This Samaritan Life
Denis Haack, who critiques films, books, and music on his Ransom Fellowship website, says that Christians often act like they live in Jerusalem. Not so, argues Haackwe live in Babylon, as aliens and strangers. Why, therefore, are we surprised when we see a movie that offends our values? Babylonian movies reflect Babylonian values, not Christian ones.
I liked Haack's point, but I had a nagging sense that he was missing something. Eventually I figured out what: We don't live in Babylon. We live in Samaria.
Babylon is far from Jerusalem and doesn't know much about its religion. What you believe or how you worship is of little significance to Babylon, so long as you keep the peace and contribute to civic life. Daniel and other Jewish exiles did. They got in trouble only when they were perceived to undermine the government or got caught up in petty politics.
It's different in Samaria. People there know plenty about Jerusalem's religion (though some of their information is distorted), and have a definite grudge against it.
"Jews do not associate with Samaritans," John says (4:9) in commenting on Jesus' conversation with the woman at the well. The two groups had a long and grievous history, like estranged family members. They had a partly shared worldview (both revered the Pentateuch, though in different versions), a shared point of origin ("our father Jacob," as the woman put it to Jesus), and well-defined points of contention (where should you worship, at Mount Gerizim or Jerusalem?). They knew each other; therefore, they did not associate with each other.
Gospel-writer Luke tells us of the Samaritan village that refused hospitality to Jesus and his followers. Why? Because they were Passover pilgrims headed for Jerusalem. Samaritans didn't like Jews doing their Jewish thing. James and John took the inhospitality for a religious affront; in fact, they were ready to firebomb the village (Luke 9:5156). These groups had a familiarity that bred suspicion and mutual grudges.
So I sometimes find life in America. The problem is not that my religion is strange. The problem is that my religion is familiar. Like Samaritans and Jews, Christians and non-Christians have a partly shared worldview (our Western traditions, which include the Bible), a shared point of origin (Christendom), and well-defined points of contention (the exclusivity of Christ). We are familiar with what each other believes. We're suspicious of one another. So we start off with a grudge.
Samaria in My Neighborhood
In the ordinary politeness of American society, hostility doesn't usually surface. Occasionally, though, an event will invigorate public feeling in a way that startles me.
This is what happened when a new church in my city applied for a zoning amendment. I expected plans for a small neighborhood church to be met with attitudes somewhere between warmth and indifference. What erupted instead was organized hostility. Residents drew up and circulated petitions. Large crowds turned out at both planning commission and city council meetings. The brief speeches permitted for those opposing the church went on for hours because so many had something to say. Many complained about traffic (on Sunday morning?), safety, and noise. But the underlying sentiment seemed clear: We don't like churches, and we don't want one in our neighborhood. As one man told the planning commission, "I didn't move into this neighborhood in order to have a church within walking distance."
That's life in Samaria. People who don't even know you start out with a grudge against you.