A really wonderful discussion last night led by Bishop Toby Howarth and organised by the Thinking Faith Network in Thornbury, Bradford. The bishop took the parable of the Good Samaritan and the question to which it responded.
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, Love your neighbour as yourself.
Bishop Toby’s own question was – what stops us from being there for our neighbours? What are the challenges of Christians and people of other faiths entering into dialogue with one another? How can we begin a neighbourly encounter when there are fundamental disagreements about what we believe?
There were some surprising responses: is this about respecting the other person – well no, actually, because there are some things that you believe that I can’t respect. Is this about finding common ground? – well no. Are we to love like Jesus loved? – no we can’t because we are not Jesus, we are broken people. This last point raises questions for me about how Jesus is made known, we are the body of Christ and all that.
It seems to me that we are called to love with eyes wide open with an honesty that embraces people as they really are not how we imagine or would like them to be. Not a fudged, idealised relationship.
We live in a world where new friends and neighbours are just a click away. There are fewer and fewer strangers in the world and more and more people who are in a position to accept or reject neighbourliness – June 23rd springs to mind. We have gone from knowing a lot about a few people to a little about almost everyone. We love without knowing whom we love and start wars without knowing whom we are fighting.
Toby talked about a continuum in which we have fundamentalist evangelicals on the one hand and “sea of faith” people on the other who believe we are all treading up the same mountain.
For me there is a clear distinction between openly desiring salvation for someone and wanting to take personal responsibility for it. Some evangelicals might feel that they want to assume responsibility of making sure a person takes the right path, but I have never felt that. I do however feel a strong sense of longing to connect with people and to know people for who they really are.
I don’t feel able to relate to people properly without knowing what’s going on underneath. Perhaps it’s my own vulnerability and emotional caution at play, but when I meet people I’m always wondering what the deal is! What are they really after? I should be more trusting!
I feel that much of the Christian evangelism I see starts off in the wrong place – either with no real relationships in place or relationships formed out of unhelpful cultural assumptions. This is one reason I feel drawn to social action among the poorest people. It’s in these environments where we begin to encounter people as they really are. (though in fact I think we are all poor.)
I really don’t see how we can begin any meaningful conversation (or indeed evangelism) without first getting alongside people and digging beneath the surface. This needs to be done within a relationship of trust and sensitivity.
I am struck by the way Jesus was prepared to spend time with people and get to know even the lowliest individuals in a very personal and practical way – making himself vulnerable. I can imagine that whenever he met strangers they were not just cold encounters but that there was an unspoken connection in play. I think people who have compassion and a natural empathy will always spark a connection before any words are spoken, and I imagine this was the case between Jesus and those he met.
I really don’t think that agreeing with a person is a condition for loving them. Experience shows that people who are close and love one another often disagree and even fight. So the command to love our neighbour is not an instruction to find common ground or agreement. Love, though, forbids that we try to control another person or to enslave them in any way.
The best response I can come up with is to see our faith conversations with other people as conducted within a relationship of vulnerability and love. Loving relationships go beyond the rational and are more about selfless desires and positive yearnings for another person. A person who is loved is quite often considered as family and so we might want to approach another as a mother or father, son or daughter, brother or sister.
(I find here I am slipping into the mindset of film director who’s is establishing the motivation of a lead character – its something I’m prone to.)
I feel a deep sense of compassion for you and am drawn to you as if you were a member of my own family.
I fear for your safety often and am concerned about your health and wellbeing.
I am interested in the stories you tell and the plans you have. I don’t always agree with you but I am still interested.
I may boil with anger and want to blurt out, “I hate you” – forgive me.
I don’t want to tell you what you should do or how to live your life but I hope you will allow me to be myself and tell you what I believe.
I don’t want to argue with you but I do want us to get to know each other.
By talking together both of us might end up doing some things differently or we may see the world in a different way if we so choose.
If you ask for my advice I will do my best to answer, but I hope you will not simply accept what I say but make up your own mind and come to your own conclusions.
I will say to you without hesitation that I long for you to find a relationship with Christ.