Thursday, October 25, 2012

Empathy, Foreign Policy, and Following Jesus

This fall at our home church, I am teaching an eight-week course that I titled, Loving OTHERS in the Way of Jesus: A Kingdom Approach to Reaching Out to Those Not Like Me

Last Sunday night, in our fourth session, the focus was on Kingdom values. To jump-start the dialogue, I showed a video of Penn State professor Sam Richards teaching empathy as the foundation to all sociological inquiry. To make his point, he tried to help the audience walk a bit in the shoes of an Arab Muslim who was born and raised in Iraq. 

For folks who don't have Muslim friends and have not had the opportunity to hear "their" side of the story as it relates to American foreign policy, Richard's presentation can be quite a pill to swallow. That proved true in our class on Sunday night, as a number of class participants responded passionately and emotionally to the video. 

A couple of days ago, as a follow-up to our intense discussion, I sent the following email to class members: 


Dear Sisters and Brothers,

Warm greetings on this beautiful day!

I want to thank you for your gracious and active participation in class this past Sunday night. We discussed some difficult issues, and clearly it was an emotion-stirring dialogue for some of us. But you did so with love and grace, I believe!

Over the last 12 years, I have had the privilege of calling many Muslims “friend.” For a month, my family and I lived with a DEAR Muslim family in their small home in Padang, a city of a million in Indonesia. After moving into our own home, we still lived in an all-Muslim neighborhood in a city that was 90% Muslim. My employer there was a Muslim. My students were Muslim. Our neighbors and best friends were Muslim. 

Later, when I served as Interim Director of an English language institute in New Delhi, we had a similar experience—living in a mostly Muslim neighborhood and having many Muslim students and even some Muslim employees.

The point is that my family has many wonderful Muslim friends in a number of countries. And while I am not a huge fan of generalization and ALWAYS encourage folks to sit down with others to learn their various, diverse perspectives, I can tell you that I don’t recall having a Muslim friend who was even moderately pleased with American foreign policy in the Middle East. The pervasive perspective among my Muslim friends is that American foreign policy is unfair, unjust, and inhumane toward Muslims.

As uncomfortable as this may make us as American Christians, this is the reality, and we have some choices as to how we handle it.

1.       We can crawl into our bunkers, decry the falsities of "their” perspective, and defend ourselves—in other words take a defensive posture.

2.       We can rationalize that “they” are naïve, uninformed, easily-deceived, and/or led astray from truth and reality by those who would deceive them.

3.       We can first seek to understand before worrying about being understood. We can listen long, seeking to understand not only their perspective but also why they have that perspective. This is walking a mile in the others' shoes, trying to see how the world looks and feels from their vantage point. And this might even require/compel me to acknowledge that maybe my perspective is incomplete, maybe I don’t have all the answers, and maybe I have something to learn about reality from those whose perspective is different.
  
Want my opinion?

Clearly, number one is not the way of Jesus, as he got into big trouble for hanging with the “wrong” crowd. And when I get into real friendships with Muslims who are loving, genuine, honest, and intelligent, number two falls apart. 

This leaves us with number three, and I am convinced that some shade of this approach is the way of Jesus and the Kingdom. This is how we put others first, considering them better than us (Philippians 2:3). This is the way we love others well. And, in my experience, when this is my approach, then “they” become genuinely eager to learn my perspectives as well.

This is not about foreign policy, by the way. It’s about how we love others, folks who at times have radically different perspectives, in the way of Jesus.

Grace and peace,
Thomas


In case you're interested in learning for yourself what all the fuss is about, here's the video:


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