Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith

By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Christianity and Islam share the common roots of Judaism and also a common word of faith from the Hebrew Bible.  That common word is made up of two commandments.  The first is the Shema, or Jewish confession of faith: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. (see Mark 12:29-30, taken from Deuteronomy 6:4-5)  And the second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. (see Mark 12:31, taken from Leviticus 19:18)
            Islamic scholars have offered the greatest commandment to Jews and Christians as a common word of faith.  It is where the mystical and moral priorities of our faith—to love God and to love others—come together.  Islam means submission to God, and requires a submissive kind of love for God similar to that of the Jewish Shema.  Both Judaism and Islam define love for God as obedience to God’s laws as set forth in their ancient scriptures, with God rewarding the obedient and punishing the disobedient. 

            Ancient holy laws have produced holy wars, whether those enforcing the ban in the Holy Land, the Christian Crusades, or those of modern Jihadists who believe it is God’s will to kill all infidels.  According to the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an, the love of God can have hateful consequences for unbelievers.  Beyond making war, fundamentalist Christians and Muslims believe that God condemns unbelievers to eternal damnation.  How do you love a God like that? 

            Jesus answered that question by combining the two commandments of the greatest commandment into one: We love God by loving our neighbors as ourselves.  Like prophets before him, Jesus taught that God expects our mercy, not sacrifice (see Matthew 9:10-13, citing Hosea 6:6 and Amos 5:21; also Matthew 12:7).  We show our love for God through loving acts of mercy and compassion like forgiveness, reconciliation and humble servicefor our neighbors, not through religious rituals like blood sacrifices for a jealous and vengeful god.

            That begs the question: Who is our neighbor?  Jesus answered that question with the story of the good Samaritan, in which an apostate Samaritan stopped to help a wounded Jew after several Jews passed him by.  To hear that a Samaritan was the good neighbor was shocking to Jews who hated their neighboring Samaritans, whom they considered apostates. (Luke 10:29-37) 

            Jesus told other stories that shocked his Jewish audience, like turning the other cheek and loving your enemy, but they were rabbinic hyperbole and not intended to be practical standards of legitimacy.  Jesus was never responsible for governing his people, as were Moses and Muhammad, so he never addressed how to defend people from those who would do them harm.  But the principles of sacrificial love taught by Jesus do not allow us to turn the other cheek to those who would harm our neighbors.  Jesus taught and exemplified that loving others came at great risk, and that there was no greater love than to give one’s life for another. (John 15:13) 
            Today we have issues relating to how we love our neighbors that were not addressed by Moses, Jesus or Muhammad.  They involve democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law and are vital to the well-being of all people, but there are major disagreements grounded in religious and cultural differences.  In Western democracies, an emphasis on individual freedom can jeopardize providing for the common good, including welfare for the poor, while in Eastern Islamic regimes, fundamental freedoms such as the freedoms of religion and expression do not exist because of apostasy and blasphemy laws that protect the sanctity of Islam from criticism.  

            The future of democracy and human rights depends upon striking a balance between libertarian individual rights and providing for the common good.  Both are essential to political legitimacy, but libertarian democracy is likely to fail in the West if it cannot balance individual rights with providing for the common good, and democracy will never gain traction in the Islamic East without the freedoms of religion and speech.

            Even though Moses, Jesus and Muhammad never addressed libertarian democracy and human rights, the greatest commandmentis a common word of faith that requires us to share what we love most with our neighbors—and our neighbors include those of other faiths.  Every 4th of July we give thanks for a rule of law that protects our freedoms of religion and speech and that protects women and minorities from unlawful discrimination.  Because we love these libertarian rights it is a moral imperative of our faith that we share them with our neighbors around the world. 

Notes and References to Resources:           
This topic is related to the same topic with commentary on the teachings of Jesus and Muhammad found in Lesson # 3 at pages 25-30 in the J&M Book.
On beliefs, rewards and punishments under Islamic and Jewish (Mosaic) Law, see the Appendices to the J&MBook at pages 470-485 and pages 548-557. 
See the story of the good Samaritan at page 223 of the J&M Book; see the golden rule at page 124 of the J&M Book.
On forgiveness, see page 113 of the J&M Book; on reconciliation, see anger and reconciliation at page 93 of the J&M Book; on humble service, see humility: leaders as servants at page 54 of the J&M Book.
On turning the other cheek, see page 102 of the J&M Book; on loving your enemies, see page 104 of the J&M Book.
On conflicting views of democracy and human rights in the West and East, see Religion, Legitimacy and the Law  at pages 7-8 and 10-17.

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