Only three weeks ago Sunday, a neo-Nazi white supremacist, Wade Michael Page, used a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun to kill six worshipers and wound four more inside a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. One day later, a Muslim mosque burned to the ground in Joplin, Missouri, a month after another fire at the same mosque was extinguished. Officials suspect arson, although no one has been arrested. Four days later, a neighbor to a Muslim mosque in Morton Grove, Illinois (suburb of Chicago) fired several shots from a pellet gun at the building. Muslims inside the packed facility were completing the final day of Ramadan. The incident capped a series of hostile acts towards the congregation.
It would seem that our turban- and scarf-wearing neighbors also bear a target on their backs and their places of worship. Violent attacks may be limited to the crazies in our society, but this will do little to restore peace of mind to these religious minorities. After all, how many crazies roam our streets?
I am currently a resident of Morton Grove and Joplin, Missouri is my hometown, so I read the reports of these crimes with a certain degree of shame. Joy replaced my shame today when I learned that Joplin residents reached out to their victimized neighbors, organizing a rally Saturday night. Donations to a rebuilding fund have reached $406,000, well in excess of the $250,000 needed for the project.
The Joplin rally displayed the true meaning of hospitality. Dictionaries trace the English word back to Middle English and Middle French in the late 14th Century. It evolved from a 13th Century word that meant to house and care for the needy, our word “hospital.” A related word that meant to house guests developed into our word “hotel.”
The concept of hospitality existed millennia before the evolution of these words. The New Testament writers used a word that literally means, “lover of strangers.” Paul urged the believers in Rome, “seek to show hospitality” (12:13). It is coupled with the exhortation to “contribute to the needs of the saints.”
Most people, when traveling, lacked the ability to pay for the few inns that existed in the first-century world. Christians had the opportunity to demonstrate the mark of God’s kingdom in a tangible way by offering to house overnight guests who would have to sleep on the ground otherwise. Followers of Jesus should treat all of their physical resources as tools that God has entrusted to us to bring relief and refreshment to others, in either “hospitals” or “hotels.”
The Christian community should lead the way in offering this kind of hospitality to the strangers among us, even, especially the religious strangers. A Joplin church illustrated such hospitality when it invited the mosque members to use their building to host the iftar dinner, eaten communally at the end of each day during observance of Ramadan.
Historically, the Church has close identity with the prejudice leveled against these worshipers from the Middle East. Rome aimed its fear and animosity at the new religious sect known as the Way, rounding up Christians as a blue plate special for lions in the Coliseum. The brutality brought cheers from the savage citizens who attended the entertainment.
Persecution against Christians still litters the world today. Because of their faith in Jesus, many believers are tossed into the streets by their families or hauled into prison by local officials. In some countries, hostile crowds, often incited by the dominant religious group, harass believers, sometimes to the point of murdering them.
Jesus did not allow for this kind of hatred and religious superiority among his followers. When a Samaritan village drove away Jesus and his band, John and James suggested an act of religious justice. They wanted to call fire out of heaven on the village, in the tradition of Elijah’s encounter with the prophets of Baal and God’s judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. Luke 4:55 simply says, “he turned and rebuked them.” Such action does not characterize the good news of a kingdom that brings liberty to the captives and freedom to the oppressed.
In a glaring contradiction of current religious practice, Jesus taught new core values for his kingdom. “You have heard it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-44)
Those who worship at a different altar than us do not qualify as our enemies. For many of us, they are literally our neighbors. We should reach out to them with the love that reflects the Lord of our kingdom who loves the world, without exception. And for those who experience the angry outbreaks of the crazies, they especially need a display of the hospitality of Christ’s kingdom, an act of love for the stranger. What an opportunity!