Your LGBT and Muslim Neighbors
In the days following the heart-wrenching violence in Orlando, I experienced a number emotions - anger, frustration, sadness... Also relief and thanksgiving that family members were OK. I still can't even begin to wrap my head around the grief and pain so many people are experiencing. What's even more disheartening is that if the future reflects history to any degree, this will not be the last act of violence in the states. I'm left with two short prayers that sum up the Christian's approach to the uncertainty of life in this age - "Lord, have mercy," and "Come quickly, Lord Jesus."
Alongside these feelings, I dug up an old memory. Shortly after another shooting about a year and a half ago, some neighbors dropped by our church for a visit. A Muslim husband and wife asked if they could talk to us about Islam. Our lead pastor and I were surprised. It's not everyday that Muslims come to Lutheran churches asking to talk religion. They weren't trying to proselytize. Rather, they were scared and frustrated that the terrorists who committed this act of violence did so in the name of Islam. "We want you to know that Islam is a peaceful religion," they said. "And we want you to know that we are nothing likes these terrorists."
We had a great conversation that lasted over an hour. We assured them that we care for them as neighbors, and that we understand the difference between religious radicals and peace-loving people. We even got out the Koran and the Bible and had some great conversations about Jesus Christ.
A few aspects of this conversation stood out to me as unique in view of the recent climate of our political and social conversations.
I see a lot of lines being drawn right now. People have retread into ideological camps with slogans likes conservative/progressive, religious/secular, etc., and rather than coming out of our tents to talk to one another, we're content with throwing rocks over the wall at our demonized opponents. A Muslim couple crossing an ethic and religious barrier to speak with Christian neighbors is the exact opposite of the normal diet of toxic dialogue we see on social media.
As Christians, we have a God who crossed far wider gaps than this to come and find us. The Word became flesh (John 1:14) and made his dwelling among us. He didn't agree with us, but he still drew near to us. He didn't owe us anything, but he still gave his all for us (John 3:16). He came to our turf. He played according to our limitations. He was subjected to our frustrations. If Christ has done this for us, Christians have all the more reasons and resources to cross boundaries rather than draw lines.
The other thing that stood out to me about our spontaneous Christian/Muslim dialogue was that we were able to share serious disagreements, and yet still show respect and kindness. Contrary to the popular pluralism embodied by "coexist" bumper stickers, Christianity and Islam are not the same - in fact, they differ greatly on the most important question of all - who is Jesus Christ? Interestingly enough, it's usually people who are neither seriously Christian or Muslim who claim that the two religions "basically teach the same thing." For one, such a claim is pretty offensive to the serious adherents of both faiths. And also, it's naive.
As we explained our firm belief in Jesus Christ as the unique, eternal Son of God, who died for the sins of all and was raised from the dead, our Muslim friends politely shook their heads and said, "No. We don't believe that." And as they explained their views on Jesus, we likewise politely shook our heads and said, "Nope. We definitely don't believe that." We even posed some pretty heavy questions to each other - not trivial niceties, but rather questions that really matter. BUT... we ended our conversation that day shaking hands, smiling, and hoping to continue the conversation in the future.
Isn't this what Jesus does? He is able to completely love someone, and yet still completely disagree (by the way, for Jesus, loving you and disagreeing with you are really the same thing, since leaving you in the dark is not all that loving). When Jesus crosses ethnic, religious, and gender boundaries by speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, he doesn't affirm her sexual ethics or her religious opinions. But he does treat her with more respect and humanity than anyone else had. In fact, her sense of shock at his kindness is apparent. Jews don't talk to Samaritans, but the Jewish Jesus does. First century Jewish men don't publicly talk to women, but Jesus does. Religious people don't normally associate with the immoral, but Jesus, the only one who is perfectly holy does.
Unlike the political and social discourse of our day, Jesus does not melt into a mess of pluralistic mushiness, nor does he come off as arrogant and abrasive. He does point out that her religious views and lifestyle are off, but he also invites her into a better way - union with himself as the Messiah of the world. Her conversion would not have taken place if Jesus acted as either a religious zealot or a moral pushover. Isn't the same true of the church? The Gospel is not accessible to people when it's watered down by compromise or given as an orthodox body slam.
We live in strange times - times when people are given to extremes, both in their own viewpoints as well as their unfair caricatures of those with whom they disagree. I see this in the way some progressives talk about conservatives as backward, homophobic misogynists, hopelessly relegated to the "wrong side of history." I see this in the way some conservatives jump on a nationalistic bandwagon built on racist rhetoric, the latest shocking public comment, and a feverish desire to pin all problems - real or conjured - on someone else. I also see my own generation losing the ability to think and dialogue calmly and rationally. Everything is reduced to memes and slogan, while those of us wanting to have a more nuanced conversation are left behind and labeled as "haters." This is unfortunate, to say the least. I don't have much confidence that things will get better. But experiences like the peaceful Muslim/Christian dialogue I encountered give me some hope. And above all, Christ gives me hope. Regardless of the way the church has dropped the ball in the past and caved into either cultural compromise or over-reaction, in the cross and empty tomb of Christ we have more resources than anyone to cross boundaries instead of creating caricatures or falling into the abyss of social media rage.
A Better Way
As Christians, we've always been called to live counter-culturally, and loving your neighbor as Christ intended - regardless of religion, political party, or sexual ethics - just so happens to be very counter-cultural. It's also counter-cultural to love without agreeing with certain beliefs as true, or to love without affirming any lifestyle as healthy and praise-worthy. Jesus calls us to live as paradoxical people - people who can wholeheartedly disagree with someone, and yet still go the extra mile, bless and not curse, pray for their well-being, and remain present even when differences of opinion make things awkward.
If you are a Christian, you are called to love your Muslim neighbors, and to assume the best about them. You need to remember that lumping them together with ISIS may mean lumping them together with a group that very well may have killed their own relatives. You are called to get to know them, to listen to them, to be the kind of neighbor for them that the Good Samaritan was to his neighbor (Luke 10:25-37). We can never stand behind an anxious nationalism that defies the Gospel and looks for a loophole by asking, "And who is my neighbor?" Anyone with a beating heart is your neighbor. End of story. But let's not misunderstand love as the affirmation that "all religions are really the same." That only makes sense if you don't think about it. And it compromises the very Gospel that makes love for all people a reality and not a feel-good fiction.
If you are a Christian, you are called to love your LGBT neighbors. You need to remember that it's possible that the only Christians they've met have been angry, Bible-toting picketers on a corner condemning them to hell, or strict religious parents who disowned them. The Christ in you is the opposite of these sentiments, so you must be the opposite in every sense. Perhaps the only experience they've had with God is the heavy frown of a judgmental deity who stands aloof and cold to their struggle with same-sex attractions, and a church community with an unspoken "don't ask, don't tell" policy. You are called to be evidence of God's kindness that leads us to repentance - the kind of salt and light that embodies the unlimited patience of Jesus Christ for all sinners - from gossips, to gluttons, to porn addicts (1 Tim. 1:12-17). But you can love in this way without jumping on the bandwagon of #lovewins. We are called to speak the truth in love, not to tell lies in love.
Christian, you are called to love. Not the kind of love that says "yes" to anything and everything, but rather the kind of love that can say "no" and still give you the shirt off its back. This kind of paradoxical love is rare these days. But it shines brightest in the cross and empty tomb. You are marked with this cross and empty tomb by a God who said "no" to your old self and "yes" to your new self. So, be your better self. Cross boundaries and get to know people. Dismantle caricatures by listening. In short, be salt and light.
Pastor John Rasmussen