A Thanksgiving Reflection on Hospitality in the Middle East

A very good friend of mine (David Swanson – click here for his blog) works as a pastor of a church in the Chicago area.  A couple of months ago he asked me to write an article to accompany a sermon series he was doing on hospitality.  The original article can be found on the church’s website (here), but I asked David if I could post it on my blog as well.  In light of the Thanksgiving holiday I thought that hospitality is a timely topic.  After all, during the holiday season we tend to invite people into our homes and practice this special form of love.  Here in Jordan hospitality is practiced everyday in ways that are different than we had experienced in the States.  This article reflects a little of what I have learned about hospitality while living here in the Middle  East.

The Fourth (Forgotten?) Love

I have enjoyed the privilege of living as a guest in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan for the past few years. If you are not familiar with Jordan it is the small, but influential nation to the east of the Jordan river. It is rich in biblical history and I like to think of it as the “Other Holy Land.” The country is small, almost landlocked, and predominately covered in desert. The people are mostly Arab Muslim and many of them have strong cultural ties to their Bedouin roots. Hospitality is one of the chief defining characteristics of Jordanian culture. Jordan is known as the country of “ahlan wa sahlan.” This is Arabic for “welcome,” or more literally “welcome and welcome again in the future.”

You haven’t truly experienced hospitality until you have been received as a guest in a Jordanian shop or home. It is not unusual to be served hot tea or coffee or a cold soda or juice while you are perusing the wares in a small shop in the old city. As a somewhat cynical westerner I first saw these gestures as some sort of marketing ploy – a way to guilt me into buying something. After all if the shopkeeper ran down the street to buy drinks for my family or took the time to prepare tea how could I not buy something in return. However, over time, I have come to realize that guilt and innocence don’t play as large a role in Jordanian society as American. Rather shame and honor are much more powerful societal motivators. It is very important for Jordanians to honor their guests through hospitality and avoid the shame of giving a poor welcome.

When a guest arrives at a Jordanian home, it is considered poor manners to keep them waiting on the doorstep. You keep a stranger outside, but a guest you immediately welcome into your home. Greetings are exchanged and can be quite lengthy. These include wishes for peace and god’s blessings as well as inquiries about health and the extended family. Greetings often include a kiss, once on the right cheek and then several times on the left if you are particularly close or wish to honor the one so greeted. Kisses are almost exclusively given along gender lines as it would be shameful for a man to kiss a woman in public.

Guests are often received in a room separate from the living area in the home and a sink or bathroom is usually nearby for the guests’ use to refresh themselves. Drinks are always immediately served. This is usually juice or soda or tea or perhaps all three over the course of a visit. Water might be served, but never by itself. Glassware is preferred over plastic and in any event the very best table service the household has will be used. The host does not ask if a guest wants something, or even give a choice of beverage. The host honors his guest by offering the best refreshment he can offer and the guest reciprocates by gratefully drinking whatever is given. The host will continue refilling the guest’s cup without asking until a subtle shaking of the cup side-to-side indicates that the guest is satisfied.

A typical visit can last for hours. If a guest makes signs that they are leaving too soon, this will result in strong protests from the host. The host traditionally signals that the visit is drawing to a close by serving one last cup of Arabic coffee. If the guests is insistent on leaving earlier than this, the host will invariably quickly prepare the coffee all the while wondering what is so important that the guest has to leave early.

Never say you have to visit another person for in doing so you dishonor your host by saying that the next person to be visited is more important than your current host. Simply say you have a pre-existing appointment which universally seems to be honored as a reason for leaving early.

These modern conventions are deeply rooted in the Bedouin history of Jordan. The modern nation was only born a half century ago and before that the majority of the people were engaged in a semi-nomadic agrarian way of life. Society was organized along tribal lines and allegiance to family, clan, and tribe were of paramount importance. Today, modern Jordanians still know their tribal lineage and family remains a more important subset of society than the individual. In honor-shame based societies the
actions of individuals brings honor or dishonor upon the larger group to which they belong. Therefore welcoming guests and strangers with genuine hospitality brought honor for the tribe, whereas a meager welcome would bring shame.

There are two Bedouin traditions from times past that still inform Jordanian hospitality today. The first is that of welcoming strangers for three days. The second is the offering of three cups of coffee to the guest.

Bedouins customarily welcomed strangers for three days without asking questions. This meant giving food, water, and shelter for all people and animals that were present. Only after three days was it polite for a host to inquire directly about the guests origins and business. Then the host would decide if he would extend the welcome or send the strangers politely (but perhaps firmly) on their way. This custom arose out of the great equalizing nature of life in the arid regions of the world. The desert humbles all men. It is impossible to survive long without provisions and provisions are only sustained over time by participation in a group. Travelers were always outside of their usual family and tribal support network and as such were often dependant on the hospitality of strangers for their survival. A generous welcome of someone would often ensure reciprocity if needed at a later date.

Once welcomed into the host’s tent the guest would often be served three cups of coffee. These were more than just liquid refreshment, but powerful symbols of the host’s intentions and the guest’s position. The first was the cup of peace, then the cup of friendship, and lastly the cup of protection. If you received all three cups the host had silently pledged that he would protect you as one of his own family members while you were a guest in his tent. Not a commitment made or taken lightly.

Today these customs can be observed in their original form in some of the desert tents of Jordanian Bedouins who live far from the bright lights of the big city. However, their essence, if not practice, still permeates the society in general. I have never witnessed people who are quicker to welcome strangers and provide for their needs. This is true both on the level of individuals and family, but also on the macro-level of society as a whole. Historically Jordan has freely welcomed waves of refugees into their small borders and provided for their needs (Circassians, Armenians, Palestinians, and Iraqis immediately come to mind).

I have been told that the moment the stranger crosses the threshold of the door and enters the house he or she becomes a guest. The words are not grammatically related in Arabic and carry very different meanings. If you have been received into the home and shared food and drink it is impossible for you to remain a stranger in the Jordanian psyche. Your customs and actions may be strange, but you have become an honored and protected guest. Some people I know view this even more broadly, saying that the moment I stepped on Jordanian soil I became a guest deserving of hospitality.

This welcoming of the stranger is also an important Biblical principle. We see it played out repeatedly in the stories of the Old Testaments, where the patriarchs of the three great monotheistic religions crisscross the desert offering and receiving hospitality in their tents not unlike Jordan’s modern Bedouins. In the New Testament, Jesus likens offering hospitality to strangers to offering hospitality to the Lord himself and goes even further in linking the lack of offering hospitality to being disowned on judgment day (Matthew 25:31-46).

This notion of welcoming strangers and offering hospitality is actually closely linked linguistically. Although time has shrouded the origins of the term in English, the Latin roots of the term “hospitality” are linked to the words for “guest” and “host.” The host in Latin was literally, “The Lord of strangers.” If we dig deeper and look at the Greek word used in such New Testament commands to “share with God’s people in need. Practice hospitality.” (Romans 12:13) and “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” (1st Peter 4:9), we find that the term is philaxenia. Think of the more familiar term philadelphia which is commonly translated “brotherly love.” Philaxenia on the other hand could be “strangerly love” or “love for the stranger.” We might be well advised to add this term to its three better known cousins (philadelphia, eros, & agape) in order to round out our understanding of the depth and importance of offering hospitality as an important aspect of love.

This is more than simply asking our brother who is always over if he wants a drink. It’s more than showing our Aunt Maddie who stopped in on her way to Florida where the bathroom is. It’s more than telling friends from church to “make themselves at home.” Think about it for a moment. Love for the stranger. Love for the stranger. Love for the stranger. Hospitality is an act of love; an act of love not for those who are like us, but for those who are unlike us.

Nothing could probably be farther from the modern American cultural psyche. From childhood we are taught to distrust strangers. Another Greek term might better sum up our attitude towards them: xenophobia. We usually keep strangers on the doorstep, talking to them from behind a chained door, if at all. If they cross that threshold no transformation takes place, they simply become strangers inside our house – invading our personal domain. Even with the best of friends and family we schedule visits days, or sometimes weeks in advance. We think that how we welcome a guest only reflects on us personally as individuals. Furthermore, in our modern society no one is really in need of provision and protection when they arrive on our doorstep, are they?

But perhaps we forget that we belong to a larger family … a tribe. A tribe whose head is Jesus, and our actions actually bring honor or shame to His name. Even if no one else sees how we welcome a guest in our home (or perhaps to think more broadly – our neighborhood, our city, our nation), He does and He has made it clear that welcoming the stranger is something that is very important to Him. This means getting over our fear of people who are different from us, those who might even on the face of it seem to be our enemies. I wonder if Jesus so highly values love for strangers because he realizes something vital, that perhaps we miss.

We are all strangers here.

Every last one of us, no matter nationality, race, tribe, or religion is a sojourner in this world. We are all just passing through.

And maybe, just like the occupants of the Bedouin tent deep in the desert, we are all in need of both giving and receiving hospitality when least expected and with no questions. After all, it is not only a matter of survival, but also of great honor.

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Goals in Muslim Words (part 3)

Previous post in series: Ramadan Origins

Personalizing Ramadan

This Ramadan I have made a point of asking many of my Muslim friends and acquaintances one particular question: “What is the main goal of fasting during Ramadan for you?”

It has been a fascinating month of conversations.  For many, it seems to be a bit of an odd question.  Perhaps something is lost in translation or perhaps its a different perspective of devotional practices.  When faced with this question many of my Muslim friends hesitate and ask for clarification.  Perhaps, it’s the idea of a “personal” goal.  Ramadan has such a community feel to it.  But they also get hung up a bit on the notion of “goal” or “aim” or “objective.”  These words seem to make more sense for them in a different setting – perhaps they are seen more fitting into a business or education or military milieu than a religious one.

Nonetheless everyone (whether immediately or after some clarification) has shed additional light on the Fast for me and I have deeply appreciated each conversation.  I wish that all of you could have been present at each one.  It would be impossible for me to quote everything here, but I will give you a summary of what has been shared with me.

Obedience and Righteousness

First of all, many people pointed to two things: (1) the necessity of the fast, and (2) the process of becoming more righteous in God’s eyes.

Both of these concepts (obedience & righteousness) have grown increasingly foreign in Western thought and culture.  In the West we are taught to question authority (especially religious authority) from a very young age.  Obedience may be important for children, but even then it is cast as respect.  However, for many of my Muslim friends it is important to them to obey what they see as a command of God.  For most I would not categorize this as a “blind” or unthinking obedience, but rather a choice of the will to do what they believe to be right.

Which brings us to the second notion: righteousness. This word seems to have gained a negative connotation in the West; perhaps taking on a bit of the notion of arrogance or religious one-upmanship.  The term itself (in English) has to do with “the state of being right” or “performing right actions” and popularly may include the idea of trying to curry favor with God or people.  But in the basic understanding of the term, “righteousness” is doing the right thing simply for the sake of honesty and integrity.  For my Muslim friends there is no question that they want act correctly before Allah.  And the Fast during Ramadan is one of these actions.

The Qur’an specifically states that fasting during the holy month is an act of righteousness.  But let’s divest the term of some of it’s religious and cultural baggage and simply say that “you can’t go wrong with fasting during Ramadan.  It’s pleasing to God.”  Or, “Fasting … it’s the right thing to do.”  Pleasing God – being obedient and right before the creator –  is a huge personal goal for most Muslims during the Fast.  However, I can’t emphasize enough how this was not seen as something negative and onerous, or something simply done unthinkingly with no meaning.

Meaningful, Rather than Rote Obedience

Perhaps the following will bring some nuance to the notion of of obeying God through the Fast (the following are my paraphrased translations of particular things than have stuck out to me as unique in some of the conversations I have had this month):

  • Fasting brings me strength.  I can work harder and longer when I fast.  It makes me stronger, not weaker.  Strength in my body, but also in my mind and my spirit.
  • Fasting brings health to the body.  It is a time of renewal.  12 months you do with your body as you like, but for one month you give it to God and do what he wants.
  • Fasting during Ramadan is like cleaning out a filter.  Your stomach is like a filter and it gets dirty.  Everyday we put whatever we want into it.  During Ramadan we give God a chance to clean out our stomachs.  But not only our stomachs, also our minds.
  • Fasting is not just about not eating and not drinking.  These things are important but they are not the only things.  It is about not lying and not thinking bad thoughts,  and not looking at women in a bad way, and not treating people poorly.  If I do all of these things while I am fasting why would God care?
  • Fasting helps me to think about other people, like the poor people.  During Ramadan I cannot just do what I want all day.  I have to think less about myself so this gives me more time to think about others.  And maybe the people who do not have enough money or food.  So I can help them because I am not thinking just about myself and what I want.
  • God does not want our food and our drink.  These are small things to him.  He wants us to control our bodies and our spirits during the month of Ramadan.  To do the right thing in all of our days.
  • Fasting during the month of Ramadan teaches me self-control.
  • It is not enough just to do the right thing in Ramadan.  Of course, God wants us to do the right thing all of the time.  We cannot make sins all year and then make no sins in the month of Ramadan and think that this is ok with God.  We must obey God in all of the year.  Ramadan helps us to remember this important fact.
  • Fasting helps me to become closer to God.  The Quran teaches that he is near to us.  And I hope to become near to him by fasting.
  • Fasting is all about loving God.  It is a way for me to show God that I love him because I do what he says to do.  This is a small thing for me to do.  Some people think that it is very difficult.  But if I love God it will be an easy thing for me to do.

I hope by reading these statements you catch a little bit of the devotional depth that Ramadan holds for many Muslims.  It is not simply something “I have to do”  it is something that is seen as integral to their relationship with God and others.  As I heard some of these things from my Muslim friends these past few weeks it reminded me of some things written in the previous holy books.

Fasting is not just about abstaining from food (God wants you to have self-control):

12 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. 13 You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.  (1st Corinthians 6:12-13) باللغة العربية

Fasting is about our relationship with God:

    16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  (Jesus in Matthew 6:16-18) باللغة العربية

Fasting is about how we treat others (especially the poor and oppressed):

2 For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

 6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? 8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.

9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: “Here am I.”   If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, 10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.  11 The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.  (Isaiah 58:2-11)  باللغة العربية

I think this last passage speaks for itself and is a powerful template for fasting in general for all of the monotheistic religions.

Next Post: A Tale of Two Iftars

Other Ramadan Related Posts here at Pilgrim without a Shrine:

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Basics (part 1)

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Origins (part 2)

Ramadan Breakfast at Hashem’s in Amman, Jordan

Haircut at Fawzi’s Saloon, a Ramadan Tradition 

Eid Mubarak!

Beginfast or Commensfast Anyone?

Ooops, I forgot Weekend Headlines from Jordan #4

Successful Ramadan Trip to the Saloon

Jordan Headlines #3

Looking for a Ramadan Special at the Local Saloon

The case of the missing branches

It had been a bad day already.

The toilet was broken. The kids were nutty and hard to get out the door by 7:30 AM.  At school I had a test and a presentation.  After school Victoria and the kids were locked out, so I had to leave a study session early and make the long trek across town to unlock the door.

Walking down the block , I noticed a ton of branches in the dumpster. Bushy green ones that looked kind of familiar. I rounded the corner onto our side street and thought something looked odd about our garden but couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

I entered the gate and immediately realized that our trees had been stripped bare to about 5 or 6 feet above the wall. Where there once had been a natural screen of green blocking the view from the street into our garden there remained only tree trunks bearing the scars of branches brutally turn off. My stomach flipped and my heart skipped.Who could have done this?  I just looked at the blank garden wall and the open expanse of sky above.  My blood was simmering and on its way to a boil.

I needed to find Joe, our building super.  I was sure he must have seen something.  (No his name isn’t really Joe.)  Like most building supers here in Jordan he’s Egyptian.  Which means he doesn’t always get treated very well, and he works his butt off to make a substandard (even for here) living.   His family of 5 gets two rooms to live in (not a full apartment), and he gets 10JD a month from each of the tenants.  For this he is constantly helping us with all the menial things of life like taking out garbage, keeping the building and outside area clean, making repairs or finding someone else who can, etc., etc.  To generate extra income he pays bills for an extra $1/bill, schlepps gas canisters for people’s stoves (for 50 scents) and washes cars for $1 a wash.  He’s almost always cheerful and if he doesn’t know how to get a job done he knows someone who does.  It seems like Joe is always available, except on Friday mornings when he goes to the Coptic church across town.  Otherwise if he’s not around, the call of “Ya, Joe!” goes out and usually sooner rather than later he is found.

That day I didn’t have to look far.  He was walking up the side street outside of our garden gate and greeted me with his usual smile and a wave.   He offered me a typical greeting in Arabic which I ignored.

In Arabic I asked him, “What happened to our trees?! Did you see who did this?! What was the problem!?”

“Oh no problem Mister,” Joe smiled.

“But who cut the trees?”

Joe’s smile faltered, “I cut the trees for you. Very good, yes?”

I was shocked.  The green grit covering his forehead and shoulders should have tipped me off, but I hadn’t even considered that Joe would be the culprit.  It seemed so unlike him to do such a thing without asking first.  I was so angry. I didn’t even know what to say.

“Mister, is there a problem? This good for trees.”

“oh, really?” It was all I could manage to say.

“Oh yes, very good.” I think he really believed it.

“Really?” I walked to my door and unlocked it.

“Mister are you angry from me?” Now, truly, I love Joe.  He’s a great guy and it’s a good thing too. I just looked at the trees.

“Mister? Are you angry from me?” I usually find it slightly amusing the Arabs say angry “from” instead of angry “with”; not today.

“Well, it’s just that before no people could look into our garden and now anyone can look into it,” even more than the shoddy job, I was mourning our loss of privacy.

He paused and looked at the trees. It was as if a light was being turned on verrrrry slowly. “Ohhh. Mister, I am very sorry.”

Unfortunately sorry doesn’t bring back tree branches or privacy. I didn’t tell him that.

I stewed about it most of the afternoon as we were getting ready to host a dinner party for a friend returning stateside and I was waiting for the plumber Joe had arranged to come fix our toilet.  Meanwhile Joe the Super returned an hour later.  I walked out into the garden to see what he wanted.

“I am very sorry Mister for the trees. In one month maybe it will be ok.” We both looked at the gaping whole between the two trees and people walking by on the street. Joe rubbed his jaw, “Ok – maybe in three months. Those trees grow fast.”

I don’t think I said anything. I might have grunted. He said, “Maybe four months.”

I said, “yeah,” and just stared at the neighboring building and the blank sky and had visions of children hanging over the wall and watching us in the garden. The sun beat down on us and it was as if the temperature in the garden had already gone up several degrees.  I could tell we were now in for a hot summer.

He replied, “Maybe I can hang a curtain above the wall.”  A suggestion that given our neighborhood is not as strange as you might think.  Two of our neighbors have “porch curtains.”  I think both have opted for the bright yellow and blue stripes. Nice, but maybe just a tad 2001 for my taste.

“No, no, no, I don’t want that.”

“Mister, I am very sorry. Are you angry from me?”

I sighed. “No Joe, it would be impossible for me to be angry with you, you are a good man, but next time you need to ask me before you do anything like this.”

He nodded and smiled, “Ok I will ask next time.”  There was a silence as we stood.  Perhaps we were mourning the lost branches.  I may have been thinking something along the lines of, “There will be no next time!”  Joe finally said, “Is your wife angry from me?”

This time I smiled, “No Joe.”

“Ok, thank you Mister, you good, very good. I am very sorry.  The plumber will be here soon.”  With that he turned and left the garden.

I went back inside and sighed again. I made up my mind that they were just trees and, like hair, they will grow back. And then I thought about the end of the story about the prophet Jonah …

5 Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then the LORD God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

9 But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”
“I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.”

10 But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:5-11, NIV)

I realized I didn’t have any right to be angry about the trees. I didn’t tend them or make them grow.  They were here when we arrived and will hopefully be here when we leave.  I’m sure that there are many more things to be concerned about in the great city of Amman than a few branches from the trees in my garden.

Greg Boyd’s Discussion on O.T. Violence and the Teachings of Jesus

You may or may not be aware of my friend David’s blog. A week or so ago his blog alerted me to a very fascinating discussion about the difficulty of reconciling the violence that the God of the OT seems to advocate with the teachings on love and peace from Jesus over in the NT. For me this issue also speaks to the Christian-Muslim dialogue, in that the OT and Qur’an can sound similar re. the topic of religious violence, yet the NT is very different.

Boyd is a former atheist who became a Christian and now pastors a church in St. Paul Minnesota. He’s posted 3 reflections on this discussion of OT violence vs. NT peace and love. I’m still working through the posts – there is a lot to think about in each one. I expect to post some sort of response as a comment on this post here sometime next week – but if someone else beats me to leaving any thoughts or comments here that would be great!

Here’s an excerpt from his first post:

A number of years ago I read a Christian apologist who argued that one proof of the Bible’s inspiration is the fact that it is “the most beautiful book ever written.” Now, I believe the Bible is divinely inspired. But this statement made me wonder how many books this guy had actually read. In fact, it made me wonder if he’d read the Bible!

Here’s an inspired verse I don’t find particularly beautiful.

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction…
Happy are those who seize your infants
and dash them against the rocks (Psalms 137:8-9)

When an army conquered a city in the ancient world the victors would sometimes celebrate by smashing the heads of the infants against rocks. (Possibly inspired by this verse, this practice was resurrected by Christian Crusaders conquering Muslim cities). In this dark passage, the Psalmist is eagerly looking forward to this being done to Babylonian infants. He thinks the warriors who get to do this are lucky!

Most beautiful book in the world? Sorry. I’m not feel’n it.

If you’re like me and you’ve struggled with reconciling passages like this with Jesus’ commands to love our neighbors and enemies then take the time to check out one or all of Boyd’s posts below.

Divinely Inspired Infanticide and Genocide?

What’s at Stake in Trying to Explain the Violent God of the Old Testament?

The Violent Strand of the Old Testament and Our Picture of God

And here is Greg’s website if you’re at all interested in his ministry. I’m thankful to David for pointing out this resource and will most likely be reading one of Boyd’s books (Myth of a Christian Nation, Lord or Legend: Wrestling with the Jesus Dilemma) soon.

On a side note some of you may recognize Greg Boyd’s name. He is a prominent supporter of what is termed open theism. This makes Boyd somewhat controversial in some evangelical circles. But as you all know, I won’t shy away from a good controversy. I don’t have the time or inclination to adress open theism in this post. If you would like to read something about it, you could start here.

A Priest, a Muslim, and a Rabbi Walk Into a Room (An Interpretive Good Friday Reflection)

Only here’s the joke . . .

You’re the priest. The muslim is a Palestinian terror suspect. And the rabbi – yeah, you guessed right – it’s Jesus.

(BTW you’re probably not really a priest in the Catholic sense – I’m referring to the evangelical notion of the priesthood of all believers -in other words the priest is you if you are a modern evangelical leaning Christian. If you’re something else – then I guess you’re an independent observer – sit back in the corner and watch it unfold.)

The room is spartan. There’s a table, four folding chairs, a pitcher of water, and a bright light.

No one looks very happy to be here. The Muslim looks half-way between scared and defiant, you look a little confused, and Jesus – well he’s hard-to-read no matter what. The three of you sit down in silence. The Palestinian is scowling at the table. Jesus is looking you in the eye. You find something very interesting about the white spot on your right thumbnail. A moment passes and you wonder who the fourth seat is for. Jesus nods at you knowingly. The bright light is hot. You’re incredibly thirsty. You reach for the water pitcher but realize there are no glasses. You start sweating.

Jesus picks up a remote control that you hadn’t seen on the table and turns on a TV mounted to the wall behind him. It’s big. It’s bright. It’s plasma. You wonder if Jesus watches Sports Center but he clicks to a news channel. Report after depressing report stream across the screen as newsreaders drone on about this or that disaster, conflict, or economic woe. Reports from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Gaza fill the stifling room with tension.

Jesus glances at the door a moment before it opens. It’s an Israeli. He bustles in apologizing under his breath for being late and sits down between you and Jesus. He doesn’t look any happier than you or the terror suspect to be here.

“You’re probably wondering why I’ve called you here today.” You always wondered what Jesus’ voice would sound like. It wasn’t what you expected.

You’re all looking at him now. And he nods his head at the plasma TV without looking at it, “I think you know. It’s time we did something about this mess. I’ve prepared an agenda.”

You’re startled by a crisp white sheet of paper that you hadn’t noticed in front of you before. It’s smallish and looks rather like a prescription form. Across the top in bold red letters you read “WWJD.”

“I know people have been wondering for a long time what I would do about the global threat of terror and the endless string of conflicts that are tearing apart my homeland and the surrounding region. So, I just wanted to call all of you in to make it clear. You can just write down what I tell you today on those sheets of paper, I’ll sign off on it and everything will be ok.” Jesus isn’t smiling. You’re pretty sure he’s not joking and you’ve got this nasty knot in the pit of your stomach.

He turns to the Muslim and says, “Look, I’m the second most respected prophet in Islam, right?”

The Palestinian nods his head.

“So here’s what I want you to do. Go back to your country and stir up a rebellion. Use whatever means necessary to throw off your oppressors. My hometown of Bethlehem is surrounded by this hideous wall – knock it down. Shoot rockets at any town you can, blow yourself and other people up until you break free from the yoke of oppression.”

You and the Jewish guy are getting pretty upset at this point, but Jesus holds up his hand, “I know, I know – this contradicts my command to love your neighbor as yourself, but these are extreme circumstances and I am for freedom and against oppression. Besides that command never made it into the Qur’an and this guy never read the New Testament so how can I expect him to love his Israeli neighbors?”

Jesus scrawls his signature across the bottom of the Muslim’s slip of paper. The Palestinian quickly gets up and leaves the room. You catch yourself wondering what Jesus’ signature looks like.

Then Jesus turns to the Israeli. “Your people are my people and I’m deeply pained at all you’ve gone through in the past 100 years. You know what it says in the Torah – an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. You’ve got to do what it takes to stop that guy. I’d suggest airstrikes. Strike swiftly and powerfully. Even if you have to kill some kids in the process – that’s ok – do you think they would care about killing your kids? Of course not.”

You are speechless. Dumbfounded. You begin to protest, but Jesus holds up his hand, “I know, I know – this contradicts my command to love your enemies, and seems to run counter to what I said about letting the children come to me. But this guy is Jewish. He’s never read the New Testament so how could I expect him to do any differently?”

Jesus signs the Israeli’s slip of paper and the man quickly gets up and leaves the room. You catch yourself wondering how much Jesus’ signature would fetch on E-bay.

Then Jesus turns to you. He hands you a gun, a rough piece of cloth, and a briefcase. You look confused. “Look, those two guys are going to mess this whole thing up. You’ve got to act and act fast. There is a ton of money in the briefcase. As much as you need. You’re going to have to start throwing a lot of money at this thing if you are ever going to resolve it. The gun? Oh there’s a lot more where that came from – and you’ll need every single one of them. By the way, you’ll probably need to share them with both sides, just to be fair. But make sure you give a few more to the Israelis – they are my people after all. ”

You hold up the cloth with a quizzical look.

“Oh right – that.” He pushes the pitcher of water towards you. “That goes with this. If you ever catch that first guy you can use those to waterboard him for important information.”

You open you’re mouth to reply but no sound comes out.

“Oh, right. You don’t know how to waterboard. That’s ok, I’ll show you how before you go. Any other questions?”

“But . . .”

“I know, I know – this all seems to contradict what I commanded about loving your neighbor as yourself, loving your enemies, putting others before yourself, and pretty much most of the New Testament – even the stuff that Paul wrote. But these are extenuating circumstances. And those nice things you read in the Bible don’t really apply to government activity or military action, you know – separation of church and state and all. Besides haven’t you read the Old Testament? There’s a lot of war in that one. And Revelation? When I come back it’s with a sword dude. Chip-chop. Off with you now – you’ve got a lot of guns and money to throw at that mess in the Middle East. I expect some progress before our next meeting.”

Jesus signs off on your slip of paper. His signature doesn’t look anything like what you expected. You wonder if anyone on E-bay would even believe it’s his.

**********

Doesn’t exactly sound like the Jesus you know? Yeah, me neither.

Try the following scene as an alternative.

**********

The room is spartan. There’s a table, four folding chairs, a pitcher of water, and a bright light.

You’re sitting there between a Palestinian and an Israeli. Neither looks like they want to be there. Jesus is sitting across from you and a big plasma screen TV is behind him blaring news of conflict in the Middle East.

“You’re probably wondering why I called you here today.” You always wondered what Jesus’ voice would sound like. It wasn’t what you expected.

You’re all looking at him now. And he nods his head at the plasma TV without looking at it, “I think you know. It’s time we did something about this mess. I’ve prepared an agenda.”

Immediately the Israeli and Palestinian start arguing with each other. They’re debating who’s to blame for the latest wave of violence. They both start pointing to you and reluctantly you jump into the fray, arguing for America’s support of Israel, military presence in the Middle East, and stance against terror. For an hour the three of you argue and bicker about whose version of history and interpretation of current events is correct. Your blood is about to boil over and you’re about to call for a timeout when you realize that Jesus has been strangely quiet. He’s the one who called the meeting. What does he have to say? Didn’t he have some sort of agenda put together?

You look over at him and your breath catches in your throat. His head is sagging to his chest and his hands are limp on the table. He’s bruised and covered in blood.

The Israeli jumps up and feels his wrist, “No pulse, and he’s not breathing!”

The Palestinian points out a note clenched in Jesus’ right hand. It’s crumpled and bloodstained.

Shaking, you open it up and read it aloud, “I died so you and your peoples don’t have to. Get with the program. See you in three days.”

**********

For those of us who call ourselves Christians on this Good Friday, we should remember the following from the book of 1st Corinthians:

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. (in context here)

Has Jesus called us to be agents of death or agents of life? WWJD in the today’s Middle East? No easy answers to that one – but I wonder if we’re asking the right questions. Or if we are recreating Jesus in our own convenient image?