Volume 10 - Issue 2

Who is my neighbour?

By James J. Stamoolis

There is no country untouched by the problems discussed in this issue of Themelios. We may not live in the countries highlighted in the following articles, but all societies face the question of different cultural groups living among them. Often we do not see those of different groups because we are trained by habit or custom to ignore their presence. Informal segregation in housing also removes them from our neighbourhoods. These other cultural groups may be part of our country or they may be ‘guest workers’ who do unpleasant but necessary jobs in society. Most countries have some type of influx control laws to preserve jobs for their own nationals. However, economic conditions have caused millions of people to seek employment in countries other than their own. On the high end of the scale, professional people such as medical doctors, scientists and engineers are welcomed as valuable immigrants. On the lower end of the economic ladder, unskilled labourers do the work considered demeaning to the inhabitants of their host country. Furthermore, political conditions have made refugees of millions of people.

What attitudes do we have to those outside our cultural group? How do we regard the laws that regulate their lives if they are not citizens of our country? Are we interested in their spiritual welfare? Would they be welcome in our Christian fellowship? Are they people for whom Christ died, but with whom we would not associate?

As Christians, we like to think that our attitudes are formed by our relationship with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. And yet in the area of interaction with those of other cultures we are often controlled by our own cultural background. We may be outraged at the treatment given blacks in South Africa (and rightly so), but be defensive of the policies of our own government toward minorities or foreigners in our country. After all, we reason, the situation here is different. But if you carefully read and consider the arguments in this issue, you will find that the same racial prejudice, the same fears of unrestrained mixing of cultural groups, the same danger of loss of identity of a cultural group is present in all societies.

It is easy to claim that one is not prejudiced toward those from other ethnic or cultural backgrounds. However, the key test is in the encounter with the ethnic or cultural group that most threatens your own. The attitude we display toward this group shows our real position. Please note that this does not need to be a ‘racial’ barrier, for often the greatest hostility is seen between peoples of the same racial classification (however the term is defined). One needs only to think of the civil wars currently raging to confirm this observation. Another form of hostility is the use of jokes to put down another cultural group. Our humour directed against other nationalities betrays our attitudes.

The formation of a cultural or ethnic group’s attitude toward those outside that group can be the product of many factors. Some have an historical basis in the injustice done by one group to another group. Others have a more current reference in the present system of discriminatory treatment they have received. There is even a future aspect in the fear of what could happen between the cultural groups. This can be a fear of being dominated by another group, or of being culturally overpowered by another group, or even simply that the quality of life would be changed if significant mixing were allowed. It is possible that factors from the past, present and future can all coalesce to produce the group’s attitude. Make no mistake, these factors are reason enough for animosity. This is the stuff wars are fought over.

In any Christian approach to the subject the attitudes of the groups must be seriously considered. Just as the gospel deals with real guilt over sin and real alienation from God, it must also deal with real fear and hatred in the area of both personal and group identity. Unless we admit our need for God’s justification, we cannot receive forgiveness of our sins. In the same way, we need to face the attitudes we hold toward other cultural groups before we can receive the power from God to overcome our sinful attitude.

Two things are equally incorrect. The first is to deny that we have a problem relating to other cultures, and the second is to admit the problem, but to deny that God’s Word has anything to say in the matter. In terms of the denial that a problem exists, the test referred to above dispels that notion. We all have the problem in one form or another. We may be part of an oppressed or disadvantaged group. We may be oppressors. Even more likely in human events is that we are simultaneously oppressed by one group and the oppressors of another group. There may not even be an oppressor-oppressed relationship, but the mere fact of cultural differences between groups can be enough to cause problems in relationships.

Having recognized the problem, how do we deal with it? Some interpreters of the Bible have fastened on to the isolation required of Israel as a justification for racial, ethnic or cultural exclusiveness. However, they have not read their Bibles correctly. For while full admission to all the religious practices of Israel, in particular the right to partake of the Passover (Ex. 12:48) and to enter the sanctuary of the temple (Ezk. 44:9; cf. Acts 21:28, 29) was limited to those who were circumcised, attendance at all religious festivals was open to outsiders (Dt. 16:11, 14) There was one law for native and stranger (Ex. 12:49; Lv. 24:22). But there is more than toleration and equal rights. The commandment is for the Israelites to show their love for the alien (Lv. 19:34). As God shows us his love for the stranger by giving him food and clothing, so must the Israelites show their love (Dt. 10:18, 19). The positive acceptance of the alien is a lesson all God’s people must take to heart. It is based on God’s love and justice. Therefore, the Old Testament provides no support for racial or cultural discrimination within a country.1

Jesus’ own example shows us that ethnic and cultural differences between countries should not be a barrier. Jesus travelled through Samaria, stayed in their villages, taught them. No groups could have had greater enmity than the Jews and the Samaritans, yet it was a Samaritan whom Jesus used as an example of what it meant to be a neighbour (Lk. 10:25–37). One can almost hear the crowd murmur, ‘Is there such a thing as a good Samaritan?’ The Samaritans were apostate in religion and mixed in racial ancestry. Yet in the teaching of Jesus the Samaritan is the one who shows mercy, not the priest or the Levite.

We, like the lawyer in this passage, seek to justify ourselves. We ask, ‘who is our neighbour?’, hoping the answer will leave us secure in our cultural isolation. But the Word of God breaks powerfully into the situation and says all of God’s creatures are our neighbours.

That they are difficult neighbours is not the point. We are to love them as we love ourselves. To truly love ourselves is to accept our faults and shortcomings, so that we can see ourselves as we truly are. Just as it is false self-love to love an image of ourselves that ignores our faults, so is it false love for our neighbour to ignore the differences between us. These differences, whatever their origin, must be clearly faced. Some will be easily reconciled, some will only be reconciled with great difficulty, some will be irreconcilable. But we must strive for reconciliation of all differences except the true division based on Christ’s work. And in that as well, our efforts must be by all means to persuade men and women of their need to be reconciled with us by Christ.

What then do we make of cultural differences? We accept them as products brought about by different circumstances and in part by alienation from God. We look for their transformation by God so that differences will not be abolished but given over to his service. To see the other as the fellow servant or potential fellow servant of God is to see a part of the great assembly pictured before God’s throne in Revelation 7:9. We need not forsake our culture to appreciate another, but we need to forsake the concept that ours is the only culture fit to worship the Lord of all the earth.

Editorial notes

Readers may be interested to know of the recently established East Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology, edited by the Rev. Isaac Simbiri. It is a journal particularly for Africa, but it contains articles of international interest. Thus a recent issue includes an article on polygamy and the African church by Josphat Yego, and another on contextualization (with special reference to the ideas of Daniel Von Allmen) by Don Carson. For further details write to EAJET, Box 49, Machakos, Kenya.

1 ‘For further material see the article ‘Foreigner’ in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, vol. 1 (Leicester: IVP, 1980), p. 520.

James J. Stamoolis