A few years ago I was with my wife and kids at the emergency room of the hospital and something happened while I was there that has stayed with me ever since. It was a striking reminder of how much has changed in our culture—and how even a small city like ours is also affected by the growing ethnic and religious diversity of our nation.
While we were waiting our turn a Middle-Eastern couple came into the ER to do likewise. The woman was dressed in traditional Islamic clothing while the man was not. And at one point the woman unrolled her prayer mat unto the floor of the ER directly in front of the seat where she had been sitting and kneeled down to pray. Muslims are directed to pray five times a day in the direction of the Kabba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. So even though she was not at home or worshipping at her Mosque, she made sure that she fulfilled the requirements of her faith. Once she was done, she discretely rolled up the mat and sat back down.
Looking back I wonder what other people in the ER made of this. On the one hand, it seemed to elicit no obvious reactions—as if she had done no more than walk across the ER to pick up the newspaper from a table. On the other hand, whether people had an obvious reaction has nothing to do with what they were thinking as they also watched. Given that the Islamic faith has a much stronger presence in our culture and in our media than it did before 9/11, we are all becoming more accustomed to the Muslims in our communities. Regardless of how used to them we are, what’s important is our attitude toward our new neighbours.
Where there is difference, there can easily be suspicion and fear. In an increasingly diverse society where the distance between continents and nations is gradually being eroded through immigration, globalization and technology, it is nearly impossible, except perhaps in more rural areas, to isolate ourselves from those whose beliefs, traditions, and basic assumptions about life are sometimes radically distinct from our own. Not always knowing what to make of such differences and not sure of what their implications are for our own lives, we often relate to those who are different with prejudicial attitudes that actually impede rather than further understanding.
Ironically, as those who live in the Western world we still receive our religious inheritance primarily from Christianity, a religious faith that, while still the most common in our culture, is also increasingly misunderstood and maligned (especially in the media). There are complicated reasons for this being the case, but suffice it to say that Canadians who are practicing Christians may find themselves—perhaps not too far into the future—in a similar position as that of Muslims who have become a part of our population: as a minority viewed by many with misgivings.
Assuming this is a fair assumption, we should ask ourselves regularly: how do I relate to those who are different from me? Certainly, I understand that the relationship between the West and Islam is a complicated one: politically, religiously, and socially. But the relationship between myself and my Muslim neighbour needn’t be quite as complicated. In some respects it’s simple: How do I treat those whose religious beliefs, ways of life, and views of the world are so dissimilar to mine? Do I stick with my own group and attempt to shelter myself from encountering those who are unlike me or do I instead find ways of engaging in my larger world? Do I rest easy in my suspicions rather than take the time to encounter others as persons worthy of dignity and respect?
In chapter 10 of the Gospel of Luke Jesus tells a story in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” It’s a familiar story, one most know as the story of the Good Samaritan. In the story a Jewish man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is ambushed by robbers and left for dead. Mortally wounded, barely clinging to life, this man lies pathetically at the side of the road. Two people pass by, a priest and a Levite, and neither do anything to help. Both cross to the other side, ignoring someone who is in desperate need.
And then the unthinkable in Jewish culture occurs. A Samaritan who happened to be traveling that way sees the man and stops. Even though there was extreme animosity between Jews and Samaritans at the time, this man goes above and beyond, exercising a kindness that would not have been expected from someone of his cultural background. All that mattered was that this man, bleeding and dying in the dirt, needed help and needed it immediately. Almost as a punchline, Jesus asked, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” It’s very nearly a rhetorical question. Of course you help; to have left the man to die would have been unthinkable, even inhuman.
No, we don’t always, or even often, have to relate to our neighbors as people in such dire need. Jesus’ parable provides us with an extreme but telling example. But Jesus’ teaching here doesn’t apply only to extraordinary circumstances. What he was doing was exposing what should and shouldn’t be true of the human heart. What is our attitude concerning those who are different from us? And of course differences abound between us and our neighbors, even if they’re less obvious than ethnic and religious ones.
In the conversation that took place before Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, the expert in the law rightly pointed out that to love one’s neighbor as oneself forms part of the whole picture of one who follows and loves God. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is referred to elsewhere as the second great commandment. “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” Jesus says in Luke 6:31. Treat others in the way you would like to be treated. Our neighbour is anyone in need. And our neighbour is not defined by any natural affinity we may share. Common humanity is the criterion. Even those we might count as enemies are included. Jesus, it appears, doesn’t leave any wiggle room for us. He’s especially adept at doing that—of putting us in the position of having to leave our comfort zones for the sake of love.
There were vast differences between that Muslim woman in the ER and myself: cultural, ethnic, and religious. But how would I have reacted if she had been mistreated in any way as she unrolled her prayer mat that afternoon? Would I have allowed such differences (which are not incidental either but of considerable importance) to prevent me from acting like that Samaritan? Might I have experienced the temptation to respond more like that priest or Levite in the story, and conspicuously and uneasily crossed the road rather than get involved, especially with someone not of my own group?
To answer these questions, I need only imagine a different scenario. It could be me on the side of the road. There may come a time when I’m just as vulnerable to opportunistic thieves and bandits. Life could leave me just as bloodied. In such a moment would I be willing to accept love from, to be helped by, that woman? Or would I rather she respond to my situation like the first two men and hope that at some point someone with whom I have more in common would address my circumstances? If someone asked her, “Who is my neighbor?” would she count me among them? Maybe whether or not she does begins with me.