with us? Think about the last conversation you had about a Muslim. What emotions were stirred within you? What assumptions did you make?
If we are honest with ourselves, we all would prefer others assuming the best about our motives and intentions. We would prefer others thinking about us with respect. As a Christian, I want people to know about the great saints of Christian history and their contributions to humanity, not to take our worst examples and use them to smear our heritage through the mud. And if I prefer that type of treatment, am I allowed to show others anything different?
I believe that at the foundation of a Christ-like approach to Muslims is the laying aside of our right to harden our hearts toward others because they are different then us. Rather than take information from the media or other sources and use it to construct a negative portrayal, I believe the words of Jesus challenge us to assume the best about people and keep our hearts soft towards them before we declare our verdicts and assign our labels. Jesus, after all, saw the treasure of authentic faith in prostitutes and beggars, in the theologically misled Samaritans and the Pagan Roman soldiers who occupied his homeland. Had his message consisted of criticism of those different than him, would any of these figures have gotten as close to him as they did in the gospels? Would he have had the chance to demonstrate the heart of the father the way he did?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A return to blogging?

So, when I started this blog it was in response to my personal experiences and sentiments after fleeing Lebanon in the wake of the 2006 Lebanon War. As a result of that experience and the fact that I was in grad school studying international relations at the time, the blog took on a decisively political tone with spiritual afterthoughts. I think I might return to blogging (though only time will tell) but with the goal being a more spiritual, rather than political, agenda. My experience is that politics divides ruthlessly and often needlessly, and party loyalties blind moral judgement and turn heart issues into talking heads. God save me from such a fate.

So, instead, I want to continue this blog under the same name with a revised goal, which is, simply put, addressing the question "How should followers of Jesus view Muslims?"
I have found that in a day and age where what we think about Muslims matters greatly, Americans are lacking clear voices that treat this issue in a Christ-centered and human way. I realize that I, as an American who wants to obey Jesus and who lives in the Middle East doing every day life with Arab Muslims, am in a position to present a different perspective. My goal for any reader of this blog is not political conversion, but spiritual conversation that challenges unbiblical paradigms. As much as we should honor sincere leaders in both church and politics, it is important to remember that often the church and the state have been on the wrong side of history, protecting prejudices and standing in the way of sincere disciples loving the people God loves. Lest we repeat those mistakes we should never fear new approaches or ideas- fear of newness led a lot of people to reject Jesus himself.