How do you feel when you see an image of a Muslim praying, like this one? (left)
And how do you feel when you see an image of someone like Mother Theresa praying?
If you are anything like me, as a Christian, you might feel separate or even negative towards the first image and somehow, connected, perhaps even positive towards the second. Yet, if you pay attention, the attire and posture in the two images have more similarities than differences. Isn't it interesting, the negative or positive feelings we may have towards others based on our perception of difference or connectedness?
As a European woman, living among both secular Europeans and Arab Muslims and working towards reconciliation between the two alienated groups, my thoughts are constantly preoccupied with questions about how we view others who are different from ourselves, and more importantly, what Jesus teaches about how we should view others.
We don’t need to look far to find devastating examples and harrowing stories of the negative impact of the ways that different groups view and treat each other. Whether it’s subtle exclusion or hatred fueled violence there’s always an excuse justifying such behavior – it’s always all about ‘them’ and ‘us’, and a perceived idea of separation and difference.
As long as we look at humanity through this lens of ‘them’ and ‘us’, we’ll never be able to put into practice the simple commandment that Jesus left us to ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’. And He left no room for doubt about who our neighbor might be, by choosing the despised, unclean, half-breed Samaritans as his example. Jesus taught that there is no ‘them’ but only ‘us’. It was shocking for Jesus’ self-righteous religious contemporaries to hear that those they despised were included in His view of God’s Kingdom!
Who are the ‘others’ in our lives? Depending on where we live it may be strikingly obvious or incredibly subtle, but I’m certain that wherever we are, there are always ‘others’ around us. The poor, the uneducated, the unimportant, the rejected, the despised, the trouble-makers, even our enemies. Jesus calls us to love them. These may be people that we see as so different from ourselves we can’t even imagine how any kind of relationship with them could even be a possibility. Despite our good intentions, we justify our prejudices and sometimes even defend our hatred.
Loving others as ourselves, whoever they may be, puts us all on equal ground. It’s the level ground of our shared humanity. There’s no room for hierarchy or judgment in Jesus’ proposed way forward. Love cannot arrogantly say, ‘I’m right and you are wrong.’ Love cannot allow for a posture that says, ‘You are ______ (fill the blank) and so therefore I’m justified in my hatred, condemnation, judgment, superiority, pride, opinion.’
The beautiful, humble, sacrificial love of Christ was not reserved for a chosen few, even though the apostles and the early church initially really struggled to figure that one out! The God of creation became flesh to reconcile all of humanity with Himself, and to one another. Because of Christ, the equal ground of shared humanity is actually possible. Jesus taught us how and I believe His followers, the Church, should be champions at putting this into practice.
As I live life among postmodern secular Europeans and Arab Muslims, I have discovered that Jesus was right! Loving others is more powerful than judging, disapproving, condemning or hating! Looking at people through a lens of judgment only works when we keep people at a distance. But when we choose to be neighborly, to invite people into our homes and into our hearts, we can see them as God does, to love them as Christ taught and to allow them to experience the true presence and grace of Christ through us, His Body.
I am convinced, that if my starting point had been based on difference – arguing about doctrine, convincing others of flawed beliefs, debating right and wrong religious or moral practices – my relationships today would be very different!
On a daily basis, I am seeing the fruit of this choice to love those who seem, on the outside, very different from me. In our town, we have a whole mixed community of Muslim and, secular, Arab and European men, women and children who are encountering grace, the presence of the Holy Spirit and the redemption of Christ.
If you passed these people on the street, you might unknowingly judge them as belonging to a different religion or having different values and you might assume that they are very different from you. But in fact, the very same Holy Spirit that gently led you towards Christ may also be at work in their lives because He is indeed at work all around us and constantly drawing all of creation into relationship with himself.
And if it was safe, some of those seemingly ‘otherly’ people would even quietly tell you that they love Jesus and pray to Him, because they have discovered that He is the one who answers their prayers!
How did they discover this Good News? They experienced love. Real love. The kind that gets hands dirty. That sees need and responds. Practical, tangible, sacrificial. No strings attached. Jesus taught us that real love has true power. It transforms. It heals. It redeems. It reconciles the irreconcilable. All of creation is hungry for it.
The good news is that our calling is to love others as Christ taught us, and trust Him to be the One who gently and lovingly does the convincing, the convicting, the transforming and the changing! We don’t need to worry about that! We don’t need to worry about making ‘them’ become more like ‘us.’ Instead, we need to concern ourselves with becoming more like Christ and loving those around us as He does.