- On May 16, 2015
By Marvin Wilson
“Love your neighbor as yourself” is a pivotal command incumbent on all Christians. Moses established this teaching, and Jesus reinforced it, declaring that love of God and neighbor is the mega commandment for his followers (Lev 19:18; Mark 12:28–34).
Every concerned and culturally alert generation of Christians must keep asking, “Who is my neighbor?” There is a good possibility one’s neighbor may be a Jew or a Muslim, especially in the cities and suburbs. Next to Christianity, Judaism and Islam are the two largest world religions found in America. How many evangelicals Christians really know their neighbors, especially when they espouse a different faith tradition from their own? And how many Jews and Muslims have been sensitively encouraged to cross the “interfaith divide” so they may really know evangelical Christians? Is it not presumptuous for a Christian to claim he “loves his neighbors” when he has made little effort to know and understand those of different faith traditions living in his locale? Is it possible to fulfill Jesus’ command by choosing to remain largely aloof from one’s neighbor, and to remain uninformed about his religious beliefs and practices? Do Christians have an obligation to build bridges of understanding and dynamic engagement with those of other faiths? In heaven, will there be any credit for avoiding the other?
My conviction and experience is this: if Christians are to be known, they must also know. One cannot genuinely love another he does not know. To “know” is not to confront abruptly, then dismiss quickly. Knowing someone implies a process; it is not a “bump and run.” Indeed, to “know,” as I use this term in the context of interfaith relations, is to grow in understanding and appreciation of the other through respectful conversation and shared experiences that lead to mutual enrichment and trust. In this essay, I will explore some of the lessons I have learned from my own personal journey of more than forty years as an evangelical venturing into the world of interreligious conversation.
Search for Hebraic Roots
I was raised in a Christian home, attended a Christian high school, and graduated from an evangelical Christian college and seminary. Following seminary, my university training was in Semitic and Mediterranean Studies, the languages, history, and culture of the Bible world. I began my teaching career in the early 1960s at an evangelical Christian College in New England. At the time, I thought I understood the history of the Jewish people, biblical literature, and how it applied to life today. As I look back, however, I realize how shallow my understanding was, especially concerning biblical Judaism and the last two thousand years of Jewish history. In addition, I soon discovered that what was lacking in my own personal life was actually a rather ubiquitous Christian problem, one prevalent throughout the church.
One of the hallmarks of historic, classic Christianity is belief in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. This point however has caused division and hostility between Christians and Jews for nearly two thousand years. It remains an impasse which, humanly speaking, only God himself can ultimately bridge.