Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Loving the Enemy

From Baton Rouge, I get a series of strung-out emails. Radio-evangelists are preaching death to all Muslims. My friend reads Sufi poetry, and driving his step-father's cadillac through the sprawling wide porches, he hears things that make him shiver. Guantanamo Bay is an act of patriotic duty and Christian self-defense.

I'm corresponding with a friend who was raised among Southern Baptists. The small-town minister who gave the oration at his uncle's funeral gave a portrait of the alcoholic uncle being hauled off to hell in flames. Forgiveness, love: not a lot.

Parents and friends are challenging his choice to travel away from Baton Rouge, his choice of a different politics, his exploration of a music career, his reading about political Islam, his exploration of his own spiritual life in a variety of directions. Self-development doesn't have much of a place in this society. Forgiveness and the meeting of enemies seems to have even less.

My friend is torn up. He loves his family, he loves the place he's from; he doesn't want to be around them. He doesn't ever want to go back.

He writes me:

> Can their be a difference between love, in the
> Christian sense, and the desire for proximity?

I think it's a good question. Liberal Christians may well see that Christ loves their conservative neighbors, whatever the cloistered, provincial and repugnant practices of political xenophobia. But do they have to live with them?

Maybe affinity, like proximity, describes a natural set of relations. I am naturally proximate to certain people, and I want to be more proximate to others, about whom I learn, towards whom I move. Love indicates this movement: always looking at, moving towards, and intending the thing that neighbors one.

Paul Tillich, the mid-twentieth-century German theologian who fled Nazi Germany and preached a gospel of love in the States, talked about how the Islamic/Judaic/Christian God is fundamentally one that transcends place. Unlike the Assyrian gods who ruled over a certain city-state, or the Greek gods who presided over a grove, or the forest, or the harvest, or Indian gods with their specific natural locales, the Mosaic God claims to be able to demolish separations of proximity, to make all things proximate.

Engaging in Christian love is offering oneself to participate in a kind of proximity that pertains to God's transcendence of space and time, not our experience of space and time. To me, it means embracing the conviction that one can reach farther, relate across more boundaries, than one can in the normal sphere of relating to one's immediate friends and neighbors. One can, for instance, relate to the murderer, the leper, the psychotic: no matter their condition, society may exclude them, but they fall under the canopy of heaven. Jonah is sent to preach to foreign towns where they speak another language and embrace different values entirely.

The Mosaic God still allows us to acknowledge separation of time and space. Christ tells his apostles to leave the town that refuses to hear their message and shake to dust from their garments. "I shall place your sin from you, as far as East is from the West." Christians acknowledge a God for whom our time and space are inconsequential. Yet one of His characteristics is to draw us close to things that are far, and make far from us things that are close.

And yet we remain embodied, in a body, still relating to the natural system of affinities and proximities. I think about the psalms about pilgrimage: "Thy word is a rod unto my hand and a path unto my feet." If learning and love in general are about finding one's way to the things close by, holy learning and holy love amplify the consequences of this normal process. One still reaches for what is close by, but one grasps it more firmly. One still progresses towards one's neighbor, but one reaches the destination more surely with a walking stick. One heads out into the world, and one covers more ground, aided by a fore-ordained path.


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