Friday, November 20, 2015

Radical Threats Require Radical Responses

I really try to encourage dialogue, especially toward doing theology in community. But I’m finding the current debate tiresome. It’s not just the question about whether to accept or reject Syrian refugees (among others). The assumptions being made and the labels being applied to either side of the discussion quickly begin to obscure and prevent rational dialogue.

Worse, among Christians, one’s position on the issues seems predictably predicated on other decisions to accept or reject one side or the other of a longstanding divide. Though there are many ramifications, at the core of these disputes is whether our particular tradition emphasizes either The Great Commission (e.g., Matthew 28:18-20, among other iterations) or The Great Commandment (Matthew 22:36-40).

So let me ask, can we choose between The Great Commission and The Great Commandment?

Certainly the historic divide in North American Christendom would suggest that we have tried to do so. We tend to focus intently but exclusively on either serving Christ and others through fulfilling “the social gospel” or seeking to save souls by proclaiming the message of “the gospel gospel.”

I am using terms familiar from my own tradition. Others may label the opposing factions differently. But as one among those who major on The Great Commission, let me first explain why we cannot dismiss The Great Commandment. Going into all the world, we are commissioned to make disciples of all the nations—teaching them to observe all that Jesus Christ has commanded us to do. Likewise, for those emphasizing The Great Commandment, the greatest expression of our love for any of our neighbors, the same love we would claim for ourselves, would be an introduction to the God we are called to love “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

Despite this continuing factiousness, I have great hopes for unity in the body of Christ. This is largely because I fail to see why we should ever choose between right words and right actions. Integrity means holding both as one. Both spring from a heart filled with God’s love, guided by His Spirit in right purposes and attitudes, and seeking to bless anyone and everyone.

But there’s the problem. Even twenty centuries ago, Jesus’ efforts to bless “anyone and everyone” raised concerns, questions, and hackles.

Among the questions raised by “love your neighbor” was, of course, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ answer was more shocking than we might imagine. Today, “The Good Samaritan” is so ingrained in our culture that we may imagine that Samaritans were generally regarded as good. The opposite is true. They were not just non-Jews, but considered worse than Gentiles. They had been Jews, up until the eighth century B.C. They were called “dogs” long before anyone would have thought of them as household pets. “Mongrels” would be a more accurate translation in our culture. When Jesus commanded His followers to love their enemies, many of those earliest disciples would count Samaritans as well as Romans within that category.

So, as difficult as it is for me to accept the answer to “Who is my neighbor?” I am just as committed to the question “Who is my enemy?” And that causes me even more serious problems. You see, if I am going to claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ, I have to love ISIS (aka ISIL, or Daesh, or Al-Qaeda, or The Taliban). For the sake of theological consistency, I have to believe that suicide bombers are intended to bear the image and likeness of one God, eternally existing in three Persons. Given the United States history I was taught, I also have a healthy respect for the efficacy of terrorism and guerilla warfare in arresting the attention of overwhelmingly dominant world powers. (viz. Colonies v. England, ca. 1776.)

But almost as troubling as the thought of hugging an Islamic extremist wearing an explosive vest is the thought of saying, again, “I have to love ISIS.” When I have said as much from the pulpit, the church foyer conversations have been…well, let’s just say “livelier than usual,” to be sure.

But is there any clearer an enemy? Is there any greater opportunity to demonstrate the radical charity Jesus commands? Can we imagine any better moment in which to live-out what we believe about the overwhelming love of God?

These moments come only rarely. The most recent prior circumstances like these may have been over half a century ago.

In January, 2012, Paul Louis Metzger spoke at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Service of The Albina Ministerial Alliance held at Allen Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Portland, Oregon. (You can find the text of his message here.) In his remarks, Dr. Metzger included a quote I have found exceptionally inspirational. I wish I had known of it during my very brief sojourn as a minority amidst an opposing dominant culture.

  • To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.’ (found here; accessed on 1/16/12)

Do we see a similar opportunity today? If not, why not? Is it because we question whether Dr. King’s ideals are still valid today? If they are not, is that because we have changed, or because we have not changed? What I mean to ask is this: haven’t we always rejected Dr. King’s message as unrealistically idealistic, practically unsafe, or possibly even unbiblical? The answer depends on who we mean by “we.”

Like Metzger, I am also a member of “the white Evangelical Christian community.” As much as it often pains me to be included with others who misuse the term (Evangelical), I cannot help but be exposed to their position-statements. Regarding Dr. King, the otherness of the Black experience is only one small cleft of the chasm separating his sensibilities from our own. Too, an innate suspicion of “the social gospel” has been so trained into us (again, speaking of Evangelicals) that any action beyond simple proclamation is foreign to us. Add to all this the illusion that the civil rights movement has provided not only equality but mutual respect, and we can live out our fantasy that the world no longer needs such radical, albeit non-violent reordering.

But it is a fantasy, this presumption we make that we live in a mature society where equality has been accomplished. Even for those who refuse to acknowledge the continued exploitation and oppression within our own borders, we cannot deny that our 21st Century North American luxuries come largely at the expense of others elsewhere. Why do we choose to continue in such delusion? Because we lack certain key elements essential to adopting Dr. King’s message and methods.

Metzger notes Dr. King’s “conviction, courage, and compassion” which “flowed from Jesus’ call to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44).” But this reveals yet another of the dark recesses in that vast chasm between the 1960s civil rights movement and our own dreamworld. We are not persecuted. We are not the minority. We are, in fact, as white Evangelicals (and those who support our vocal oligarchy) participating fully in the dominant culture.

So, how do Dr. King’s words apply to those who are willing to continue to “inflict suffering” rather than risk the possibility of having to endure any of it? We who bomb others’ homes and threaten their children are the ones who apparently fear something far worse than being worn-down by others’ “capacity to suffer.”

Yet that is the operative term: fear.

For many, it is fear that prevents us from showing love to our neighbors, on the grounds that we might inadvertently open the door to our enemies as well. On the local level, for example, showing hospitality to the marginalized in my community might allow some to see and covet and perhaps even steal some of the stuff I value (overly so, to the point of idolatry). At the international level, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, and doing so by accepting refugees might allow some among our enemies to accompany them. The irony of this worry among those who regularly point out how porous our borders are already suggests that we would want ISIS’s opponents among the refugees to be present in even greater number. But discussing that question will have to wait for another opportunity.

For now, our fears demand that the key question be this: What will we do if (or when) our enemies begin to inflict on our soil what we so regularly ignore as it occurs on their own soil? Why doesn’t it matter to us what is done against other people elsewhere (unless, like Parisians, they are sufficiently Western in culture, and white in complexion)?

Such fearful questions suggest an answer, but only one that requires of us the “conviction, courage and compassion” to be followers of Jesus Christ: Love them.

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