dispatches to and from

nathan f. elmore

Dispatches to and from faith, culture, and things in between

Old Samaritan/New Samaritan

 

Eric Fischl, Ten Breaths: Samaritan

 

The following is an address that I gave at Bluefield College, a Virginia Baptist liberal arts college in Bluefield, Va., in their weekly Convocation chapel on February 29, 2012.

 

"Neighbor Love: Old Samaritan/New Samaritan"

 

It is a distinct pleasure to be with you today—and an incredible privilege to share in your weekly Convocation.

Among other things, I serve as Baptist collegiate minister at Virginia Commonwealth University, where, even now, we are gearing up for another dose of March Madness and a hopeful run to another Final Four.

This is my first time in Bluefield, Va., at Bluefield College. And I have a serious affinity for the small, Christian liberal arts college. I attended one in Ohio, near Cincinnati, called Cedarville College.

Cedarville gave me many things, and at the top of the list…

My wife, Amie.

Then came...him.

And her.

And him.

My small college also gave me: my first and only intramural basketball championship (which I am still touting 18 years later); the memory of a World Literature class that I absolutely tanked; and incredible cross-cultural opportunities (I traveled to the Philippines twice on basketball-meets-mission tours).

Furthermore, it realistically gave me a beginning capacity to think critically about my Christian faith, the world which we inhabit and how to live responsibly with faith while not hiding from the world.

In January, I traveled to the country of Oman, on the Arabian Peninsula—in the land of Islam—for a two-week graduate course on Christian-Muslim relations. As I stood on these beautiful red-copper Wahiba Sands in Oman, I wondered: How on earth did I get here?

I was a Broadcasting Communications major in college, after all. I’ve been a pastor for 12 years or so, in various contexts—mega-churches, university churches, campus ministries. But over the past 5 years, while a pastor, God has been taking me further into a story that I never imagined being a character in.

In fact, diverse interactions and friendships with Muslims have contributed much to my spiritual growth. It is precisely through these interactions and friendships that my Christian faith and identity have been strengthened and expanded.

This morning, I hope to provoke and encourage the Christian community here at Bluefield College toward a more concrete love for a certain neighbor.

 

As Christians in America we live at a definitive intersection in terms of how we relate to Muslims in America and to Muslims around the world. I believe this “moment” is a timely moment -- what Christian theologians who speak in Greek but who don’t know who Katy Perry is might call a kairos moment, a divinely opportune moment.

So I’ve got some brief reflections to share today on the Parable of the Good Samaritan -- and on the Samaritan who goes by the name Muslim.

But, first, because this is a topic of extremely timely significance, I need to spend a few minutes talking about the “times” in which we Christians find ourselves with respect to Muslims.

As I see it, there are three observations to make about these times:

1. They are filled with global urgencies affecting Christian-Muslim relations.

2. There is great ignorance on the American street and in the American pews about Muslims.

3. And fear, for the most part, is growing and seems to be even winning.

 

Global Urgencies

This is not primarily a talking-point on Islamic extremism—or Christian extremism for that matter (see: the white guy from Norway last summer). This is, however, a conversation about the reality of animosities, hostilities and conflicts between Christians and Muslims who are living beside each other.

For instance, with the emerging democracies of the Arab Spring, the future of Christian minorities in countries like Egypt or Syria is a pressing issue. Last summer, I met an Iraqi Christian who was an exchange student at VCU. You could feel the anger seething in his heart toward Muslims. Meanwhile, there are massive Muslim-Christian tensions in Nigeria, which is home to the largest population of Baptists in Africa.

A popular Catholic philosopher has remarked: There will be no peace among nations without peace among religions. And I think he’s spot on.

 

Great Ignorance

It’s weird: You are in college at a moment in history when there has never been more “information” readily available. But, of course, information is not the same thing as knowledge. We may have heard of Sharia, but we don’t actually know anything about it.

And obviously—

This...

Is not this...

Quite significantly, even as the Muslim population increases in America, most Christians don’t actually have a relationship or friendship with a Muslim. Most Christians don’t actually know Muslims through the experience of knowing them; they know Muslims through media—through television and the Internet.

 

Growing Fear

What can we say: the politics of fear in the U.S. has, truly, got a pretty strong grip on some Christians.

Islamophobia is trending up. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, recently suggested that President Obama was a “secret” Muslim. In December, the home improvement store Lowe’s pulled its advertising from TLC in order to boycott the cable channel’s show called “All American Muslim.” Lowe’s was pressured by a conservative evangelical group in Florida that felt like the show was showing too many good Muslims.

 

Into these times, and for this moment, there is—as ever—a light to guide us.

2 Corinthians 4:6: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

There is a light in the face of Jesus Christ. And this light, I think, can lead us as we attempt to navigate global urgencies. It can teach us—pushing us beyond our ignorance. And perhaps most importantly: it can demonstrate for us how love casts out fear.

 

Luke 10:30-37

 

During Hurricane Irene weekend, my boys and I passed the time on a Saturday afternoon watching the relatively new but also vintage Western Unforgiven. One of the moral challenges of watching this film with boys who are 9 and 5 is this: an obvious purpose of the film and the story is to blur or to make unclear the lines between who exactly is a good guy and who exactly is a bad guy.

Unlike Unforgiven, the story of the Good Samaritan is more cut-and-dry, right? Maybe, maybe not…

Who is the hero of this story?

Well, one way to read it is this: Love is the hero.

The act or action that is love. The ethics embodied. The intentional, generous self-giving for the good of another person. Love, it seems, is riding off into the sunset at the end of the story.

Another way to read it (and equally important) is this: The enemy is the hero.

Maybe we could put it in stranger and stronger language still: The infidel is the hero. The despised one. That hated or villified figure.

So, with our imaginations then: If we substitute Christian characters for the Jewish characters, how would you feel about a Muslim playing the role of the Samaritan, the hero? How would you like it if Jesus told the story that way to you and to our American churches?

This parable is unbelievably beautiful, but I’m surprised we like the story so much. It absolutely offends religious sensibilities. It messes with who we think is good (or not good). It challenges our assumptions about what kind of people can do good. Very significantly, it re-arranges our categories of us and them.

 

I would propose that, in this famous parable, we see the light in the face of Jesus Christ breaking through in at least three challenging ways—with regard to how we see and relate to Muslims.

First: In God’s world, you cannot choose your neighbor.

In our world, maybe we can—but not in God’s.

 

When I lived in dear old Clemson, S.C., I had a neighbor who became one of the most genuinely invasive and irritating neighbors I've ever encountered. He happened to live directly across the street from our house. So, he was very much our literal neighbor. This guy was a classic, and one of his classic maneuvers was to borrow my car, which I freely let him do on a number of occasions probably to the point of enabling him. Upon one standout moment, this neighbor of mine actually broke into my car -- while our family was on vacation -- to use it for an errand or whatever.

He was indeed the kind of neighbor who daily reminds us, very vividly, that God chooses our neighbors.

God chose him—for me—because in God’s world, we cannot choose our neighbors. Which is another way to say: We cannot choose who Jesus has commanded us to love.

God had chosen that beaten up man along the road for the priest, Levite and Samaritan. And only the Samaritan loved.

Some of us American Christians need to admit that Muslim men and women, Muslim families, have been chosen by God to be our neighbors. You could be the one who helps your church admit this—and to live it.

 

The second sighting of light in the face of Jesus through this parable is this: In God’s world, Jesus always desires to take us beyond history and social convention—when it comes to loving our neighbor.

Jesus did not make a habit of breaking down every known barrier, so we would not have to.

 

In September 2007 our Honda Odyssey idled in the gravel parking lot of a mosque in Clemson, S.C.. As it turned out, the unadorned aluminum structure sat ironically and lonely on Old Stone Church Road in the Deep South. Suddenly my then two-year-old daughter voiced the words that apparently reverberate in America from time to time: “Mosque...scary.”

A man named Abdul had invited our family to join the Muslim community in the Clemson area for a veritable potluck dinner. Wanting in some way to share these new friendships with my family and hoping to model, albeit feebly, how to begin to move beyond -- or through -- barriers, I was now blessed by the seeds of a possible mutiny right there in the mosque parking lot. Intense, and with a burgeoning dramatic sensibility, my daughter vocalized the words again for all the minivan to hear -- this time, drawing out the mosque scaaarrry for full theatrical affect and then smiling almost perversely.

“Kate, sweetheart, no, no, no, it’s not scary. Why are you saying that?”

“Mask. Scaaarrry…”

It was, of course, the run-up to Halloween, and our Kate had been thinking about masks, not mosques. There was our sweet daughter, giggling and babbling in our faces about the darker things that so often haunt those of us who are the less innocent children.

Some of us American Christians probably need to step out of the proverbial mini-van. We need to walk beyond our fear and mistrust, our mis-perceptions and misunderstandings of Muslims. You could be the one who helps your Christian friends to walk beyond.

 

A third prism of light from the parable is this: In God’s world, enemies-turned-friends are the very illustration of the Gospel story.

Why is this?

Because, simply put: the Biblical story says that you and I were God’s enemies before he loved us into friendship.

He loved us into friendship.

In the parable, please notice who is actually demonstrating the Good News. It is the one who is the religious outsider—the enemy, in fact. It is the person deemed to be wrong about religion and without proper faith.

 

In Oman, during my two-week graduate course, I met a Muslim graduate student named Ameer. Ameer is a Pakistani student at the Institute of Sharia Studies in Muscat, Oman. On a camping trip together in the Wahiba Sands, I had the truly fascinating experience of watching Ameer perform his ritual Muslim prayers, at sunset, out on the sands. Ameer’s commitment, his passion, his energy to pray—it honestly put me to shame.

I surely don’t view Ameer as the enemy. In fact, he is now a long-distance friend. But as you might guess, I maintain a friendly disagreement with him about a few important things (namely: the nature and mission of Jesus). Yet there he was, praying on the sands, evidencing his complete surrender and utter devotion to God.

Some of us American Christians—when it comes to matters of religion and faith—should learn how better to look for the good in the Muslim instead of being automatically argumentative. You never know: The supposed enemy might demonstrate for us an aspect of the Good News. You could be the one who helps your church, your friends, your circles, learn how to see the good in some modern-day Samaritans.

 

For Christians and Muslims, there is a very real sense of global urgency compelling us to relate better—better than we have, and better than we are. Nothing less than God’s peaceful purposes are at stake.

In America, at least, there is—generally speaking—a great ignorance about Muslims—which is heightened by the fact that very few Christians actually know any, or are friends with any. I propose we change that equation immediately.

And, well, it is what it is: Fear is all around us—and it has a sort of momentum. But as the parable, and the Samaritan himself, shows us: We cannot fear what we choose to love.

In short, I believe a knowledgeable love—flowing from the pure light of Christ—can and will transform personal relationships with Muslims and can and will influence the wider story of Christian-Muslim relations and of respectful Christian witness among Muslims for the sake of the kingdom of God.

May you find your role in the story, and may it be so.

Amen.

 

The Song of Machpelah is an interfaith writing project borne out of Christian-Muslim exchanges, experiences and ongoing study. At Machpelah, God willing, in small, medium or large ways a living song will arise. And it is a composition being put together by both Christians and Muslims. Peace by piece. For more on the project, go here.