"WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?"
Center for Jewish-Christian Dialogue
Yesterday was election day. Ten years ago yesterday another election took place in this state, and on the ballot in that election was the controversial Amendment 2, which influenced the civil or "special rights," of gay and lesbian persons, depending upon how one read that amendment. As those of us who lived in this state at that time, and particularly for those who lived in this city, can well remember, that amendment set off a fire storm of controversy. The debate over the issue threatened to tear apart the faith community in Colorado Springs. With the desire to put an end to the contentious public debate, a number of people from various faith traditions and civic responsibilities came together. Their hope was that regular conversation over a meal might turn the tide of public rancor into a reasonable, faith-informed conversation in which genuine agreement could be discovered, and points of difference could be discussed in a spirit of civility. That group began to meet on a regular basis in the fall of 1992, and by the spring of 1993 they had entered into a "Covenant of Mutual Respect" with each other. On April 22, 1993, on p. A9 of the Gazette- Telegraph that group published this covenant. It reads:
As members of the Colorado Springs faith community responsible for the leadership of our congregations and/ or parachurch organizations, we are deeply concerned lest unfortunate religious-political polarization take place in our city, state and nation. We represent a broad diversity of traditions whose common heritage of the Scriptures reflects a deep commitment to justice, mercy, righteousness and peace for all (Psalm 72, 85:11-13, Isaiah 61, Luke 1:16-27, Matthew 25:31-46). We seek to share insights and learn from each other in a spirit of goodwill and mutual respect, thus living out this scriptural heritage. It is our hope and prayer that in so doing we will provide a positive model of public discourse that stands upon the foundation of our common Judeo-Christian heritage.
The diversity of our religious perspectives may lead us into areas of possible disagreement. It is our hope to address those areas of difference with an attitude of openness, respect and love, and a willingness to listen and learn from each other, to the end that we may manifest the ministry of reconciliation. With this hope and prayer before us, we covenant together to conduct our common life by the scriptural standards of justice, mercy , righteousness and peace as we provide leadership for our congregations, organizations and community. We believe that is so doing we reflect the nature of our God- the Creator of the universe and Lord of all!
The following people signed this covenant. Some of them have left Colorado Springs and gone elsewhere. Some are still here in this community. Some are in this room tonight. The signatories are:
A piece of the "Dove of Peace" award that I receive tomorrow night really should be given to every one of them, for this award recognizes the collective efforts of each of those named. . I count every one of them my friends, and each has made a significant impact on my life. Some of you showed me incredible kindness and support during my battle with cancer two years through your calls, your notes, your gifts, and most of all your prayers. I express deepest thanks to each of you. The covenant spans time and distance.
Ten years ago we entered into a "Covenant of Mutual Respect," and as you know, biblical covenants are intended to last. When you think about the spectrum of perspectives represented by that group, this covenant stands as an important statement about how we view ourselves in this community- religiously, politically, sociologically.
The forces at work ten years ago were turning us into enemies, and by God ‘s grace we were able to find that in spite of our differences over a particular political issue we really are neighbors, with more in common in terms of what united us and less in terms of what divided us.
Ten years later those same forces division and animosity are still at work. 9/11/01 marks a dividing line in history. The issues have changed, as demonstrated by the various responses to Hannan Ashwari's visit to the Colorado College on 9/12/02. Some in this room tonight stood on opposite sides that day, less than two months ago. Is the "Covenant of Mutual Respect" still in effect? Or does 9/11 mark not only a dividing line in history, but also a dividing line in the human heart, and in every community, every nation, where now the most important question is "Who is my enemy?", not "Who is my neighbor?"
In order to answer that question I want to spend a few moments considering with you one of the biblical passages cited in the Covenant. The passage chosen is Isaiah 61, for this passage is utilized in both the Jewish and Christian traditions as an important text for understanding the mission of Messiah. Selected portions of Isaiah 61 read as follows:
My doctoral mentor at Fuller Theological Seminary had a sign on his door with the two Hebrew words tsedaqah ("righteousness") and hesed ("covenant loyalty"). Next to the word hesed he had written his own paraphrase- "there will be wonderful divine surprises," and next to tsedaqah he wrote- "the rules will be the same for everyone." Think about that paraphrase, which by no means captures all the nuances of term tsedaqah, in the light of the passage we just heard.
Isaiah's vision begins with the anointing of a person who will be the special envoy of God's salvation work. According to this prophet, God's saving purposes begin with comfort and release for the poor , broken and oppressed (v. 1), continue through restoration accomplished by both jubilee and vengeance (v. 2), and culminating with righteousness (tsedaqah) for all the nations (v.11) Those who are the recipients and beneficiaries of Messiah's saving work are called oaks of righteousness (tsedaqah), and their purpose is to live in such a way that they display God's glory (v. 3) What a marvelous and comprehensive vision, beginning with one person, the Messiah, and eventually spreading righteousness to all nations. All who hear this prophetic description are left with the question, "How will this take place?"
In 1946 a boy was tending a flock of sheep on the cliffs above the Dead Sea. Bored with the monotony of watching the sheep, he began to throw rocks into a nearby cave. After one toss, he heard something break inside, like the shattering of a piece of stoneware. He went inside the cave, and to his amazement, he saw thousands of jars and pots, many containing ancient Hebrew manuscripts. Little did he know that he had stumbled upon one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time. These manuscripts, later to be called the Dead Sea Scrolls, reflect the life of a people called the Qumranians. The scrolls have been dated to the first or second century before the ministry of Jesus. The Qumran community had fled into the wilderness to await the coming of Messiah, and to prepare themselves as warriors in the Messianic army that would initiate and carry out, according to their expectations, Isaiah's prophetic vision of vengeance, thus hastening the day of Jubilee. Contained in those jars were several thousand different scrolls, including the Qumran community's own commentary on the prophet Isaiah, and a document called the "War Scroll," a text which describes the Qumranians expectation of the impending battle. Listen to two citations from these texts, both comments from Isaiah 61 upon Messiah's attitude and activity, especially from the phrase from in verse 2, "the day of vengeance of our God."
These citations reveal a deep longing to extract vengeance on some unnamed group of people in the name of God. When given the opportunity to act on the basis of these desires and passions, incredible evil can, and has been done, as evidenced by the estimated deaths of over 120 million people as the result of genocide in the past century.
What needs to happen in people, created in the image of God according to Genesis 1, to turn them into cold-blooded killers?
My colleague at Whitworth College, Jim Waller, has spent the last decade studying the psychological causes of genocide. He has recently completed a book entitled Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing.2 In this volume Jim develops what he calls a "Unitary Self Theory" to explain the social, cultural, psychological, and, sad to say religious reasons by which people perpetrate unimaginably violent evil upon other human persons. The theory is based upon three components: 1) The Actor, 2) the Context, and 3) the Definition of the Target. In outline form, the theory looks like this:
When we turn to the pages of scripture, we find this "Unitary Self Theory" at work surprisingly, in the followers of Jesus. Listen to the narration found in Luke 9: 51-56.
Fueled by ethnocentrism and a desire for social and religious dominance, the brothers ask Jesus if he wants them to pray for annihilating fire to descend from the heavens and incinerate their enemies. After all, James and John must be thinking, the Samaritans must be worthy of such treatment because of their opposition to the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem (see the book of Nehemiah) five centuries earlier. They have carried that animosity towards the Jews right up to the present, as shown by their lack of hospitality to Jesus and his followers. Memory that fuels the desire for vengeance has a long shelf life.
Jesus' response is quite telling regarding his own understanding of his mission. His reply to James and John is described as a "rebuke," a quick, harsh answer to their query about a prayer meeting that sends enemies to the divine incinerator. The power of Jesus' rebuke is demonstrated by the fact that the same Greek word, epitimao, that appears here in Lk. 9:55 is also used in Mk. 1:25. In that Mark describes Jesus' command to a demon who has taken control of a human person, "Come out of him!," as a rebuke. In both cases, Jesus understands his mission as standing against anything that desecrates the sanctity of the human personality, be that demonic possession in Mk 1, or "Unitary Self Theory" in Lk.9 that justifies the murder of the "other," the "outsider," as the will of God. The fact that James and John even make the request is ample evidence that the hatred emerging out of the Qumran community toward enemies, as described in the passages above, was still alive and well in the days of Jesus, even among his closest followers. How hard it is to let go of hatred, especially when we as humans are absolutely convinced that God is on "our side."
But James and John, as all of Jesus' followers, should have known better. All they had to do was remember back to that first day when Jesus began his public ministry, using the passage from Isaiah 61 as his "inaugural speech." Listen to that story from Lk. 4:16-30.
What is so offensive about reading from the scripture and referencing bible stories that Jesus' own life is endangered by the threats of a furious crowd? The answer does not seem to lie in the fact that Jesus created some kind of messianic offense by linking the Isaiah 61 to himself, for we are told that at that point in the narrative "all spoke well of him." The answer must lie in a different direction.
When we listen carefully to Jesus' reading of Isaiah's prophecy in chapter 61 we find our answer as to the nature of the offense. In the original text, the first two lines of v. 2 read:
Line 1- To proclaim the year of the Lord's favor
The Qumran community's expectation regarding the coming of Messiah as one whose foundational responsibility is to bring about the day of vengeance upon God's enemies, that expectation finds its springboard in Line 2, "the day of vengeance of our God." But Jesus didn't read this line when he quoted Isaiah 61 in the Nazareth synagogue. He stops at line 1, "to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And in this omission we find the answer to the question. We must remember that the primary expectation of the Messiah was that he would deal with all of Israel's enemies with vengeful wrath. The evidence for this can be found in the commentary of the Qumran community on Isaiah 61, and in the request of James and John to call down fire upon the hated Samaritans. To be sure, both in Jewish and Christian theology there is a clear expectation that there will be a time when all things will be set right through the intervention of God, including judgment on all perpetrators of evil. But apparently, Jesus' understanding of the time when that judgment will occur is different than those at the synagogue in Nazareth on this fateful day recorded in Luke 4. Jesus will not inaugurate a wholesale slaughter of everyone whom his culture has defined as the enemy in order to fulfill their Messianic expectations. And so he omits reading the line from Isaiah 61 regarding the day of God's vengeance.
But Jesus will go even further. He tells two bible stories. The first is about the great prophet Elijah, found in 1 Kings 17. A great famine came upon the land that lasted for forty two months. God sent Elijah to Sidon in Canaanite country and through the prophet a widow and her son are spared death by starvation. In turn, they extend hospitality to Elijah for an extended period of time as together they experience God's provision of daily bread.
The second story is found in 2 Kings 5. Naaman, the hated Syrian military commander has perpetrated terrible suffering upon Israel through his repeated forays into their territory. He has become extremely wealthy in the process, capturing booty and enslaving many Israelites. And in the midst of al this, Naaman contracts leprosy, that dreaded disease that makes one a complete outcast. Naaman seems to have tried many cures, but nothing works. Then the story gets really interesting. One of his slave girls, an Israelite whom he has captured, suggests that Naaman make a trip to Israel and visit the famous prophet Elisha, Elijah's successor. Naaman stealthily crosses the border, and is told by the prophet to go wash seven times in the Jordan, a river far more dirty than the clean waters that flow from the mountains in Syria. After hesitation, Naaman is convinced to obey the prophets command, and he is cleansed. Two stories about Israel's prophet being used by God to have mercy upon Gentiles from places and with histories that would raise the anger of anyone in the synagogue that day, for they all know how Canaanites and Syrians have brought terrible suffering upon Israel.
In the light of the Messianic expectation that has been described, their response is predictable. "All in the synagogue were filled with rage," so angry that they try to throw him over the cliff. To get in touch with their anger, we might try a retelling of the Elisha story. Suppose we woke up tomorrow morning and heard on the radio or CNN that Sadaam Hussein had been stricken by a fatal disease and that he had only a few days to live. Suppose that a member of Temple Shalom, or of a church here in Colorado Springs, knew of a secret cure for the disease. Suppose that person, in the midst of daily prayers, was told by God to travel to Baghdad and secretly bring him back to Colorado Springs for immediate treatment at Penrose Main Hospital. Suppose, as an expression of God's mercy, that person's mission was successful, and the hated enemy was healed. What would we think of such a person? And what would we think of a God who would sovereignly orchestrate such a foolish thing, so contrary to our expectations? When we answer these questions, we get in touch with the rage of those gathered at the Nazareth synagogue. Telling bible stories can be dangerous, because sometimes the narrative challenges our preconceived, culturally shaped notions about who is my enemy and who is my neighbor.
In the spirit of stories, I want to conclude with a few of my own. All these are from my own experience. I tell these stories because these incidents have profoundly shaped my own understanding of how to answer the question, "Who is my neighbor?" I have been stretched to think outside the categories of my own perspective and my own theology, and in the process I have been spiritually changed.
#1- In the weeks prior to the vote on Amendment 2 in November of 1992, several public debates were held regarding the issue. One of those was held at the public library on Union, and it was broadcast on local television. One of the proponents of the Amendment had used some provocative and aggressive language in his summary statement. After the debate was over, a Jewish man asked that advocate for clarification regarding the implications of his statement. The reply was given. "Let me tell you something. We are in a war, and we will do whatever it takes to win that war." The Jewish man was stunned, and he asked, "Do I have any place in your worldview?" This time there was no answer.
The next morning I received a call from a friend who attends Temple Shalom. I sat in a local coffee shop and listened to his outrage, as he told me of the numerous members of the Temple who were deeply offended by what had happened the night before. One thing led to another, and several weeks later, Rabbi Howard Hirsch invited me to come and listen to other stories. So on a Sunday morning for three hours I heard story after story after story that were similar to what had happened at the library on debate night. The people who told their stories graciously acknowledged the legitimate differences between Judaism and Christian theology. They also were confused about how those differences, in the minds of many Christians, justified behavior that dehumanized them as Jews right here in Colorado Springs. I had no answer to that question. I left there with a profound sadness that I still feel.
#2- In the fall of 1992 I traveled to Israel/ Palestine with a good friend who lives here in Colorado Springs, someone who is very involved in the Council for Middle East Understanding. While we were there, we spent the day with the representative of World Vision who worked in that region, a man named Bill Wornock. Bill took us to a Muslim village not far from Emmaus, the site of the story narrated in Luke 24 after Jesus' resurrection. We spent an entire afternoon seeing the results of Bill's work through World Vision, a remarkable story of humanitarian aid that restored human dignity. At the end of the day, as we were getting ready to leave, the religious leader of the community said to me through his translator, "You know, the only way we are ever going to have peace in this region is when people experience God's love the way we have through my friend Bill." I left there with a profound sense of gratitude for Bill Wornock.
#3- I have had the privilege to know a student at Whitworth College these past few years who is a Palestinian Christian from a village not far from Bethlehem. This students has taught me more than I can possibly describe to you tonight. I have seen him be forthright and honest without being condemnatory or vindictive. This student participated in our commencement ceremonies in May, and his family was able to travel from the Middle East to be there with him on that wonderful day of celebration. I met his very proud mother and father that afternoon, and we struck up a conversation. The student's father described to me how the previous month a tank had been parked outside of their apartment for 19 days. He described how he, his wife, and their children huddled in fear during that entire period, wondering when they might attacked. The fear he felt was almost visceral as I looked into his eyes. Just last week I saw the student and his father again, and he described how now his apartment building has been targeted for destruction because of a plan to build a road to connect two settlements.
The length of the proposed road is 60 meters, less than 200 yards. In both encounters the question came up, "Why are they doing this to us?" I was silent because I didn't, and I don't, have an answer for my Christian friends.
#4- On the morning of September 4 I had the privilege of being on stage at Whitworth for our opening convocation. I usually open that event, in which the entire community is gathered. I felt a specials sense of being on "holy ground" that morning because of ceremony at the center of that event. The College was conferring upon Eva Lassman a Presidential Commendation. Let me read portions of the citation that introduced Eva that morning (Selected portions will be read- I have enclosed the entire commendation, read by Dr. Jim Waller, Professor of Psychology, for purposes of the record).
To be in the presence of someone who had suffered so much, and who has responded with such courage and grace, was an inspiring moment for me, and everyone present that morning.
Who is my neighbor? Every time I open the Bible and read, every time that I listen to another's story of suffering and their response, my definition of "neighbor" is stretched, and that stretching can be quite uncomfortable. But if I am to be loyal to the witness of the scriptures, and faithful to the God revealed therein, I must be willing to go through that process. Thank you for listening to someone whose life has been changed forever by the influence of the friends who came into my life during the ten years that we were fortunate enough to live here in Colorado Springs. . I signed the Covenant of Mutual Respect ten years ago, and I intend to live that covenant every day for as long as the Lord gives me breath.
1 QS 9:21-23, and 1QS 10:19-21, as cited in J. Massynbaerde Ford, My Enemy is My Guest (Orbis:Maryknoll, 1984), pp. 57-58. (Italics hers) She comments: "The texts quoted are an excellent witness to religious hatred."
2 James Waller, Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing (Oxford University Press: New York, 2002)