Who Is My Neighbor?

On August 5, Oak Creek, Wisc., was rocked after the news that Wade Michael Page, a man with loose ties to local white supremacist groups, attacked a Sikh gurdwara, killing six and critically injuring several others. Within 24 hours, news that a mosque in Joplin, Mo., was burned to the ground hit the airwaves. In both cases, religious prejudice and discrimination are suspected to have been the motivation for these crimes against the Sikh and Muslim communities.

As I listened to the news reports surrounding both incidents, two thoughts immediately came to mind. The first was a deep sense of grief. How could this happen? How is it that, in a country that boasts the greatest levels of religious freedom and diversity in the world, religious prejudice could still be a force that not only divides communities but also takes lives in the process? My heart broke as I thought about the children affected by these tragedies—not only those who were directly a part of these two communities, but all the Sikh and Muslim kids who would wonder whether or not they would be safe at school, at home or in their houses of worship. Even as I write, it is hard to hold back the tears.

My second thought was this: How do we, as evangelical Christians, respond?

As Westboro Baptist Church declared that God had sent another shooter and Pat Robertson blamed atheists, again my heart broke as I thought about how those messages hardly spoke of the love and sacrifice of Jesus, the Man that I have given my life to and the Lord that I serve. Is there another way? Is there another response available to us beyond the bigotry, finger pointing and condemnation? Is there something in my own faith tradition that provides an answer to these tragedies?

It was then that a familiar story began to echo in my heart.

On one occasion, an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all you heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came to where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)

While this story is one of the most familiar in all of Scripture, it takes on new light and dimension when read in the wake of these two tragedies. What stands out to me is that the Samaritan was a religious “outsider.” To the Israelite community of Jesus’ day, he would have been considered unclean, a “heretic.” Yet Jesus holds him up as the hero of the story.

By contrast, it is the religious leaders, the priest and the Levite, who fail to come to the aid of the man because of their religious convictions. Because they feared becoming unclean or tainted by this potentially dead man, they did not even draw close to see if they could help him, choosing instead to pass by on the other side of the road.

Finally, the Samaritan offered assistance at great personal cost to himself. Helping the man in need was an act of great self-sacrifice on behalf of the other. In the face of the religious differences that would have separated him from the man in need, he responded with kindness and generosity, extending mercy to “the other.”

And so I have to ask myself: What does it look like for us to “go and do likewise” when we encounter the kind of religious prejudice that was so apparent through these two events in Wisconsin and Missouri? How do we apply this parable to our religious neighbors of other faith traditions?

See Also

In his forthcoming book Sacred Ground, my friend Eboo Patel highlights that when we study the history of the American civil rights movement, “It begins to dawn on you that you have a responsibility to use the moment when the spotlight shines on you to secure the rights of others.” I see this ethic at work in how the Sikh community has responded to this tragedy. In reflecting on the tragedy, Ravi Singh, a leader in the Sikh community in Palatine, Ill., said, “It is not an attack against the Sikhs. It is an attack against humanity.”

In this response, I see the parable of the Good Samaritan re-enacted as the Sikh community uses this moment to highlight the truth that all people are to be protected from violence, abuse and prejudice. In the midst of their own tragedy, they have done the costly thing: standing up for the rights and protections of all religious communities.

As evangelicals, Jesus calls us to “go and do likewise.” As such, I would encourage all of us to begin by getting to know our neighbors.

If you live in a community with a local mosque, gurdwara, synagogue, temple, etc., take the time to go and meet your religious neighbors. Introduce yourself to the religious leaders. Listen to their stories. Have a meal together to establish bonds of friendship and sow the seeds of peace. In doing so, you heed Paul’s exhortation to “love your neighbor as yourself.” He goes on to say, “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 15:10).

Second, bring healing where healing is needed. If you live in a neighborhood where religious violence or prejudice has raised its head, do the costly thing by pouring out your wine and oil for the sake of bringing healing and friendship where there had once been hostility and division. So if a mosque has burned down, invite your Muslim neighbors to use your fellowship hall to meet and pray. If a gurdwara has been attacked, join your Sikh neighbors in prayer vigils. Offer them places to meet, to grieve and to heal in your own homes and houses of worship. If a synagogue has been defaced, go with the hands and feet of Christ to clean off the spraypaint alongside your Jewish neighbors.

There will be people in the evangelical community who misunderstand you—who, because of their religious convictions, will fear being theologically misunderstood, who will fear encouraging false religion.

But what I fear more than being misunderstood is failing to present an image of Christ that is loving and merciful toward those in need.

So when such accusations are made, do not listen. Do not simply pass by on the other side of the road. Rather, go and show mercy. Go and do likewise.

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