Loving Your Neighbor (Beyond Theory)

Michael Craven | Center for Christ & Culture | Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Loving Your Neighbor (Beyond Theory)

For the past several weeks I have been laboring to outline a Christian response to Islam, Muslims, and the politically contentious issue of the "Ground Zero" mosque. As to the ideology of Islam, I have repeatedly condemned the violent expressions of radicalized Islam. I have argued that when Islam, as the ideological motivation, is employed in acts of aggression, the state must respond in defense of the nation and her interests.

Conversely, I have distinguished between the actions of the state and those of the individual, namely the Christian individual as is relates to our Muslim neighbors. I have bolstered my appeal with a plethora of scripture verses, which underscore the fact that we are to absolutely and without condition love our neighbor, including our Muslim neighbor. It is here that the love of neighbor either remains theoretical, or we act in obedience by faith and the love of Christ becomes real.

I think—given the many critical responses to my series—that we easily embrace the love of neighbor in theory but struggle when it comes to actual practice, especially when that "neighbor" represents a social, cultural, or political offense. What I have heard repeatedly is concession to the biblical admonitions to love our neighbor followed by "but…" when it comes to Muslims. This is a conditional love that struggles to separate the abhorrent ideology of radicalized Islam from Muslim people. Again, I acknowledge the severe challenge of this struggle.

However, this was the precise situation to which Jesus was responding when he shared the parable of the "Good Samaritan" (Lk. 10:25-37). The Samaritan was chosen precisely because of his social offense to the Jews. In this parable, Jesus is illustrating the superiority of the Samaritan's sacrificial love over and against his fellow Jews who would be religiously
perfect. Consider Jesus' encounter with the woman at the well, another Samaritan (Jn. 4) or the leper (Lk. 5:12-16) or the centurion's servant (Lk. 7:1-10). Jesus ate with both the Pharisee (Lk. 7:36) and the tax collector (Lk. 5:29). Throughout the New Testament, Jesus was constantly reaching out to the socially, politically, and religiously marginalized. The political, cultural, social, and religious distinctions that divide us are nullified in Christ. These distinctions are not to impede his command to love against these barriers, bringing peace and reconciliation into his world. In Jesus' life and teaching, he intentionally destroyed any sort of conditional response to his command to "love your neighbor."

Even now, you may read this and think to yourself, "Yes, but the Samaritans weren't trying to kill the Jews!" Now, say that out loud to Jesus, who surrendered himself to death on the cross, this Jesus who asked the Father to forgive those who drove the very nails into his flesh! This same Jesus who bids you and me to take up the cross—the ultimate symbol of humility and death to self—and follow his example. It is in the very act of doing so that God's power is made manifest and it is his power, not ours, that transforms, as it did the Roman soldier who, upon seeing Jesus die, "praised God" (Luke 23:47)!

This is the life to which we are called. Is it difficult? Does it go against our very nature? You bet it does! As the late G. K. Chesterton so eloquently put it, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried!" We must choose to follow, even when it is most difficult, trusting the Lord will meet us with his grace.

While Terry Jones has dominated the news—the Florida pastor who thought burning the Koran would be a great evangelical outreach—another pastor better illustrates the truly radical Christian response to Islam and Muslims.

Pastor Steve Stone is the senior pastor of Heartsong Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Roughly eighteen months ago when Pastor Stone learned that a new Islamic center had purchased the property across the street, he began to ask, "What would Jesus have us do?" In contrast to Jones's strategy of placing a sign on the church lawn that reads, "Islam is of the Devil," Pastor Stone's church displayed a sign saying, "Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood." Suffice it to say, their new Muslim neighbors were taken aback, especially in light of the recent backlash against another proposed mosque in nearby Murfreesboro. Dr. Bashar Shala, the head of the Memphis Islamic Center, was surprised and overwhelmed by the reception, to say the least.

However, this was only the beginning of what could only be described as a radical attempt at loving their neighbors. As a result of construction delays, the Memphis Islamic Center would not be open in time for Ramadan, a month-long period of fasting and prayer. This would leave the Muslim congregation without a place to pray. So what did Pastor Stone and the congregation of Heartsong Church do? They offered their Muslim neighbors the use of their facilities until theirs were completed.

To be sure, initially this was a challenge for members of Heartsong but they ultimately embraced this opportunity as a way to demonstrate the love of Christ. They became radical missionaries for the gospel of Jesus Christ and his kingdom! As justification for their decision, Pastor Stone wrote on his blog, "Jesus said that people would know we are his disciples by our love. It is the same quality with which God loves us. God does not wait for us to love God first; God does not require that our hearts be pure. There are no conditions to God's love." Is there a flaw in this position? The "lawyer" in Luke 10 tried to narrow God's command to "love your neighbor as yourself." Do you really want to test the Lord on this?

Pastor Stone and church members who were on hand each night welcoming their Muslim neighbors observed, "Their eyes have been wet with gratitude." I'm sure they were! There is nothing more powerful than the love of Christ and it is through his church that this love is to be encountered. Of course, Pastor Stone has come under fire from some Christians but his response is simple and straightforward: "We are loving our neighbors. To say much more than that would be to veer into politics and away from the fact that we are doing what we are doing because our Lord would have us do it."

Does anyone really think there isn't enormous tension between Christians and Muslims? And if that's the case, do we—who supposedly understand the true nature of man—believe that anything less than the love of Christ will resolve this tension and conflict? Do you think the Muslim community at the Memphis Islamic Center might be in a better position to hear and receive the love of Christ in the wake of such love shown to them by their Christian neighbors? Is this not the goal of the gospel of the kingdom and therefore the mission of the church in which reconciliation with God, with ourselves, with others, and with the whole of creation is achieved? Isn't the picture of heaven one in which the lion lays down with the lamb—enemies are reconciled—and aren't we to be a sign and foretaste of heaven on earth, the kingdom fully come?

So let us love not in theory but in practice, in the trenches of life within a fallen world where hatred and bitterness abound. It is here that we exchange hatred for holiness and truly honor Christ.

© 2010 by S. Michael Craven Permission granted for non-commercial use.

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S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress, 2009). Michael's ministry is dedicated to equipping the church to engage the culture with the redemptive mission of Christ. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture and the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit: www.battlefortruth.org

Loving Your Neighbor (Beyond Theory)