Editor’s Note: Though many Americans regard themselves as devout followers of Jesus, they often ignore his commands to reject fear and to love your neighbors and even your enemies. Instead, a disturbing number of American Christians are behaving like modern-day Crusaders ready to battle Muslims.

In this guest essay, Baptist minister Howard Bess voices his regret over these misguided Christians and challenges them to be truer both to Jesus and to the finest traditions of the United States as the world’s melting pot:

There is evidence that this particular fear has become worldwide, heightened by a large increase in the global mobility of people. 

The United States should be the world leader in calming the fear of new neighbors, the great melting pot nation. With great pride, we inscribe e pluribus unum on our coins, out of many, one.

However, over our 234 years of history, we have had great difficulty living up to our own standards.

Jews, Catholics, Quakers, Mormons, Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiians, Cubans, Mexicans, Vietnamese, African-Americans, Indians and Eskimos have felt the sting of persecution and rejection because of differences of skin color, hair texture, language, and religion.

The total list of Americans who have suffered discrimination is even longer. Indeed, the United States may qualify as one of the worst discriminators in the history of human kind, partly because it has so much diversity within its borders, so many different people to fear and discriminate against.

Yet, nearly all of this discrimination has occurred while Christians have held the majority in the United States and while many have waved Bibles, which contain Jesus’s teachings about loving thy neighbor and even one’s enemies.

The new target of choice for today's American xenophobia is the American Muslim community.

Yet, with this rapid rise of the fear of Muslims, American Christians have been presented a unique opportunity. Now is the time when they can show the power and wisdom of practicing one of the most basic teachings of Jesus, the lesson about loving others.

So far, the performance of Christians has again not been hopeful. But the opportunity is there for American Christians to set the example as the world's leader in the eradication of xenophobia.

To do so, however, may require “A New Kind of Christianity,” the title of the latest book by Brian McLaren, one of the intellectual leaders of what many are calling “the emergent church.” The book’s subtitle is “Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.”

We can disagree with McLaren (he welcomes that), but he has one thing correct. To get right answers, right questions need to be asked.

McLaren poses ten questions that he believes are vital to Christian beliefs and practices. (He also welcomes the posing of additional questions.)

I believe his first question is on target.  He asks “What is the overarching story line of the Bible?” In recent weeks, I have had great fun asking people this question.

I also have heeded McLaren’s suggestion that addressing his questions not be an exercise in questions and answers. Rather, they should be an exercise in questions and responses with a commitment to be good listeners to one another.

I have asked his first question to people who have a high level of exposure to the Bible material and its messages. Some of the folks that I have asked are seminary graduates. The answers cover the landscape. No two people have given the same answer.
 
Of course, I have my own answers that keep changing or at least getting tweaked most every day.

This week, I addressed the question to a good friend who responded to the point. The Bible is a book about loving, he said. I resonate with his answer.
 
When Jesus was asked about the greatest of commandments, he responded with two love challenges. He stated that the first of all commandments was that you shall love the Lord your God with heart, mind and soul.

When he gave that answer, he was quoting the Shema, the declaration of faith in one God that was placed on every Jewish door post and worn as headpieces and bracelets. It was the command that was never to be forgotten by the people of God.

The second command from Jesus was that you shall love your neighbor. Again Jesus was quoting from Old Testament law, reinforcing Israelite prophets who said the killing of neighbors had to stop. They taught that love was God’s way of relating to neighbors.

Jesus added the comment that these two commands summarized all of God’s laws. 

Collectively, the Bible materials do not make a unified statement about loving. In the history of the Israelites, the fear (not love) of God was at times a dominant theme, and there was active debate about how to handle neighbors.

Were faithful Israelites to love their neighbors or were they to kill their neighbors, especially if they wanted their neighbor’s land?

Jesus came down very clearly on the love side of this argument. Jesus also did not live a life of fear, and his recurring advice to his disciples was “Fear not!” His followers were to love their neighbors. Even enemies were to be loved.

We live at a critical time. And as some of the recent outpourings of anger, fear and hate have revealed, a new kind of Christianity is greatly needed.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.             

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