Saturday, January 23, 2016

Who Is My Neighbor?

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr., January 23, 2016

            The greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves has been recognized as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.  But it begs the question: Who is my neighbor?      
            A Jew posed that question to Jesus, and in Luke’s account of the greatest commandment Jesus answered it with the parable of the good Samaritan.  In that story it was an apostate Samaritan—and Samaritans were hated by the Jews—who was a good neighbor to a wounded Jew since he showed mercy on him. (Luke 10:25-37)  If Jews, Christians and Muslims were to follow this example and be good neighbors to apostate unbelievers, then religious suspicion, bigotry, hatred and violence could be resolved with religious reconciliation and peace.

            Easier said than done; but there is hope along with skepticism.  In 2007 a distinguished group of Islamic scholars embraced the greatest commandment as a common word of faith for Muslims as well as Jews and Christians.  Most of those scholars are from Islamic nations that have retained shari’a as a sacred rule of law, and it precludes libertarian human rights, beginning with the freedoms of religion and speech.  Many of those scholars are from Egypt which is considered the bellwether of Sunni religious doctrine.  It is where President (and former Army General) Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has turned to religion to bolster his authority.

            President al-Sissi has orchestrated a state of repression in Egypt by arresting and jailing those critical of his regime.  Like other Islamic leaders, Sissi has used shari’a with its apostasy and blasphemy laws to repress the freedoms of religion and speech.  Sheikh Ali Gomaa is a former Grand Mufti of Egypt who is now a senior cleric at Al Azhar University, “the 1,000 year old bastion of Sunni Muslim scholarship in Cairo.”  Gomaa is a principle sponsor of a common word with its mandate to love God and neighbor, but he has supported the repressive policies of President Sissi and defended the legitimacy of sharia’s apostasy and blasphemy laws. 

            Sheikh Gomaa is not alone.  Few, if any, of the Islamic scholars who were sponsors of a common word have questioned provisions in the Qur’an that condemn unbelievers (e.g. 2:23, 2:24, 2:39, 2:126, 2:257, 3:10, 3:12,4:161, 5:17, 5:72-5:75, 9:30, 30:15, 30:16, 47:8); nor have they advocated repeal of apostasy and blasphemy laws.  Such religious laws deny the freedoms of religion and speech and foster religious hatred and violence in a world of increasing religious diversity.  It is not enough for Christians, Jews and Muslims to love like-minded believers.  They must also love unbelievers, and that requires abolishing apostasy and blasphemy laws and supporting the fundamental freedoms of religion and speech.
            There is no separation of religion and politics in Islam.  The Islamic scholars who sponsored a common word are as influential in politics as they are in religion.  For there to be any credibility in their assertion that Islam embraces the love of one’s unbelieving neighbors, Muslim leaders must challenge provisions of the Qur’an that condemn unbelievers, seek to abolish apostasy and blasphemy laws and promote the freedoms of religion and speech.  There is reason to be skeptical of that happening anytime soon.

            Judaism, like Islam, began with an emphasis on the obedience to sacred law; but unlike Islam and like Christianity, Judaism evolved into a diverse religion compatible with libertarian democracy and human rights.  Judaism and Christianity were transformed by the advances in knowledge and reason of the Enlightenment and they conformed their religious doctrines to the libertarian principles of democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law.  That required recognizing the secular rule of law and making their sacred standards of legitimacy (laws that defined what was right and wrong) voluntary moral standards of faith rather than coercive laws.

            Fundamentalist Jews and Christians, like their Islamist counterparts, continue to believe their holy books are the inerrant and infallible word of God, and that their religion is the one true faith and that all unbelievers are condemned.  Such intolerant beliefs foster religious hatred and violence.  If and when believers embrace the greatest command to love their unbelieving neighbors as themselves and do not seek to impose their religious standards of legitimacy and law on others, they will open the door to religious reconciliation and peace.  That is the hope.  

Notes and References to Resources:          

Previous blogs on related topics are: Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; Religion and New Beginnings, Salvation and Reconciliation into the Family of God, January 4, 2015; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?, February 8, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today?, January 25, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; Christians Meet Muslims Today, June 21, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Legitimacy as a Catalyst and a Paradigm to Resolve Religious Conflict, August 23, 2015; Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015; The Muslim Stranger: A Good Neighbor or a Threat?, October 25, 2015; and Faith, Hope and Love in a World of Fear, Suspicion and Hate, December 5, 2015.
The greatest commandmentis derived from two commands in the Hebrew Bible, the first being the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4 and the second is from Leviticus 19:18.  It is also found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke; and the Apostle Paul affirmed that “…love is the fulfillment of the [Jewish] law” in Romans 13:10.

Those provisions of the Qur’an referenced above that condemn unbelievers can be found in the Appendices to The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, at pp 470-485.  It is a study guide posted in the Resources of this website.

The editorial Board of the Washington Post has condemned Egypt’s state of repression.  See

Declan Walsh has commented on Egypt’s President Turns to Religion to Bolster His Authority in the New York Times and Sheikh Ali Gomaa’s support of the President’s oppressive policies.  See

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