Jesus’ disciples had barely recovered from the shock of his crucifixion when a stranger joined their walk to Emmaus. “Why the long faces?” he asked. They told the stranger about their horrendous weekend. He responded that perhaps things had worked out as planned. Intrigued, the disciples compelled the stranger to join them for dinner. As he was saying grace, the disciples’ eyes opened to the fact that he was Jesus — and he vanished from sight.
The word Christ literally means “the Chosen One”, and if the mission of God’s Chosen One was (as the stranger pointed out) to embody self-sacrificial love for others, then the distinction between the “chosen” and “the stranger” is a function of human blindness.
When the shooter walked into the Christchurch mosque, his first victim’s last words to him were, “Hello, brother.” After Judas betrayed him with a kiss, Jesus still referred to him as “my friend”. Christ said he would go incognito as “the stranger”, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.
That Christ was a refugee and his answer regarding the “correct” place to worship (“neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem”, spoken in the face of bitter Judeo-Samaritan hostilities) should make us wonder whether we wouldn’t find him worshipping in a mosque, as it happens to be, in Christchurch.
See, he spoke Aramaic. Many Muslims speak a related language, Arabic. Most Christians and I speak neither. Jesus’ diet, dress, the liturgy and worship he was exposed to and practised all looked more Muslim than Christian.
His Old Testament foil, Jonah, was sent by God to preach to Nineveh — the city we now associate with Iraq, which Jonah’s people considered “sin city” and the capital of an oppressive empire. In response, the messenger fled in the opposite direction. Along the way, he met people of different faiths (“those God-forsaken pagans”) who, despite being endangered by Jonah’s flight from his mission, nevertheless tried to help him.
After a near-death experience, Jonah did preach to “those violent people” as instructed — and, again, contrary to stereotypes, they accepted his message.
This story of the most successful Old Testament preacher subverts pious notions of “successful evangelism to the lost”; it rounds off with this divine plot twist: God asks Jonah why he’s unhappy with his success. The Hebrew prophet doesn’t mince his words. “I knew you’d turn all compassionate (instead of vindicating us against them),” he says while sulking outside the city and exposed to the elements, which God shelters him from using a fast-growing shrub.
But, God sends a worm to make quick work of that vine, and a few scorching windstorms to add insult to injury. Jonah is incensed; it’s as though he’s who the Nineveh God’s message was intended for, and “those incorrigible sinners” are the kind of people he’d have thought himself to be. He goes from seething to shrieking. “Just let me die!”
God asks him, “Have you any right to be angry about the withered plant?” He replies that he has. God then asks, “How’s your concern for a shrub you didn’t plant or water more valid than my concern for 120,000 Ninevites and their animals?” I paraphrase.
That story ends there, but the question it raises is never answered: it keeps returning as the “plot twist” or moral deadlock in, among other places, Jesus’ parables (Google “Are you envious because I am generous?” or the conclusion of the Prodigal Son parable) and Apostle Paul’s use of Prophet Isaiah’s radically inclusive writings. It’s the grace note of inclusivity against the backdrop of humanity’s petty conflicts passed down from Adam and Eve, to Cain and Abel, to Jacob and Esau, to Isaac and Ishmael — brothers from whom we inherited tensions between Judeo-Christianity and Islam.
A Venn diagram of Jesus’ parting instructions (“make disciples”; “they will know you are my disciples because you love one another”; “love one another the way I have loved you”) centres not at a gleeful wait for God to punish “the other” the way Jonah waited for Nineveh’s Grand Fall outside the city, but at the instruction to love people. This love is no bait to lure converts; it has no agenda (1 Corinthians 13:5). Like Jonah, Christians literally “travel over land and sea to win a single convert” but the attitude needs to be converted within themselves: self-righteousness.
How’s that compatible with believing that someone else’s death is the basis of one’s righteousness? The cross is the ultimate “plot twist”, turning the idea of a “correct” religion on its head. Its subversive solidarity with those deemed in the wrong makes it the antithesis of us-versus-them.
Self-righteousness gives one a sense of some right to lord one’s rightness over others as white supremacy and colonialism did — in the name of the Chosen who “suffered under Pontius Pilate”, agent of an occupying power.
So, Christians, shouldn’t be believing that a crucified criminal is God make it really, really easy to see immeasurable value in anyone? DM