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Jesus in New York

DT Strain, 2010.

A huge controversy has arisen over a planned Islamic community center two blocks from the World Trade Center site in New York. The site is intended in part to promote interfaith dialogue. But the controversy involves outrage from individuals, organizations, and politicians; many of whom call themselves Christian.

A friend recently posted on his Facebook wall about the parable of the good Samaritan. In this familiar tale, a Jewish traveler is beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Others walk by, including a priest, without helping him. Then a Samaritan (a member of an ethnoreligious group once numerous), stops and helps the Jew. Many of us take the parable as a simple story underscoring the importance of being kind to others, but its lesson is much deeper.

I have actually heard some individual Christians try to qualify the ethical dictate to 'love thy neighbor' by saying that neighbor means other Christians, or Americans, or literally those living around you. They do this in a poor attempt to reconcile the teachings of their savior with the massive military of their country, and what they see in their own lives as the practical necessity of violence in certain cases.

But the whole meaning of the parable of the good Samaritan is an answer to the question, "who is my neighbor?" It was significant that a Samaritan helped the Jew. The term 'good Samaritan' was seen as an oxymoron by Jesus' Jewish audience who would have been shocked to hear this because Jews and Samaritans disliked one another. Tensions were high and the Samaritans had desecrated Jewish temples and had even given Jesus a hostile reception. Yet, here was a Jew teaching other Jews that their neighbor was the Samaritan.

It would be as if Jesus in today's time told a story to Christians in which a Muslim was the hero, and then said: the Muslim is your neighbor, and you are to love him as you love yourself.

Such humility and nobility of character shames us all.

It's unfortunate that so many who call themselves Christians do not take seriously the greatest teachings of the one they claim to follow. It's *easy* to love the neighbor who dresses like you, goes to your church, or lends you sugar on the weekends. This was not Jesus' profound prescription.

Many Christians do try to live by Jesus' teachings, and we need more of them in the spotlight. My father would be the first to tell you he is not a 'perfect' Christian (there are none, of course, as there are no perfect people). But in a modest church in a run-down part of his small town, he decided to help the poor. He played host to the poor, the elderly, the homeless, drug addicts, prostitutes, and others simply on hard times; sharing conversation with them over coffee and a doughnut. Believe it or not, there were times he even took Jesus' example and washed their feet. He never questioned whether or not these people deserved their condition, or whether they would make use of his help to set themselves right, and he never admonished them. That was his 'program' for the poor: compassion. The rest fell into place. Many of them did begin to see a return of hope and improve their condition, and some simply enjoyed doughnuts and coffee.

In the book of Matthew, it is written that if someone tries to sue us for our tunic, we should give them our cloak as well. Peter asks Jesus if we should forgive others as many as seven times, and Jesus responds "seventy times seven" times. Point being, by the 490th time we surely would have lost count.

I am not a Christian by any common use of the term. When it comes to the unknown or the improvable, I prefer the humble approach of making claims only regarding what I can measure and prove to others. As a naturalist, I hold no supernatural beliefs, yet we all have the ability to understand truth when it is presented to us. I have found similar truths in Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Stoicism, and other philosophies; and in these lessons of Jesus there is truth. I know this by the evidence of their efficacy in my life and in the numerous examples I've seen and read in the lives of others.

While I have lost people close to me at other times, I did not lose anyone close to me in the tragedies of 9/11, or any similar attacks. But it is the right and the responsibility of everyone to support and convey wisdom when and wherever it is needed, as well as they can understand it.

Judging by his parable of the good Samaritan, it is easy to know what the Jesus of scripture would say were he to visit New York today. Not only would he say to let the Muslims build their center, but once it had been built he would tell the families of victims of 9/11 to invite those Muslims into their homes, to feed them, and perhaps even to wash their feet.

And if Jesus were to come to New York and when you had heard what he'd said, the counter-intuitive profundity of it would shock you to your core. And, if you truly loved Jesus, you would then realize how huge was the gulf between where you had come to and his teachings; and you would fall to your knees in shame.

But the best part would be what would come next. Because after you had put his teachings into practice, you would understand why he had told you to do this.

The heart of the approach found in the philosophy of Jesus, the Buddha, and others when it comes to one's enemies, is reliance on the fact that there is goodness in everyone, and certainly when you're talking about large groups of people. When others see complete sincerity and kindness, they cannot help but be transformed by it. No one wants to consider themselves "the bad guy". Jesus' teachings are wise because they recognize deeper truths about how human beings operate. They are based on a transformation of the human heart, moved by extraordinary acts of peace, courage, and compassion - especially in the face of danger and hostility.

But Jesus' philosophy is meant to be applied in full, without reservation. If you extend one hand, with the other holding a weapon 'just in case', then what would be an act of peace, humility, and sacrifice becomes an ultimatum. The message is twisted into something like, "I'll offer you peace if you behave the way I want, but if you don't then you're going to get it". This is about as far from Jesus' teachings as one can be, and as such the technique loses all its power.

Your enemy must see and know that you are trusting him. This convinces him that you believe there is good in him, and you are willing to risk yourself in order that the two of you may find it in one another. But it also shows that you believe so strongly in peace that you are willing to give your life for it if you must. Only such a risk and sacrifice has the transformative power in the heart of others - the same transformative power in the story of Jesus' sacrifice which built a faith of billions.

This is what Mohandas Gandhi understood when he forbade his followers to use violence in resisting British rule in India (something which they imperfectly followed). It was the pearl within Dr. Martin Luther King's struggle for equality which endeared him and his cause to so many. It was the Buddha's intention in teaching compassion for all beings without exception.

Thus, you have to be willing to risk - and yes, it is risk because many times an enemy's heart may not be transformed, or it may take longer to transform it than the time until more deaths occur. So many of us are willing to die for a cause - as long as we get to go down with a machine gun in our hands. But this is not the cause which Jesus assigns us. The question is, are you willing to die for his cause; for the cause of peace?

Yet, after doing as Jesus said, breaking bread with the Muslims at the center in New York, and caring for them in your home, you would realize that what he had commanded was not just about helping the Muslims. While the Muslim would leave with a fuller belly and cleaner feet, you would have gained something as well. You would have felt the deep healing such humility, kindness, and forgiveness can create. Then you would see that in the effort to transform the heart of your enemy, yours had been transformed.

Special thanks to Joe, whose post on the parable of the good Samaritan inspired this article.