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.
Diversity of the Right Kind
The Samaritan grudge is such that tolerance and diversity may become weapons wielded against Christians. For example, university officials at Harvard, Rutgers, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Wisconsin at Superior all withdrew official recognition of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship groups in recent years. University officials claimed that by insisting student leaders be Christians, InterVarsity wielded religious prejudice. (In each case, the university finally relented, but only in the face of strenuous protests and, in two cases, lawsuits.)
Similar thinking appears in many less newsworthy conflicts. Christians are said to be intolerant (of gays, of women, of atheists, of evolutionists, of other religions, of abortionists). Christians believe that there is only one way to God; they believe in absolute truth and an infallible Bible. The logical implication is that anybody who doesn't agree is wrong.
Some secularists cannot tolerate such intolerance. They favor diversity, but only the right kind of diversity.
When Christians talk about their faith to others or say they believe in strict moral standards, their "intolerance" disturbs and offends people. Tolerance has come to mean more than living at peace with those who are different. It now means affirming those differences as equally valuableand abiding by the radical moral relativism that pervades our society. And if we don't pretend to accept that, we experience the depth of the grudge against us.
Since tolerance is so significant in our Samaria, it would help to understand where the idea came from. One flavor of tolerance in New Testament times was Roman. Like most empires, Rome tolerated religious, ethnic, and cultural differences up to a pointthe point at which differences got in the way of Roman rule. Romans insisted that residents of the empire tolerate their neighbors, because the rulers wouldn't tolerate fighting. The Roman Empire was peaceful for the same reason Sunni and Shia Muslims were peaceful under Saddam Hussein.
The earliest Christians were also tolerant, but they embraced tolerance for different reasons: Tolerance was a form of neighbor love. Some persecuted minorities responded by fighting back, attacking their neighbors. The early Christians didn't.
This changed when Rome adopted Christianity as the state religion. Christians in power soon learned to see paganism or heresy as threats to the God-ordained order. They adopted the empire's love of control and became intolerant, persecuting those with whom they disagreed.
Enforced orthodoxy lasted until the Reformation broke apart the somewhat unified Christian order. Then Christendom began war with itself. European wars of religion were not, of course, purely religious, but religious intolerance fed fuel to the fire. Catholics tried to suppress Protestants in the name of God, and vice versa. Lutherans tried to suppress Anabaptists. And since no one party gained dominance, it seemed as though there would be no end to war. To say the least, this gave religious intolerance a bad name. It did not preserve a God-ordained order; instead, it fed chaos and violence.
The Enlightenment saved us from that. In the United States particularly, the state was severed from the church. Henceforth, the state could not go to war for religion, because it had no religion. Nor could it persecute a religious minority, no matter how heretical or repulsive. The state was de-religionized, and the church was disempowered. The goal was peace.
What would replace God's Word or God's church as the arbiter in public affairs? Science and reason were crowned as kings of public discourse.
By and large, American Christians have made peace with the Enlightenment. We understand and accept its version of tolerance: Each person has a right to practice his or her own religion, or none. You can't force others to adopt yours, or get the government to promote it.
Thorny issues still arise, such as graduation prayers and Christmas displays on public property. But for the most part, people of different beliefs live together in peace. Religion seems to thrive with Enlightenment-style tolerance.
Recently, though, postmodernism offers a second version of tolerance and diversity. It is this version that feeds the Samaritan grudge.
Postmodernism starts with a suspicious critique of modern thought. It charges that what the Enlightenment calls reason and science is often a disguise for power. For example, imperial Europe went to Africa claiming to offer civilization and morality, but actually sought to exploit its people and resources. Closer to home, men were championed as the reasonable creatures, able to lead and protect more emotional women. Skeptical minds found that men merely sought to dominate. Southern politicians spoke reverently of law and order. Skeptical minds learned that they wanted to carry on segregation and oppression. With its suspicion of "privileged narratives" and unfair distribution of power, postmodernism "deconstructs" these claims of reason and order.
Positively speaking, postmodernism stands for the rise of different narratives, diverse cultures, and varied voices. Sometimes, particularly in the university setting, it has given Christians a voicethat of religious passion and experience, if not reasoned theology. For example, you can now get a respectful hearing for Pentecostalism, which was unthinkable under the Enlightenment's rule.
But postmodernism also creates a mood in which any assertion of truth is suspectespecially assertions from privileged narratives. So the claim "homosexuality is wrong" is not heard as a time-honored moral tradition, or as a rational philosophy of human sexuality, or even as a purely personal reaction. It is seen as an attempt to oppress homosexuals.
Postmodern arguments can be illogical and self-contradicting, but they don't claim to be logical. They are suspicious of reason. They are not really "for" anything, except the diversity that may come from a society that defies the power of the privileged.
Let's face it: Christians in America are seen as the privileged holders of power. We may rarely feel like that; we feel disempowered in the media and the universities. But from others' points of view, we are incredibly numerous. We have churches everywhere. We have our own schools, bookstores, publishing houses, and TV networks. We elected the last President, they say. And we have been running America for over 200 years.
So postmoderns are suspicious we want more control. And what better way to get control than to claim a corner on God?
Living in Samaria
Welcome to life in Samaria, where you get treated with suspicion by people who don't know you but know all about what you stand for. Where people don't really want your places of worship in town. Where they assume you want to take control. Where their idea of a tolerant society is one where you and your claims are kept on a very short leash. A tolerant society with a powerful Christian memory, yet one that has a grudge against Christians.
We tend to respond by keeping quiet, by assimilating, or by throwing down the gauntlet. All three options tend to shut down discussion and to limit our opportunity to be salt and light.
Timothy Keller urges us to find another way. After September 11, 2001, Keller's Manhattan congregation, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, welcomed hundreds of non-Christian seekers. In a Leadership article, Keller said, "Maintaining my ministry to people of a pluralistic culture requires me to preach in a way that neither forsakes the truth of Christianity nor needlessly alienates those raised to assume a plurality of religions. I don't directly make the naked claim 'Christianity is a superior religion,' and I certainly don't malign other faiths. Instead, I stress Christianity's distinctiveness."
Keller recognizes that certain language pushes the power-and-superiority button at the heart of the Samaritan grudge. We may know the way, the truth, and the life, but what is gained by announcing it so brashly? All conversation stops; the grudge is reinforced. (What if Jesus had taken up the Samaritan woman's argument, telling her point-blank that Gerizim was no worthy place to worship?)
Keller points out that we can speak of Jesus' uniqueness in other ways, emphasizing his humility and suffering, his shedding of power. We can come with a stance of humility and service ourselves, avoiding conflict whenever possible, turning the other cheek as Jesus did and commanded us to. For example, when Jesus' disciples wanted to fight the Samaritan village that insulted them, Jesus rebuked them. He did not want to fight Samaritans, even with cause.
That makes me wonder whether Christians would do well to avoid televised debates, during which the language so often turns hostile. Maybe we should go to the next village, as Jesus did, or look for a chance for one-on-one conversation.
Not that personal conversations are necessarily easy. The woman at the well questioned Jesus' right as a Jew to address her, hinting that Samaritans are Jacob's true heirs and bringing up the age-old disputes about Jerusalem and Gerizim. Whether her tone was combative or merely teasing we do not know, but certainly she knew exactly how to provoke a dispute.
Jesus sidestepped the classic arguments, using creative language"living water"to provoke curiosity. He pointed ahead to a time when Samaritan and Jewish differences would be drowned in a newer, deeper reality. While we are living in Samaria, we need such skill in talking, neither disguising the radical views we hold, nor falling into the trap of stale disputes.
More than requiring skillful communication, living in Samaria requires patience and love for the long haul. No one can change a grudge by direct assault. You have to outlive it, and look for fresh opportunities to begin anew. You have to love the people on the other side of the grudge.
Jesus clearly did. He honored Samaria for all time when he chose a Samaritan for his parable of neighborliness. (Who do we choose for our illustrations of virtue?) He sent his disciples to Samaria to announce his resurrection (Acts 1:8). Philip the evangelist obeyed and had a great response. "There was great joy in that city" (Acts 8:8).
Which suggests that grudges can be undone.
Tim Stafford is a CT senior writer.
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