Our Beloved Samaritans: A Vision for Evangelicalism in the 21st Century

“Frank, there’s something I wanted to tell you tonight.  I’m gay.”

Sitting across the table from my friend Bart, I quickly glanced from my food to his face, almost as if by reflex.  “What?” I uttered without thought.

“This last year has been really hard for me.  After having my first experience with a guy, as confusing and heartwrenching as that was, I’ve realized that I am attracted to men.  I broke up with Sarah a few weeks ago.”

“Are you sure it’s not just a phase?” dark words I still wish I could take back.

“Truthfully, I don’t know.”  As we paused a moment to let both our meals and thoughts digest, I realized that Bart has just become the first of what would be several of my friends to come out me.

Bart and I were no strangers.  While he eventually became one of my groomsmen, we met when we both were voted to freshman hall council, him vice president and me president.  Even in the most stressful situations, he’s a guy who can’t lose his cool, and his integrity never falters.  Also, I owe my penchant for solid-color fitted dress shirts to him (see any picture of me…ever).

What’s so pivotal of this experience isn’t how this experience impacted how I saw Bart, but how I saw the LGBT movement at large.  My understanding was largely built on awkward exchanges with strangers, marriage law debates, and some absurd notion of “the gay agenda.”  It wasn’t my moral opinion on the issue that was troubling, it was my complete lack of empathy and humanization.  And this is of not much surprise if you take into account where I came from.

I grew up outside of a small town north of Portland, Oregon, called Battle Ground.  Our idea of religious diversity in the area was the one catholic church and one mormon church in the entire northern half of the county.  As a young evangelical, I attended Portland Christian High School, where I was given more apologetics than critical thought, and even less empathy.  Only years later did I discover the irony of finding how unJesus-like the place was, considering it was named after the guy.  Instead of loving as Jesus loved, I carried with me a judgment of those different myself.

I feel this otherism has plagued the Christian community on all sides.  To this day, evangelical leaders throw the word “atheist” around like an epithet, nomenclature of shame for the morally void.  Whether it’s the presumption that morality is only possible with faith, or the mad assertion that God punishes cities of “heathens” with natural disasters, too many voices seem content to pin with prejudice all wrong among the non-religious.

And yet it gets worse still.  If “gays have an agenda” and atheists are pissing off God, Muslims are vehemently despised compoundedly so, like a gay Darwin in a kafiya.  This has been especially true in the post 9/11 era, as we’ve seen in the Park51 debate, the Murfreesboro mosque protests, and the Burn the Quran Day.

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And yet, throughout all of this, the clear example of Jesus is missing.  While diversity may feel “new” in America, the Gospels are littered with examples of how Jesus engaged with people different than Himself. It wasn’t just lived out in His actions, but a central component of His teaching.  None was more quoted than the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

As a brief recap, this parable told in Luke (10:29-37) talks of a man who is beaten and robbed, and left for dead in the road.  A priest, then a Levite (also a religious leader), simply walked around the man and continued on their way.  It was a Samaritan, a sect seen as apostates by the Jewish community, who stopped to take care of the man.  The two who walked by could have used religious law to justify their inaction, as touching an injured or possibly dead person would be seen as “unclean.”  But Jesus didn’t praise them.  Rather, he focused on the one who took care of someone, putting a stranger’s need above their own.  Jesus finished the parable by saying, “go and do likewise.”

Most important to the parable, is that Jesus made the good person a Samaritan, not a Jew or Christian (or one of his followers, since ”Christianity” didn’t exist yet).  But why would Jesus do that?  It illuminates a question for us in our own time.  Who are the Samaritans of today?  Could a Muslim show me how to live more Christ-like?  Can I learn how to be a better spouse to my wife from Bart?  If the answer isn’t a resounding yes, then we really need to check our prejudice.  It should bother us how easy it is for Evangelical leaders in the media to dismiss our modern day Samaritans with such disdain.

It’s pretty hard to learn from someone if we only see them by their external identity.  Bart isn’t my gay friend, he’s my friend who just happens to be gay.  Without this level of humanization, we’ll never have a chance to build community with others, learn from them, and be able to be Christ-like examples in their lives or our own.

So here is our dilemma.  If we define ourselves through diminishing the humanity of others, not only are we damning Christianity to become a relic of times past, but we’ve unequivocally failed to follow Christ’s example.  Rather than a sect defined by opposition, we can become a community embraced as benevolent.

Chris Stedman at Chautauqua

“In the words of native novelist and scholar Thomas King, ‘The truth about stories is that that’s all we are,’ ” Stedman said. “Want a different ethic? Tell a different story. So let’s tell a different story about our religious differences. And let’s be sure that the nonreligious are a part of this conversation.”

It sounds like they have quite the lineup at Chautauqua Institution. Check out this summary of Chris Stedman’s talk http://chqdaily.com/2013/07/05/stedman-lets-be-sure-the-nonreligious-are-a-part-of-this-conversation/.

Shane Claiborne on love

Claiborne claimed that Christians sometimes have been the biggest obstacle of bringing God’s love to the world — they have had too much to say with their mouths and so little to show of God’s love with their lives.

Shane Claiborne hits the nail on the head, addressing the perception of Christians and the need to communicate love. http://chqdaily.com/2013/07/07/claiborne-calls-for-christianity-to-be-loving-again/

Rachel Held Evans on Biblical Literalism and Judgmentalism

Rachel Held Evans thoughtfully discusses Biblical interpretation and judgmentalism in “Everyone’s a Biblical Literalist Until you Bring up Gluttony.”

It’s hard to “other” the people we know and love the most. It’s become a cliché, but everything changes when it’s your brother or sister who gets divorced, when it’s your son or daughter who is gay, when it’s your best friend who struggles with addiction, when it’s your husband or wife asking some good questions about Christianity you never thought about before. Our relationships have a tendency to destroy our categories, to melt black and white into gray, and I don’t think God is disappointed or threatened by this.

How can we apply this to our relationships (or lack thereof) with those of other religious and secular identities?

From polemicist to peacemaker

John publicity photo

John W. Morehead
Guest Author

Recently Greg Damhorst asked me if I’d be interested in submitting an essay to the relaunch of Faith Line Protestants, and I was all too happy to do so. The topic I wanted to interact with is my theology of interfaith cooperation, and where I find my motivation to engage in this process the way that I do.

I am in a very different place in regards to interreligious encounters than I was years ago. Previously I worked for one of the larger ministries addressing “cults,” those new religions considered heresies, and toward which an apologetic refutation was presented, often in the name of evangelism. This seemed like the best and most biblical way to engage members of such groups, and I spent countless hours with Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others, exploring and refuting their doctrine from my Evangelical perspective. I also taught many Christians to do the same as a guest speaker in churches across the country.

But I have always been fairly self-critical, and widely read, and this eventually led to discomfort with this confrontational way of engagement. The more I set aside popular apologetic volumes and read the history of Christian missions, missiology, sociology of religion, and religious studies, the more I felt like I was creating a caricature of various religious groups, and being needlessly confrontational in interaction with their adherents. I eventually experienced a paradigm shift, moving from “cults” to cultures, and came to see people in new religions, and world religions too, not so much as members of deviant religious systems, but as people involved in dynamic religious cultures.

But perhaps the most significant motivation for me in my current way of engaging those of other religions is Jesus. I recognize that no matter how a Christian interacts with Muslims, Mormons or whoever, they believe they are doing so in a way that reflects Christ. But many times our assumptions here don’t line up with the reality of the Gospels. Yes, there are times when Jesus uses rebuke, such as with the Jewish religious leaders, but we’ve been applying such texts out of context. A fresh reading of the Gospels shows that Jesus’ harsh rhetoric is reserved for those leaders inside his own religious community (Mt. 23:27). To the marginalized and the outsider he offers compassion.

This is most striking with a consideration of Jesus and his encounters with Gentiles and Samaritans. Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-42) is especially illustrative. He breaks with his own religious community’s taboos concerning a frowned upon religion, he informed about his conversation partner’s religion and culture, he demonstrates respect rather than denunciation (while retaining disagreement), and his exchange involves listening as well as presentation.

Through a careful reassessment of the example of Jesus I came to embrace a different way of interreligious engagement. My concern for orthodoxy has not diminished, but my confrontational orthopathy (theology of emotion and attitude) has transformed into a benevolent one. In my shift from polemics to peacemaker (Mt. 5:9) and ambassador (2 Cor. 5:20) I now try to pursue more faithfully the imitation of Christ in our multi-faith world.

Principled Pluralism: The Challenge of Religious Diversity in 21st Century America

Eboo Patel, Jim Wallis and Meryl Chertoff discuss last week’s Aspen Ideas Festival and the challenge of religious diversity on HuffPost Religion.

Religious differences can be a potent source of social tension, as evidenced by bloody conflicts from Belfast to the Balkans to Baghdad. However, as with race and gender, religious diversity is a source of strength and richness when properly engaged.

Read it here.