Love of Neighbor in Christianity a reflection inspired by “A COMMON WORD” On the occasion of the WIHW Celebration 2016 in Zamboanga City

I am grateful that the Zamboanga City’s Interfaith Council sponsored this conference for Christian and Muslim leaders of the city on this occasion of the World Interfaith Harmony Week (WIHW). Our sharing now is focused on the love of God and the love of neighbour starting from the presentation of the open letter “A Common Word”.

To give attention to the   love of God and the love of neighbour in the present reality of violence in the world and in our place can sound to some a “naïve” way to face problems, but for us it is relevant.

The United Nations promoting the WIHW has been inspired by the message of the open letter “A Common Word” and we decided to take this as our topic to find inspiration and courage to face the reality of today.

We know that this open letter was   prepared by 138 Muslim Scholars of the world and addressed to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders in 2007.  The presentors before me shared their reflections on the Love of God and the love of neighbour in Islam and on the love of God in Christianity. The focus of this   presentation assigned to me is on the “Love of Neighbour in Christianity.”

This is the shortest part of the open letter, but it presents the essential message of Christianity based on the Holy Bible. The first quotation is taken from the Gospel of Matthew 22: 33-40 that says: “….This is the first and the greatest commandment (love of God). And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets”.

And: (First the love God), “the second like it, is this.’ You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12: 31)

 A quotation from the Old Testament presented in the open letter is: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbour, and not bear sin against him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord (Leviticus 19: 17-18).

These  few quotations  highlighted in  the open letter on the love of  neighbour   for the Christians can be developed in many points, but I limit my sharing only to some  points that allow me to  present some challenges that we Christians have to face   in living  the message of  love of God.

First of all, the concept of love of neighbour is in all religions. Thus, before getting into the specific focus of this presentation it is appropriate to rediscover that the Love of Neighbour is the basic teaching of all religions. For this reason, in recent time, many propose to reflect on the GOLDEN RULE of   major religions.  A list of this Golden Rule is:

–     Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty: Do not do to others what would cause you pain if done to you. “ ( Mahabharata 5: 15- 17)

–     Buddhism: “Hurt not others in ways that you would find hurtful.” (Udanavarga 5:18)

–     Confucianism:  It is   the maxim of loving kindness: ‘Do not do unto others what you would not have them do to you.” ( Analects- Rongo -15;23)

–     Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the entire law: all the rest is commentary.” ( Talmud, Shabban 31 a)

–     Christianity:  “I give to you a new commandment, love one another. You must love one another just as I loved you.” (Jn. 13,34)

–     Islam: “No one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother that which he loves for himself.” (the  42 Traditions of An-Nawawi)

This is a list of the major religions, but all religions, including most of the new religions up to now, teach the same message of love for the neighbour.

 

The “Golden Rule” can also misguide some who might conclude that all the religions are the same. No, each one of us has to be faithful to our own religion. Meanwhile, we are called to be in dialogue and respect the identity of each religion. Thus, dialogue is not a way to convert others to our religion as some believe and practice. It is a way to reaffirm the mysterious plan of God. This also helps us to rediscover that we are part of the same big family of God, the human family. Our duty is to guide people properly. We in the Silsilah Dialogue Movement reaffirm this message as a guide for our spiritual experience expressed with the key word of the Movement that is “Silsilah” which means “chain” or “link”.  It considers the link of all of us as part of the same genealogical tree of the same human family. Thus, this is a way to   understand that we have the same basic aspirations and needs in life planted in our soul by God, the Creator.

It is not easy at this point of history with the many waves of conflicts and narrow presentation of our Christian and Islamic faiths (we focus here only on Christianity and Islam), to follow the “Law of Love” especially because there are those who go far from the law of love building a “law of hatred” using all means, including religions.

We cannot ignore that we are living in   a particular stage of the history of humanity where many now   are abusing the name of religion, especially Islam, projecting Islam as a religion which   teaches violence. This is very painful for good Muslims and for all of us who witness this situation and are victims of an increasing presence of religious violence that today has many names, especially ISIS. This brings us to another reality and question: “Who is behind all this violence?  Who is spreading this new ideology of violence? Why do they feel they have the right to kill only because they declare that a person or a group is “Kafir” (infidel)? And who are the real “Kafir” today and why don’t they respect the freedom of each one, provided that each one respects the fundamental law of the country and of each person?”

Maybe we can recall the theory of the “spiral of history” as it is well presented by some philosophers. If we apply this theory to the history of Christianity and Islam we can see that Christianity and Islam in the history are projecting the same “spiral of history”.

We can recall great moments of the history of Christianity   and Islam, but also of violence inspired by a wrong understanding of faith. We Christians recognize that Christianity has also passed through stages of “violence”. Now we find a similar reality   in the recent history of Islam.  This is more dangerous because it is happening in a time of history when fast communication and the power of destruction reaches a very high level.

 

This is also true now in Mindanao. Thus, the challenge for us now is to rediscover why we have to love each other as the open letter of “A Common Word” is telling us. At the beginning of the open letter we read: “Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.”  

Indeed this open letter can be considered the “Magna Carta” of the Muslims in the world, especially in this critical time of history and a sincere beginning of a sincere dialogue started from a group of Muslim religious leaders. For this reason, we take this opportunity to share the message of this open letter to all and now, in this special occasion of the World Interfaith Harmony week. We believe that this can be a good contribution to promote dialogue and peace in our place.

A similar great moment happened fifty years ago in the history of the Catholic Church during the Vatican Second Council      with the declaration “Nostra Aetate” (October 28, 1965). In this document we read: “Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostility have arisen between Christians and Muslims, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding to preserve, as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind, social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.” 

Reaffirming the mission of love as Christians is a great challenge for Christians and hopefully also for the Muslims who are called to understand the real spirit of Christianity. For Christian, Jesus is not only a prophet  but also the Emmanuel (God Among us), who in a certain time of history  came to the world to live with us, suffered and died on the cross; resurrected and continue to  inspire us to LOVE ALL . For this reason we are grateful to the open letter “A Common Word” that helps us to recall the essential part as Christians and our mission that is LOVE.

Presenting the love of neighbour for the Christians in this reflection, Christians are called to accept the challenge to share the commandment of love with all. This is the foundation of Christian life.   This helps Christians to revisit the understanding of love for all, friends and enemies and hopefully, in the process, they can tell the world that they believe in the love of God and the love of neighbour and they are urged to meet all in the spirit of love. Christians are also called to love enemies and those who are the cause of pain for them, starting from the family and moving to others in society.  The death of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection   remains,   for the Christians, the fundamental teaching that inspires Christians in all aspects of life.  Christians  do not  ask others  to believe in the same ways, but to understand  that  a Christian  has to be a person of  dialogue  because  of love and not because of any  vested interest. Thus, dialogue has to become for the Christians   an expression of love. I know that Islam also has some guiding principle that invite Muslims to move toward the same path of love expressed most of the time with the message of “mercy and compassion”.

Thus, the beauty of the message of love passes in different ways. The Christians in revisiting the love of neighbour are invited to recall that “God is Love” (I Jn. 4) Thus, Christians are called to love all:  Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and all the others,   including friends and enemies of all cultures and religions. Indeed, the love that Jesus thought as a basic commandment is not easy, but is a great mission and the foundation of LOVE. This becomes a spirituality of life-in-dialogue. For this reason Christians have beautiful pages of history where we remember those martyrs who suffered with love, not those who have caused any forms of violence in the history of humanity.  Christians honour martyrs who are killed, not those who use violence.

In my study of Islam I found  a similar  point  in the deeper message of Islam  among the Sufis and other Muslim groups that I like to call “Compassionate Muslims”  instead of “Moderate Muslims”, a common term used to identify those Muslims who do not advocate a radical Islam with violence.  Unfortunately,  I know that   the so called “compassionate Muslims” and  the  sufis, and all Muslims inspired by the “great Jihad” ( a concept of the  purification  of the  heart and mind as a form of  spiritual journey) are  struggling today  because the voice of those more radical  who advocate violence has become more visible.

Thanks to God, Christians today do not use violence in the name of religion, as has happened in some stages of history, but there is the temptation on the part of some Christians to use it in a form of revenge. Thus, Christians too have to understand more the real meaning of love in Christianity.

In our  real situation in Mindanao and in Zamboanga,  Christians  find many reasons to  put a part  of the  commandment of love, often even in the family, in business or  for other reasons  that some of them consider  valid.   For a Christian the paradigm of peace has to be built on love and not on fear or strategy. Thus, love of neighbour in Christianity has to be revisited deepening the real spirit of Christian love. This is a good occasion, inspired by the open letter of 138 Muslim scholars. This is even a new challenge to understand that God in different times of history send people and situations, even painful ones, to rethink and to revisit the real message of Christianity.

There is often an unspoken language of prejudices   that make the relation of the Christians, especially with the Muslims, quite difficult. This will not change even if we have a new law that reinforces the code of media and public relation as some are advocating.

The increasing violence justified by a radical way of perceiving Islam makes all of us, Muslims and Christians, alarmed and often afraid and silent.   I hope we will have more courageous  leaders, especially among  the Muslims who  will break the silence and with courage reaffirm that  Islam  is a  religion  of peace as  the Christians have to reaffirm that Christianity is a religion of love and thus, of peace.

We hope that all of us Muslims and Christians will show it with our lives and not only in beautiful statements. People, especially those from grassroots, can feel that what we declare we live.

Indeed, it is a small portion of society which creates violence. A good   Muslim leader in Zamboanga used to say: “the situation is like a black point in a white paper”. I admire his example that leads us to believe that the majority in society are good and we do not have to be discouraged by the few.  But I‘d like to say to him and to all of us that a “black point” can become a terrible virus that can attack the whole body, even if small. It can cause the death of a person.

In this situation the challenge of the “love of neighbour in Christianity” revisited by the open letter “A Common Word” has to become for Christians a new sign of the times.  Christians are called to make an examination of conscience, as Christians wish that also the Muslims do the same. It is a time to put apart the feeling that “my religion is better that your religion.” It is time to   reflect well on the deeper message of Islam and Christianity.  And we hope that  religious leaders of  both religions  will  understand  better the beautiful  message of “Mercy and compassion”  that is  well expressed in Christianity and Islam and it was  reaffirmed by Pope Francis in his message in preparation  of the great Jubilee of Mercy this year for the Catholics. The Pope says that Islam presents “Mercy and Compassion” in very strong way. In fact, almost all the Surahs of the Holy Qur’an start with this   message “In the name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate”.

I hope that this occasion will be a new beginning when each one of us will appreciate more the love of God and the love of neighbour in Islam and Christianity and hopefully, the mission of Silsilah that is for all Christians, Muslims and people of other cultures and religions will help to experience what we always say in the movement:  “Dialogue starts from God and brings people back to God.”  It is an urgent mission for all of us to  spread love and solidarity in this difficult time of history and  of our society, including here in Zamboanga.  I hope that we can rediscover that we are brothers and sisters in the same humanity;

To be “Brothers and Sisters” in Islam for the Muslims and “Brother and Sisters in Christ” for the Christians is not an obstacle, but a providential “link” (Silsilah) to rediscover that we are brothers and sisters in the same humanity.

One of the tragedies of division among “brothers” was the story of Joseph/Jusuf described in the Bible and in the Qur’an (see Bible – Gen. Chapter 37 up to 50 and Qur’an Surah 12). Joseph/Jusuf can be any Christian or Muslim who has to suffer from the many forms of pain coming from others.

Today we   have many reasons to be purified.  Among the many reasons we can mention the danger of materialism that tries to put apart the “Commandment of love of neighbour” proposing the “commandment of self-interest and pride” and the presence of radicalism in this time of history.

I believe that unless we are strong in defending our common rights with peaceful means, we cannot   move fast on the path of peace.  We have to remember and teach all the message of love in our religions and apply it in our lives.

This is the challenge that we have to face together. We have to be united and see what we can do   as the open letter inspires us to do.  This is what we are celebrating in this special WIHW with what the theme:  “Harmony the Wellspring of Hope and Peace”.

Yes, there is hope if we move with mercy, and there is peace if we are guided by love, a love that urges us to break our silence and fear in front of violence. We have to raise our voices together. We cannot live any more in denial and in the “nostalgia” of the past forms of traditions and to build a new order where all are   respected, poor and rich, Muslims, Christians and people of different cultures and religions.  This is what the open letter “A Common Word” tells us.

I‘d like to close this reflection with a personal experience. In 1977 I was in Siocon, Zamboanga del Norte and I started to live in a Muslim village, near the sea. I tried to be good with all and I was respected by all, including the MNLF rebels who later   asked me to help them as negotiator. One of the   experiences was that on some occasions some Muslims would tell me: “Padel (Father), you are good, very good! What is lacking in you is that you are not Muslim!” Well, often I smiled, but sometimes I used to say: “If I am good it is because I try to be a good Christian, guided by the commandment of love that Jesus thought us.” Indeed, we Christians too sometimes have the same feeling when we meet a good Muslim, we think that he or she acts as a good Christian. This experience helps us to rediscover that we can find goodness in all religions. I  Like very much one quotation of the Holy Qur’an saying: “We have to compete   in goodness” and a quotation of the Holy Bible that remind us: “Love and do what you want”. Yes, because when we love we are urged to do only good things.

May this conference make us ready to rethink our relations, especially between Muslims and Christians. Considering that this presentation was basically on the love of neighbour in Christianity, I invite, in a special way, Christians to start to ask “forgiveness” for the many painful attitudes toward the Muslims especially in Mindanao. At the same time I hope that Muslims will do the same in the context of different stages of Muslim-Christian relations in Mindanao and around the world.  This is the time to reconcile thinking that for one reason or other, all have suffered and we have to restart a new page of history based on love and forgiveness.

Are we ready to enter in this spirit of love, the same spirit that guided Joseph/Jusuf to embrace the brothers?  Joseph can be our ICON of forgiveness in the spirit of love for all of us. We are invited, once again, in this WIHW celebration to love each other, respect each other and work together for the common good.

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