An Abrahamic community of respect

Bluffton College Faculty/Staff Retreat
morning meditation, 28 August 1997

Deuteronomy 10:12-22
Romans 12:1-21

For background reading on the problems of community and respect today, see Benjamin R. Barber, “Jihad Vs. McWorld,” originally in the March 1992 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, or Barber’s 1996 book of the same name.

A community of respect….

A community … of … respect….

If we do not sense at least a little bit of tension in this phrase then we should. For authentic community and true respect may well depend on a creative tension between the two.

On one hand, no community can survive and thrive if it does not stand for something, or if its story does not beckon its members toward a vision of beauty and goodness, wisdom and justice, or if that vision is so misty or so blurry that members of the community do not know how to reject those actions, values, and attitudes which will undermine community. No community can tolerate everything, after all, even in the name of respect.

Yet must it then respect nothing that might challenge its standards or its vision, whether by sensitive dissenters within, or astute observers without?

On the other hand, no community can survive either, if it enforces its standards so harshly, or focuses its vision so narrowly, that it silences its poets, stifles its most restless but creative children, offers no grace to the faltering, or simply makes no space for the tired, the weary, the slow. Nor can any community thrive if it acts as though it were so self-sufficient that strangers may offer no counsel, and guests may offer no gift.

A community … of respect ….

We must do both, to do either — but how? How to uphold a community standard, yet respect other communities? How to promote a common vision — yet welcome a rich and diverse conversation about its meaning?

* * *

Perhaps we sensed this tension in our morning’s biblical texts. Perhaps (I hope) we were even jarred — awakened to a possibility both ancient — and calling to be made new.

From Deuteronomy 10, in the Hebrew scriptures, we heard a call to Israel to do what God requires, to love, fear, and serve God, to walk in God’s ways, to keep God’s commandments. Let this sink in: God does require something of God’s people — in fact, an entire way of life, which is to say, a certain kind of culture. There is no wishy-washiness here, no liberalism of the loose and merely genteel kind. God’s people are to do this with all their heart and soul! After all, God is calling for this particular way of life because the very “well-being” of the people is at stake. Alien though this claim may be in our society, we cannot encounter the biblical text without confronting the possibility that some ways of life — dare we say some cultures? — are more conducive to human thriving than others.

And if that word is not jarring enough to our ears, there is this business of “chosenness.” All of heaven and earth belongs to the Lord, yet God has had a special love and has chosen one people as a special possession. The text is quite clear: “out of all the peoples.”

Where is the justice in that? It seems patently unfair! And hardly conducive to calling forth “a community of respect.”

Yet the claim of the biblical writer is precisely that God is doing this because God is a God of justice, who shoes no partiality, who has not been bribed into favoritism, yet who does show special care for the orphan, widow, and stranger.

The stranger. As with God, so with God’s people. The conviction of this people, that God has worked in a special way to save and liberate it from Egypt, actually aims to underscore its commitment to love the stranger — “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” So it is not in spite of God’s special love for you that you are to treat those who are different with a corresponding love, but because of it. It is not in spite of your particular lifestyle of grateful dedication to God that you are to treat others with justice and hospitality, but because of it.

It seems, then, that this “way of the Lord” does not kick in only when you discover how it is that the stranger is not really so strange after all (after we discover some lowest common denominator and learn that, “hey, we’re all really the same”), but precisely when the stranger is strange to us — perhaps even a threat, certainly still a puzzle.

Or is this ancient Hebrew text still a puzzle to us? We may wonder whether the biblical writer got a little carried away with his sense of chosenness and certainty that he was speaking for God. Maybe we should just tone all that stuff down a little bit and keep the warm tolerant stuff about welcoming strangers. After all, Jesus has now fulfilled the call to welcome strangers and sent the Gospel out beyond Israel’s borders. We who are mostly if not all Gentiles would not even be reading Israel’s sacred text if this were not so.

As we review our New Testament reading from Romans 12, however, we find much the same pattern as in Deuteronomy. Another appeal, again deriving its motivation from God’s gracious prior acts on our behalf:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Again, the language of holiness, of unwavering dedication. A call to transformation into a way of life that does not conform to that of the surrounding culture. A sub-culture believing itself to have divine sanction again, clashing rather than blending with the cultures around it. Discerning something it has the audacity to claim to know as God’s will — and to call it not just one more lifestyle choice among others, but “what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

At the same time, this community too is called to show hospitality to strangers. Its cultural self-confidence is somehow compatible with humility, identification with the lowly, and recognition that the community itself lives and thrives through a diversity of complementary gifts. In fact, hospitality toward strangers extends one step further. It takes the final step — all the way towards enemies — offering food and water and returning evil with good.

* * *

Well either there is an insoluble puzzle in the ancient biblical vision that emerges from these texts, or the biblical writers weren’t smart enough to see the contradictions that we modern folk see — or there is a clue here to which we are the ones who have too often been blind. My claim, of course, is the latter.

We may think that we see an irresolvable tension or even a contradiction in these texts between preserving a clear sense of communal identity and opening that identity out toward other communities and peoples. But my suggestion and my firm conviction is that the tension we have found in these two texts is faithful to one of the most basic patterns that has shaped all of salvation history. It has been the shape of God’s calling all the way back — back when God called Abraham and Sarah in the first few verses of Genesis 12:

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

To hear the call of Abraham, and to become what I have sometimes called an Abrahamic community,* is to hear a call to offer to the world what still remains a fresh and original form of social life. What Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder once called “the original revolution” begins with Abraham and Sarah.

For here is a community that knows how to celebrate God’s blessing without hoarding it for themselves.

Here is a community that knows how to celebrate its God-given identity (literally, a gift from God) without deprecating the communal identities of other peoples.

Here is a culture that lives in confidence but eschews triumphalism.

Here is a community that extends itself not by conquering other communites and gutting their cultures, but by risking and laying down its own life in service to the best values among other peoples — even to death on a cross.

Yes, there is a tension here, but it is part of the very story that shapes such a community. For it will cease to be Abrahamic both when it becomes defensive and attempts to keep its blessing, its cultural heritage, to itself — and when it blends into its host society so completely that it no longer has anything original to offer. It ceases to be Abrahamic when it becomes rigidly exclusive and develops a siege mentality; but it also ceases to be Abrahamic when it becomes indiscriminately inclusive and dissipates its identity.

Paradoxically, then, it gains its Abrahamic life or identity by risking it again and again through fresh cultural encounters; and it loses its Abrahamic life or identity by keeping it to itself.

Throughout salvation history God has been yearning to bring forth an Abrahamic people that lives for all peoples. Is then this pattern, this culture, this quality of communal life together, this community of respect — the unique calling of Christians, Jews and Muslims who trace their origin back to Abraham? To be sure, it is a form of community that is all too rare in our world today. Even among the communities of the three great monotheistic faiths –or sadly, perhaps we must say, especially among them– the temptation is to seek to preserve community by erecting a fortress around it. Or then, when the perils of such a strategy become ominous, the counter-temptation is to seek to build respect through an easy toleration that corrodes community life. So yes, the pattern is rare, because Abrahamic communities must continually negotiate a tense and difficult path between both temptations.

But unique? Available only to the peoples of faith who explicitly claim Abraham as their father? The children of Abraham must hope not! For they must ever hope that God will make their blessing available to all peoples. How? Not –first of all– by making others into Abrahamic communities. But by becoming an Abrahamic community themselves — blessed with an identity worth celebrating, identified by a way of life that is a blessing open to all nations.

Further reading:

Gerald W. Schlabach, “Beyond Two- versus One-Kingdom Theology: Abrahamic Community as a Mennonite Paradigm for Christian Engagement in Society.” Conrad Grebel Review 11 (Fall 1993): 187-210.
——–. To Bless All Peoples: Serving With Abraham and Jesus. Peace and Justice Series 12. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1991. Spanish translation: Un pueblo para todos los pueblos: la comunidad abrahámica y el servicio cristiano. Colección: Siervos en comunidad. Guatemala: Ediciones CLARA-SEMILLA, 1994.