Who is my neighbour?

When I was young I understood the word ‘neighbour’ to have a very specific meaning: the person who lives next door.

Occasionally it would be extended a bit. In a small village of a few hundred people, many of them related to each other, the term ‘neighbour’ might reasonably be applied to everyone in the community. Or in the inner-city (like Woodland Road in Leicester, where I spent the first few years of my life), it might mean other people who lived on the same street. 

But ‘neighbour’ always implied proximity. And usually (although this was rarely spelled out) it also involved similarity: neighbours are people like us.

Jesus, however, had a different definition. Let me quote it to you in full:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10:25-37, NRSV)

Let me point out two things about this passage.

First, Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’. That’s because it’s the wrong question. The lawyer thinks the commandments are an entrance exam he has to pass in order to receive eternal life. He wants to know what the pass mark is: what’s the least he can get away with? That being the case, if there are fifty people in his village and only twenty of them qualify as his ‘neighbours’, why would he waste time loving the other thirty? There’s nothing in it for him!

Jesus, however, sees things differently. To him, the commandments are not an entrance exam, they are a description of what eternal life looks like. Growing in joyful obedience to those commandments is what our life is going to be about, now and forever, until we are reshaped into people who obey them not out of obligation, but out of delight. They aren’t an exam that we will complete: they are our new way of life.

So Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question because he doesn’t accept the premise it’s based on. And this leads to the second thing: Jesus’ redefinition of the word  ‘neighbour’. ‘Neighbour’ isn’t a description of a person who lives near us and who looks like us; it’s a description of the relationship between a person in need and the person who stops to help them. A person in need, whether I know them or not, is my neighbour. When I stop to help them, I am behaving like a true neighbour to them.

And it’s not an accident that Jesus chooses to make this an inter-racial story. The Samaritans were mixed-bloods, with centuries of animosity between them and the ‘pure’ Jews of Judea. But a Samaritan was the one who stopped to help this (presumably Jewish) victim of a mugging, while the priest and the Levite (also Jewish) refused to do so. They refused to be neighbours to the man in need; the Samaritan chose to be a neighbour.

In recent weeks we have seen shocking racial hatred, especially today in Charlottesville, Virginia. This hatred is antithetical to the message of Jesus Christ. Jesus recognizes no boundaries; he crosses borders, reaches out to all people, treats Samaritans and Roman soldiers (and women, children, tax collectors and prostitutes) with respect, and tells us that we are even required to love our enemies. There is no escape from the command to love, because it is the nature of the God we believe in, a God who loves his enemies.

I want to say as clearly as I can that any kind of racism – against aboriginal people, against black folks, against Asians, against Jewish people or Muslims (although ‘Muslim’ is a religion, not a race) or anyone else – is totally antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The God Jesus taught us about is the God who created everyone and loves everyone. The Church must stand clearly for the message, and live it out in its daily life. 

I would be the first to admit that we in the Church have often fallen short of this. We have allowed our governments to tells us it’s okay to hate and kill people it calls our enemies. We have colluded with the state in the sinfully misguided and wicked institution of the Residential Schools. And we continue to drag our feet on recognizing the rights of the original inhabitants of this country. So yes, we have a lot to repent of.

But let’s not fail to name the goal we’re aiming for. Let’s be clear: Jesus calls us to be neighbours to one another, to love one another, to help those in need whether they are ‘like us’ or not. One of his early followers, Saul of Tarsus, taught that in Christ ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). 

All one. The Church is called to demonstrate before the watching world what a reconciled humanity looks like. The Church is called to live this love, and then to share it with others and invite them into it. And we cannot do that if we allow ourselves to be divided along lines of race. To allow that would be a complete betrayal of our message.

We are one family. So let us do our best to live as one family, and refuse to let the power of evil divide us.

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‘Planted: A Story of Creation, Calling, and Community’, by Leah Kostamo

planted-by-leah-kostamoThis book is both the story of A Rocha Canada and also a good primer on a Christian approach to creation care. Early in the book the author names four theological principles on which the work of A Rocha is based: (1) The earth is the Lord’s (Psalm 24:1), (2) Creation is good (Genesis 1:31), (3) Everything is connected (Hosea 4:1-3), and (4) We are to have hope (despite the fact that ‘knowing what conservationists know, it’s only logical that they would be tempted to despair).

The data about the deterioration of our natural environment seems overwhelming at times, but nevertheless I came away from this book with a sense of hope and a feeling that there are things – maybe even just little things – that everyone can do. But I particularly resonated with Leah Kostamo’s three recommended attitudes: (1) Practice Gratitude, (2) Practice Generosity, and (3) Practice Keeping the Sabbath.

Like many people, I’m in favour of creation care in theory but often take the easy way out. This book gave me both a sense of hope and also a few things to be working on.

Leah Kostamo’s website is here.

Planted can be purchased from Amazon.ca here.

What I Will Remember on Remembrance Day

This is a repost from 2013 and 2014; I thought of writing something new, but realized again that this still says what I want to say.

386302_10150434245270400_1399354246_nRemembrance Day is often promoted these days as a day to remember the sacrifices of military personnel who served our country in time of war.

In fact, the original Armistice Day, after World War One (the ‘Great War’ which was also called, optimistically, ‘the War to end all wars’), had a wider focus; it was a thanksgiving that the guns had fallen silent after four years of butchery and carnage on a scale the world had never seen before, and a silent remembrance of all who had lost their lives, military or civilian. It was also a day to pray fervently for peace and to commit oneself to a simple message: ‘Never Again!’

So on Remembrance Day this year there will be many things I will remember.

First and foremost, of course, I will remember family members who were impacted by the ravages of war.

I will remember my grandfather, George Edgar Chesterton (1895-1963), who served with the Leicestershire Tigers from 1914-18. He was eventually captured and spent eighteen months as a P.O.W. before returning home after the armistice.

I will remember my Dad’s uncle, Charles Hodkinson (1912-1941), shot down and killed in a bomber over the Netherlands in 1941.

I will remember my great grand uncle, Horace Arthur Thornton (1896-1917), killed in action in France July 27th 1917.

I will remember Brian Edgar Fogerty (1924-1941), related to me through my grandfather’s sister, who served in the merchant navy during WW2 and died at sea Feb. 22nd 1941; he was just 17.

I will remember Brian’s uncles, Harold Edgar Fogerty (1892-1919) and Edward Ernest Vernon Fogerty (1901-1920), both of whom served in the Great War. They died of illnesses after the war ended, but are remembered on the war memorial in Cheltenham because it is felt that war injuries contributed to their deaths.

I will remember the many other relatives who served in the military in the two great world wars of the twentieth century, many of whom would never speak of their experiences when they returned, and lived with the trauma for the rest of their lives.

I will also remember the brave men and women who served in the enemy armies, many of whom were conscripted and had no choice unless they were willing to be shot. I will remember the people who died because of the bombs my Dad’s uncle Charles dropped. I will remember the U-Boat men who fired the torpedoes that killed Brian Fogerty; the U-Boat arm had the highest casualty incidence of any unit of the German military in WW2, and I expect that most of them died in terror as they heard the explosions of depth charges getting closer and closer; no doubt those who were religious prayed that God would save them, just as my relatives prayed to be saved.

I will remember the civilians whose lives were lost in carpet bombing: in the Blitz in London and other cities in Britain, in the fire-bombing of Dresden, in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I will remember the residents of the towns and cities of Europe, Africa, and Asia, whose homes became battlegrounds and who lost everything they had, including (in millions of cases) their lives. I will remember the millions of children who became orphans, many of whom were institutionalized for the rest of their lives.

I will remember the ridiculous sibling rivalry between King Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm I, which was a primary cause of the arms race between their two countries in the lead up to World War I, and thus arguably contributed to the outbreak of the war. Britain and Germany had no history of aggression, but the Kaiser wanted battleships like his cousin King Edward, and the only excuse he could offer was to create the illusion that Britain was a threat to him. On such stupidity hung the lives of millions of young men.

I will remember the millions of people in eastern Europe who were condemned to forty years of communist tyranny because Britain and the U.S.A. needed the support of Russia to win the Second World War. Our victory was thus won on the backs of the freedom of millions; who were the ‘winners’ here?

I will remember the lies that have been told to justify war, from the lie that Polish soldiers had invaded Germany and killed men at a border post in 1939 (told by Hitler to justify his invasion of Poland) to the lie that Iran had weapons of mass destruction. I will also remember the appalling arrogance of western nations who assume that we have the right to impose our ideas of government on people who obviously do not want them.

I will remember how the words of my Lord Jesus Christ, ”greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”, have been taken out of the context in which he spoke them – in which he was about to lay down his life without resisting, loving his enemies and praying for those who hated him – and have been used to honour and glorify the deaths of those who were killed while they were fighting and killing others.

I will remember all of this on Remembrance Day. I will pray that this madness will end, that human beings may find better ways to resolve their conflicts than sending young men out to butcher each other, and that those who profit from war will have their eyes opened to their own wickedness, and repent. And I will pray that the Christian Church throughout the world may be alive to the call it has received from its master, to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us.

And, as always, I will find Wilfred Owen’s immortal poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ to be a penetrating aid to true remembrance of what war is all about:

Dulce Et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

– Wilfred Owen, 1917

Friday miscellany

First, a few pieces of absurdity for you this morning.

Driving.ca has a piece called ‘Eight Cheap Cars for the Cash Strapped Student‘. Hey, folks, if you can afford a cheap car, you’re not a cash-strapped student! Cash strapped students used to ride the bus or the train. When I was a student, the only one in my class to own a car was the son of the wealthy businessman. The rest of us walked or took the bus (or sponged rides off our friends!).

Over the Europe there’s a huge and complex refugee problem caused mainly by a lengthy civil war in Syria. Reading the Old Testament and the New Testament, it would seem that God might be concerned about this – in fact, that it would be high on his list of priorities. Meanwhile, over at ‘Thinking Anglicans’, a joyful post about the appointment of Christine Hardman as the next Bishop of Newcastle has turned into a long discussion in the comments about whether or not Conservative Evangelicals in Newcastle will be able to accept her ministry. Note: so far, no Conservative Evangelicals are taking part in this discussion.

By the way, if you want to read some stories about the real human beings who are refugees, check out this post on the Christian Peacemaker Teams website.

Over in Kentucky, of course, there’s an ongoing controversy about a devout Christian county clerk who refuses to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples because it violates her conscience; she believes that God’s plan is for marriage to be a union between one man and one woman (note: she has now gone to jail over this issue). I’m sympathetic to her view; I have reservations about same-sex marriage myself, and I’m also mindful of the fact that the government appears to have unilaterally changed the terms of her contract after hiring her. On the other hand, as has been pointed out on the internet, if a Quaker clerk refused to issue a gun licence on the grounds that it violated his or her conscientious objection to guns, I suspect that the conservative Christian community wouldn’t be jumping up and down in support. I also suspect they won’t be donating money for the legal bills of Christians who are prosecuted for war tax resistance.

Interestingly, some of the folks involved in the fight to legalize same sex marriage in the US seem to have a good sense of perspective on this incident:

“I think this is a tempest in a teapot,” said Marc Solomon, national campaign director of Freedom to Marry, which was active in the push for same-sex marriages to be recognized. “If the big backlash and the mass resistance that our opponents promised is one clerk from a county of under 25,000 people, I think we’re in very good shape.”

Now, a serious issue.

Jesus told his critics that the reason he spent time with ‘sinners’ was that it wasn’t the healthy folks that needed a doctor, but the sick. Christianity believes in grace, which is God’s love poured out generously and without reservation on all who need it, whether they deserve it or not. So Christianity isn’t supposed to be a club for those who are doing well; it’s meant to be a community for imperfect people who help each other and share the love of God with each other.

So I’m saddened by the continual realization that when some people start having struggles, they stop going to church. There are all kinds of legitimate reasons for this, and I’m not in any way wanting to judge these folks. I simply think that we in the church need to do a better job of being obviously, in the sight of the world, a community for the broken, not a club for people who have their lives all together.

Speaking of brokenness and how we deal with it, many of my friends will know how much I enjoy the CBC program ‘Heartland’. A couple of years ago Graham Wardle, who plays Ty Borden on the show, got together with another motorcycling friend to start the annual ‘Cruise with a Cause‘, a motor cycle trip to raise money for good causes. Their 2015 ride is ending in High River today, and their cause this year is the Canadian Mental Health Association. ‘Heartland’ stars Graham Wardle, Amber Marshall, Shaun Johnston and Alisha Newton are all taking part. I think that’s a great cause; mental health issues affect millions of people, and often they’re afraid to talk about it or ask for help. Anything that raises the profile of this subject is a good thing in my books.

And while we’re talking about mental health issues, I should mention the World Suicide Prevention Day ‘Cycle Around the Globe Initiative‘ on September 10th, sponsored by the International Association for Suicide Prevention. Here in Edmonton my good friends Bill and Betty Jo Werthmann and the ‘Hillary’s Ride’ initiative are sponsoring a ride at Hawrelak Park, one of several events happening in Edmonton as part of ‘Lift the Silence’ suicide awareness week.

And finally, getting back to the refugee crisis, there is of course a lot of excellent noise going on out there. However, we also need to do something. I have a rather small house and I doubt if a refugee family would fit into it. So the best I can do is to give my financial support to one of the excellent organizations that are doing something about it. Here are a few:

Canadian Foodgrains Bank

World Vision

Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund

Mennonite Central Committee

Oxfam Canada

Carry on!

Forgiveness isn’t something that you feel, it’s something that you do.

Giles Fraser hits a home run with this one, in my view.

I’m perfectly aware that someone like me probably can’t talk legitimately about forgiveness when I find it so hard to forgive people myself – even for things that are pathetically small.

But I am going to risk it only because I suspect there is so much sentimentalising of forgiveness that it blocks out much of our understanding of the real thing. And by sentimentalising, I mean the idea that forgiveness involves person A coming to have warm and kindly feelings towards person B when person B has done them some enormous harm.

One of the things I have always liked about the stories of the Bible is that they are mostly uninterested in a person’s inner life. They don’t say much about how Jesus feels. But they say a great deal about what he does. Likewise with forgiveness: it is not fundamentally something that you feel, but something that you do.

Read the rest here. The only addition I would make to Giles’ thoughts is that forgiveness isn’t just a negative thing – refusing to take revenge – but also a positive thing – going the second mile and acting in compassion and love toward the offender, even though it’s probably the last thing we feel like. That’s what Paul meant when he told us that if our enemy is hungry, we should feed them, and if they’re thirsty, give them a drink.

But when it comes to his basic point – that forgiveness is something you do, not something you feel – I’m with Giles 110%.