Building bridges instead of walls

People are afraid. I understand. Terrorist attacks in Paris and now in California make us feel vulnerable. So we feel like building walls between ourselves and people who are different from us. But is it possible that immigration, even from the Middle East, isn’t something to be afraid of, but an opportunity? We have not yet gone out and brought the gospel to all people. So is God bringing the nations to us? In this season when we remember that Christ was born to bring us peace with God, may his peace grant us to not act on our fears but to open our hands and hearts to all people.

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Who is my neighbor?

While traveling in Israel, Ralph – our tour guide – told our group about a distinction made between Muslim and non-Muslim land. The first is “Dar al-Islam,” (house of Islam) or “Dar al-Salam” (house of peace) as distinct from “Dar al-Harab” (house of war) or “Dar al-Kufr” (house of the Infidel). The first refers to countries where Muslims are in the majority and are ruled by Muslim Sharia law. In such lands Christians, Jews and others are to be tolerated, meaning that while Muslims enjoy a privileged status, Christians and Jews (“people of the book”) pay the jizya. A “house of war / house of the Infidel” refers to countries where Muslims are not in the majority and where Muslim sharia law is not in force. Such lands are considered unclean and if its people are not “people of the book,” they are to be converted or killed. (“Divisions of the world in Islam,” Wikipedia)

Such distinctions between Muslim and non-Muslim land are not taught in the Quran (Koran) or in the Hadith (sayings and stories of Muhammad) but arose a century later during times of Muslim conquest. Ralph our Israeli tour guide suggested that this distinction is where difficulties arise. If a land such as Israel was ever a Muslim land, it is considered unclean until it can once again be returned to its former status. This makes negotiations challenging as evidenced by tall concrete walls and barbed wire. To read about the often difficult history between Muslims, Jews and Christians, you may be interested in reading one of the following books by Karen Armstrong: Muhammad, Islam or Jerusalem.

As I suggested in my blog post last week, Jesus’ concept of “toleration” is altogether different. In his well-known story of The Good Samaritan (Luke chapter 10), Jesus praises a Samaritan who took pity on a man left for dead by robbers, but bypassed by a Jewish priest and Levite. Jesus praised a Samaritan leper, who after being healed returned to to give thanks (Luke 17 – a Gospel reading on Thanksgiving Day in America). Though Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans and avoided traveling through Samaria, Jesus went into Samaria and spoke with a woman there at a well. Though she’d had five husbands, Jesus revealed to her that he was the Messiah.

The parable of the Good Samaritan was told by Jesus in response to a question: Who is our neighbor? Is it only people like us, or people whose behavior we (and God) approves of? The Good Samaritan had pity on a man he didn’t know, who was not of his country and believed differently. For a stranger, he expended considerable time, effort and money, for no personal gain and after a long history of animosity between their people.

Who is my neighbor, and your neighbor? According to Jesus: everybody. Without regard for nationality, religion, political party, morality or any other distinction, we are to treat everyone as our neighbor and our brother. This doesn’t mean that when people threaten us we can’t defend ourselves. That’s not what Jesus meant by “turning the other cheek.” (Luke 6:29) Instead Jesus spoke here of defusing conflict rather than throwing gasoline on a spark. Even in fearful times, we would do well to listen to Jesus’ reminder: everyone is our neighbor.

Tolerance

On Wednesday I had just returned from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Israel. With increasing reports of violence between Muslims and Jews I had been a little nervous about going. Even while traveling in Israel I saw daily reports about knifings and shootings. It was such a blessing to see places that the Bible talks about and to walk where Jesus walked but we could also see concrete walls and barbed wire dividing Palestinian and Jewish areas. So after returning, it felt good to be home; good to be safe. Then two days later came reports of more than one hundred people killed in Paris and others injured or held hostage. Details of this most recent terrorist attack are still being reported as they become available. The thought again comes to mind: why can’t we all just get along? Why of all people, is it those of deep religious conviction that are killing one another?

Tolerance may be defined as “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.”

Tolerance doesn’t mean wishy-washy. It doesn’t mean that our deeply held convictions don’t matter. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a right or a wrong answer in matters of religion. It doesn’t mean that the Bible is so difficult to understand that we don’t know what it says. It doesn’t mean that the infinite almighty God doesn’t know how to communicate clearly in the Bible. It doesn’t mean that every road leads to heaven or that the differences in belief between religions are trivial. It does mean that religious people – especially religious people – should be able to sit down peacefully and discuss points of agreement and disagreement.

Over the years I’ve had discussions with clergy of various persuasions: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, various kinds of Protestants, Muslim Imams, Jewish Rabbis, Mormon Missionaries and others. We have been able to sit down over a cup of tea or coffee (except with Mormons, who are not supposed to consume hot drinks) and talk. These were opportunities to clarify what they believe and correct misconceptions where they or I may have misunderstood. These were opportunities to be reminded that these and others who do not believe exactly what I believe are not my enemy. Some became dear friends.

Jesus taught that people will know we are his followers because we love one another. St. Paul in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth wrote a detailed description of how love behaves. Among other things, love keeps no records of wrongs done by another. Instead, love keeps hoping for better things. A particularly Christian kind of love is “agape” love. Agape is unconditional love. It is not treating others as they have treated us, but treating others as God has treated us, with unconditional acceptance and mercy. Our sins sent Jesus to the cross but by his suffering and death he has absolved us of our sin. As Jesus taught in the “Golden Rule” (something shared by virtually all religions) we are to treat others as we would have them treat us. True religion, according to the first chapter of the epistle (letter) of James is to help widows and orphans in their distress. This doesn’t mean only helping those who hold our own Christian convictions, but also those we disagree with, whether they may be Muslim or Mormon, Republican or Democrat, non-religious or devout.

Jesus was never wishy-washy in his teaching but neither was he unmerciful or unloving. In the Gospel of John chapter 8, he was able to speak up for a woman caught in adultery – to prevent religious leaders from stoning her to death, to tell her that he didn’t condemn her and yet also to admonisher her to not continue in her life of sin. According to ancient Christian tradition, she became a devoted follower of Christ. Imagine how the world might be different if we adopted Jesus’ kind of tolerance.

When is a prophet a prophet?

A couple of days ago I was reading in Ezekiel chapter 13 which includes the following words: “The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who are not prophesying … who prophesy out of their own imagination…. Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing. … They say, “The Lord declares,” when the Lord has not sent … though I have not spoken.”

Whether it is Ellen G. White of the 7th-day Adventists, Mohammed of Islam or Thomas S. Monson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, all of which their followers affirm to be prophets, how do you know when one claiming to be a prophet really is one?

Some will encourage us to search our feelings (Book of Mormon, Moroni 10:4) but that’s Star Wars, never the Bible. Instead, God asks us to verify. Gideon in Judges chapter 6 laid out a fleece and asked that it be wet when the morning ground was dry, and then just to be sure, asked again that the fleece be dry when the ground was wet. King Hezekia in 2 Kings chapter 20, when assured by a prophet that he would recover from his illness, asked that the shadow on the sun dial move back ten steps, and it did.

For us today we have two tests of a prophet laid down in Deuteronomy chapters 13 & 18: (1) Does the prophet proclaim the same teachings as previous prophets of God and (2) if the prophet predicts a future event, does it happen? When Joseph Smith, in his First Vision, claimed to see the Father and the Son as separate Gods, he and others after him should have reflected on the words of Deuteronomy 6:4 that affirm one and only one God; a teaching often repeated. That should have been sufficient warning.

Instead Joseph Smith made thousands of changes to the Bible (and also to the Book of Mormon) to adjust their scriptures to fit their church’s evolving theology. When Joseph Smith prophesied that they would sell the copyright to the Book of Mormon in Canada (and it didn’t happen) his explanation was “Some prophecies are of man, some are of God and some are of the devil.” Again, it should have been clear that there was a problem.

The same goes for churches today. Our foundation is to be the Bible and the Bible alone (“sola scriptura”) since the Bible warns us (in 1 Corinthians 4:6) “not to go beyond what is written” (in Scripture).

Yes, I realize that people accuse those who believe in following scripture alone as looking to a “dead letter.” They say we need to trust in the Spirit. On this eve of our commemoration of the Lutheran Reformation on October 31, 1517 (498 years ago) we might respond as Martin Luther did, that some have “swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all” but we will trust what God has written. The Bible is not a dead letter, but living and active and powerful. In works in human hearts. Amen. May we always “read, mark, and inwardly digest” the words of God’s living word, the Bible.

The Importance of Definitions

People don’t like to be labeled.  But some labels are good.  I once bought a can of generic peas.  They were inexpensive and I figured that a pea was a pea.  Right?  Well they weren’t the small crisp tasty peas that mother used to cook.  No, these were big, wrinkled and tough.  They may have been peas, technically, but I never bought generic peas again.

So labels can be good.  This is especially true with religion.  For example, if someone believes that Muhammed is a prophet, prays five times a day, believes the Quran (Koran) to be scripture, believes that he should make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in his lifetime (etc.), it seems fair to say that this person is a Muslim and not a Christian.  If a person centers his spiritual life around the teachings of of Buddha, he is likely a Buddhist.  If, on the other hand, a person believes that Jesus is God, that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three distinct Persons who are one essence/substance (one God), that Jesus died for the sins of the world and he is our source of salvation and heaven, it should be clear that we are speaking of a Christian.  Authentic Christianity involves believing at least the most essential truths about who God is and how we get to heaven, according to the Bible.

The problem is that Muslims believe that everybody really ought to be a Muslim and Christians believe that everybody really ought to be a Christian.  Muslims believe that Muhammed is the last and greatest prophet.  Though they believe that Jesus was a prophet, they don’t believe everything that the New Testament says about him.  Especially, they don’t believe that Jesus is God or that he is one of three Persons in the godhead.  As the Quran says it, they don’t believe that God has a son or that God is three.  Instead, according to Muslims such beliefs are blasphemy and result in going to hell.  We can look this up in the Quran, if you’d like.  In the same way, Christians don’t believe that Muhammed is a prophet or that the Quran is scripture.

You see, part of the function of a religious definition, is that it tells us what a person believes and it also tells us what a person doesn’t believe.  Being a member of one religion necessitates not being a member of another religion.  There is nothing wrong with having strong convictions about what things we believe or don’t believe.  What is wrong, is deciding that it is ok to hate someone because of what they believe.  It’s not ok to hate anybody.  Jesus said that we even ought to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  This is simply a matter of tolerance.  Tolerance doesn’t mean that we don’t stand for anything.  It means that even though we should take our beliefs seriously, we shouldn’t hate anybody who believes differently.  We should love everybody.  And if there can be an atmosphere of mutual love and respect, we can talk about our differences and grow in our understanding of what we agree on and what we disagree on.

Muslims and Christians agree that there is one and only one God.  (Christians don’t believe that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three Gods.  If someone says that they are a Christian and they believe in more than one God, then they are attempting to change the definition of what Christians have believed according to the Bible and throughout history.)  Christians and Muslims also agree that God is merciful.  The Quran says that many times, as does the BIble.  We differ on how we receive that mercy.  I recall, many years ago, a Sufi from Pakistan told me “God does not need a reason to be merciful.  He has oceans of mercy.”  I then asked him if he knew for sure that he would go to heaven.  He said, “No, you can never know if you have done enough.”  A Christian can know that he or she will go to heaven, because we believe that getting to heaven isn’t a matter of what we do, but a matter of what Jesus Christ has already done for us and all people on the cross.  On this, Muslims and Christians disagree.  May those of the various world religions be able to disagree without being disagreeable.