Four Way Faith
Part Four – Out: Our Obligations Neighbours
This post is part of a series introducing the concept of a Four Way Faith. A balanced and healthy life involved loving relationships in four directions; Up with God, In with Self, Out with Neighbours, and Down with Creation. Each has two elements – the gift of each relationship to us and our obligations to each relationship.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we are told Jesus said,
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…’ (Matthew 5:43-44)
The instruction to love our neighbours and hate our enemies seems fairly obvious and reasonably attainable. In fact loving our neighbours can be hard enough, making the initial instruction to love the most challenging element of the old command. Jesus doesn’t encourage his followers to take the easy route, Jesus adds to the challenge that we are to love not only our neighbours but also our enemies.
Jesus doesn’t settle for this simply being an undefinable or limited expression of love. We are reminded through gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke that the greatest commandment if to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and the second is to love our neighbours as ourselves. Furthermore the Gospel of John says that Jesus says to love one another as Jesus has loved us, that is to love with a willingness to cross cultural, religious and social boundaries, to spend time with the outcasts and sinners as well as the religious and political elite, and to be willing to lay down our own lives for the sake of other people. If anyone ever thinks the call to follow Jesus is an easy and comfortable path, then think again. If anyone’s expression of Christian faith or witness is one of comfort and rest, then think again. The common thread throughout all of scripture is a call to justice. God is described as a God of justice and he desires for his people to act justly, to seek mercy and to walk humbly with him. And, what is justice? Justice is to love, to love God and to love ourselves, our neighbour and also our enemies with a willingness to laydown everything we have for the sake of them.
You may think that you do not have any enemies. It seems like such a strong word, there is no one you are fighting, there is no one you hold any real depth of animosity towards. We are all fairly comfortable. We have relatively comfortable homes, a relatively comfortable church, whether we go to school, work or are retired it is all relatively safe and comfortable. I wonder though if anyone considers us an enemy.
I have always been interested in matters of justice, and particularly in relation to the church. This has led to the jobs I have undertaken, the places I volunteer and the books I choose to read and study. I recently completed research exploring the church and disability and whilst there are some positive stories too often the church and her adherents fail to meet and address the needs of disabled people. There was reluctance when laws required making reasonable adjustments to provide access, with church buildings often too frequently inaccessible in part of whole. There is an attitude that does not view people but problems, that does the minimum required for the law and does not seek to take a lead in moving from just access to a building but towards inclusion and belonging with the community. As I was completing the research we entered into a season of restricted movements because of the global covid pandemic. We have all faced challenges and difficulties because of the pandemic, but it has become increasingly apparent that the effects of the virus and approach towards lock down have continue to greater toll on those living in depravation. School children, for example, unable to attend school and without the facilities to access online teaching and resources have fallen behind in their learning whilst those with the economic means have accessed online learning, had the space to learn informally through life stills in the home and garden as well as visits to places of cultural interest or natural beauty. Furthermore, private tutors have been employed by families with the means, to ensure that children will be prepared for exams and therefore given a great advantage in future life prospects. The gap between rich and poor expands, and where is the church? Where are we? Add in to the mix the impact of the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the global spotlight on the pandemic of racism as well as the greater impact of covid upon Black, Asian and other minority ethnic people and we see a global, national and local divide.
So, we look at our church and can ask who is here? Who is with us on our journey of discipleship and faith? Who hears the gospel message that we proclaim? We must also ask, who is not with us? Our specific local church does not reflect the neighbourhood in which we are located. In contrast to a community which as of 2017 was recorded as 43% black, Asian and minority ethnic, the church membership is just 10% BAME and it was only in 2015 that the church welcomed its first black member. The community population is 6.1% aged 75 or above, compared to a church membership of 45% in this age bracket. Whilst we might consider ourselves to be a warm and welcoming church (as most churches do) we must ask ourselves the questions and honestly consider why there is such a disparity between the make up of the community and the church. We sing “He’s got the whole world in His hands,” quote “For God so loved the world” and even say “God loves everyone” but we fail in our own witness if we have not welcomed the whole world.
Jesus tells the story of a lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7). It is a simple parable, whereby a shepherd is counting his sheep into the pen after a day roaming the land. One of the sheep is missing and so the shepherd goes looking for the one lost sheep, leaving the other ninety-nine sheep to do so. Upon finding the missing sheep, the shepherd picks up, puts it on his shoulders and carries it back to the herd, rejoicing as goes because he found the missing sheep and it wasn’t lost to a wolf or other wild animal. As the cry has risen from the streets and online, as knees have been taken at sports matches the words “Black Lives Matter” has become a recognisable call for help. The cry is not one which says black lives matter more than any other life, it is not a cry that says white lives do not matter. It is a cry that says black lives matter as much as other lives. Simply it is a message saying that black lives actually matter. Of course All Lives Matter, as the supposed counter argument presents, those saying Black Lives Matter do not disagree. Like that lost sheep who feels abandoned, alone, at risk of the wild, black people live with the constant knowledge that their life does not matter as much as others and that every time they leave their house, simply because of the colour of their skin they could face abuse and discrimination. Every parent of black children knows that at some point they will need to have a conversation with their children about what to do if they are stopped by the police. Not because they are doing anything in particular, but solely because they are black and because how they respond could be abused and misconstrued. As a white parent with white children I will never have to consider this conversation or fear for my children because of the colour of the skin they have. Our schools have rules and regulations about the way that children and staff present themselves, too often natural black hair styles are banned, children are sent home because they let their hair grow naturally. Girls feel pressured into chemically straightening their hair to deny who they are in order that they can simply attend, learn and engage in education. Those who reject or feel uncomfortable with the cry “Black Lives Matter” may say “All Lives Matter” but when an overflowing inflatable boat crosses the channel suddenly those lives do not matter, they are not included within the all. When the language used by a British Prime Minister describes migrants as “a swarm” and when newspapers print articles calling migrants “cockroaches” then segments of society stop seeing people as made in the image of God or as humanity, but as creatures, vermin, which do not matter. All Lives do matter, and we must look at the people around us, look at our communities, our churches and ask who is missing? For who is missing are the very people we should be going to find, like the shepherd with the lost sheep.
Of course to recognise who is missing requires that we consider outsiders and others to be missing form our churches and communities. If we don’t realise anyone is missing it is because they didn’t ever really belong. Writing about disability and church Professor John Swinton says ‘To be included you just need to be present. To belong you need to be missed.’ Too often the church does not have the depth of relationship with people to miss them when they are not present. We fail to call up church members who we don’t see for a week or two (unless they are our friend), we fail to realise that someone has not been attending, we don’t notice when someone leaves or if we do we don’t know why (unless they move away) because we haven’t taken the time to get to know them. Perhaps we assume that someone else is going after the lost sheep, someone else will be offering support and friendship, the pastor will be doing it. Despite the efforts of one or two people who may pursue those who are lost, unless the whole community or the institution of the church exemplifies a culture of belonging for those who are different from ourselves we will continue to wonder why the church is shrinking and becoming less important to the lives of our communities and neighbours. Jesus taught we are not to just give a coat to one who asks, but to give our shirt as well, to not just walk one mile but to go an extra mile, to love even our enemies, to go good and lend to them expecting nothing in return (Luke 6:27-31). That means giving up our personal preferences for who we worship and meet together and being open to those who are not currently with us, joining us, feeling they belong and allowing ourselves to be transformed by them as they transform us. We must look in the mirror and take the plank out of our eyes (Luke 6:32-36), we must not only seek to apologise for the bias we show to or against others, whether we do so consciously or unconsciously but we must truly repent. That is to learn how our words, actions and attitudes stop others from belonging, and doing the hard work of changing ourselves so that all know they are welcome and belong in our lives. Our obligation to our neighbours is to love them as Christ loves them, laying down our lives (our culture, rituals, traditions, preferences and habits) for their sake, for Christ’s sake, for the gospel. When someone cries out “I can’t breathe” we are called to listen, to learn and to be the ones who play our part in bringing freedom and life where there is suffocation and death. This applies across race, gender, age, sex, disability, martial or civil partnership status, sexual orientation, religion or belief, pregnancy and maternity. We must stand alongside those whose voice gets shut out and until justice rolls down like water and righteousness life an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24) we must not stay silent because there can be no peace where there is no justice.
 John Swinton, ‘From Inclusion to Belonging: A Practical Theology of Community, Disability and Humanness’ in Journal of Religion, Disability & Health, 16:2 (London: Taylor & Francis, 2012) pp.172-190, , <https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15228967.2012.676243> [Accessed 10 February 2020].