Who is My Neighbor?

Who is My Neighbor?

Last week’s special Senate hearing about the sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh overflowed with outbursts of emotion that were astonishing to witness. But beyond the fear and anger expressed in the room itself, it was the response from one quarter in particular in the days that followed that surprised me most of all.

In the days leading up to the proceedings, one lawyer close to the White House argued that “If somebody can be brought down by accusations like (the ones facing Brett Kavanaugh, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried. We can all be accused of something.” Numerous people offered arch observations about why the lawyer might feel that way. But then conservative Christian women began saying the same, raising their voices in a chorus of panic.

From one mother writing at The Federalist to innumerable others posting memes on Facebook and Twitter, conservative Christian women took the Internet by storm, protesting that the supposed assault on Brett Kavanaugh was an assault on their husbands and their sons. Women needed to stand together to do something about it.

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At the same time, conservative complementarianism has also taught women that their role is to support the careers and callings of their husbands (and equip their sons to do the same). So its a logical extension of that belief is that if a man’s livelihood is wrongfully at risk, then it is part of a woman’s role to not just stand by her man, but stand in front of him.

There’s a very real way in which I share these women’s’ concern for the vulnerability of their loved ones. I have children too. But my children are girls. So my fears for my daughters’ vulnerability has been shaped very differently than the fears some mothers of sons are now feeling so acutely.

Before I had children, I was certain I would be a better mother to boys than girls. Even though I grew up in an almost exclusively female world, having only one sister and attending an all-girls school, my interests and abilities always seemed more aligned with boys. But God decided differently, giving me 3 daughters in 5 years, and so I quickly embraced being a mother of daughters as God’s specific calling for me.  And a signifiant part of that calling was and continues to be managing their vulnerability.

When my girls were young, my concerns for their safety centered on their physical vulnerability, in a way not totally dissimilar from mothers of young boys. While little boys interests often put them in physical harms way more than little girls, a girl and a boy who fall out of a tree from the same height will suffer the same fate when they hit the ground. Raising my girls to love to climb trees, and play sports and generally test the limits of their physical strength and gravity meant steeling myself to accept a measure of physical risk.  But my concern for the fragility of their bodies went beyond the fear of a few broken bones.

My family history has been scarred by the multi-generational consequences of child abuse in ways I’m not free to talk about in much detail. But suffice it to say that, as dedicated as I was to keep my daughters safe from physical harm, I was was even more committed to doing all I could to protect them from the greater harm to their bodies and their souls from sexual abuse. In those early years, my concern about their vulnerability to predatory men (or women!) was very much the same as would be for mothers of boys.  But as my daughters grew into the teenage years, that equity dissolved.

The irony of a boy growing into adulthood, relative to a girl, is that boys grow into strength, while girls grow into relative weakness. Generally, although always with exceptions, woman’s physical strength is less than that of a man’s. And specifically, when a woman’s body gives itself over to nourishing another life, she experiences a type of whole-body vulnerability a man never will.  These inequities in physical strength and vulnerability have been hallmarks of conservative arguments about the distinctions of gender for generations. They’ve been at the center of conservative complementarian arguments that men are called to protect women in a distinctive way that women are not.

But while this idea that all men are in possession of a distinctive strength that makes them less vulnerable to harm has been universally argued, it is far from universally experienced. There are elements to strength and vulnerability that go beyond mere muscle mass. All men may be created equal, but not all men are treated that way.

This report published last year by the Law Department of the University of Michigan examining data gathered by the National Registry of Exonerations describes the inordinate proportion of African American people who have been wrongfully convicted, then exonerated, of crimes.  Specific to the crime of sexual assault, the report states that while “assaults on white women by African-American men are a small minority of all sexual assaults in the United States, …they constitute half of the sexual assaults with eyewitness misidentifications that led to exoneration.” Wrongfully convicted African American men also receive harsher sentences and spend longer periods of time in jail waiting to be exonerated and freed.

This data, along with the numerous tragic anecdotal situations of black men like Philando Castile, Eric Garner, and Botham Shem Jean, and boys like Tamir Rice and Roy Oliver depicts the tragic reality that, to borrow a famous phrase, all men are equal, but some are more equal than others. And it’s what makes the deployment of stories about fictional black man Tom Robinson of To Kill a Mockingbird, or the very real black boy Emmett Till to bolster white women’s arguments that their husbands and sons are uniquely vulnerable to false accusations by women so disingenuous. What white women fear now, what they are demanding the nation hear and take notice of, is precisely what black women have feared for their husbands and sons for generations. Their fears have all too often been realized, time upon tragically unjust time. And their cries for justice have often gone unheard.

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There’s a sense in which the innate instinct all women have to protect the vulnerable closest to us, to the point of giving up our own lives, is a very good thing. It’s literally how God created us. But when we use our God-given instincts as justification for making the locus of our care only those who are closest to us physically, we neglect the greater spiritual reality of what that created instinct actually expresses – about the character of God, and how he expects us to express that character as his image bearers.

This is why the story of the Good Samaritan matters so much.

Jesus himself was interrogated on more than one occasion by Jewish legal experts on his understanding of the Old Testament law. On one such occasion, when a young lawyer asked about how to inherit eternal life, Jesus replied with the two commandments which are the sum of all the law and the prophets – to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. The lawyer responded by asking him to elaborate on the definition of “neighbor”. This wasn’t because he was in a hurry to rush out and take Jesus’ words to heart. Like all lawyers looking for loopholes, he cared about who was outside that definitional line much more than who was inside it.

And Jesus exposed him for it.

Jesus took up the question and said:“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him up, and fled, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down that road. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way, a Levite, when he arrived at the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan on his journey came up to him, and when he saw the man, he had compassion. He went over to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on olive oil and wine. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him. When I come back I’ll reimburse you for whatever extra you spend.’ — Luke 10:30-35 (CSB)

The elegance of the setup of the story is that the responses of both the priest and the Levite to the sight of an anonymous injured man on a road were entirely reasonable when viewed through the interpretive lens of the Old Testament law. The common assumption of the Old Testament definition of neighbor was that it referred to fellow Jews. Jesus declined to note the man’s religious identity, leaving an entirely reasonable loophole for two faithful Jews employ to justify their choice to look and walk away. More importantly, Jews from the tribe of Levi were set apart for service in the temple and needed to take particular care to protect themselves from ceremonial uncleanliness. Priests, in particular, were specifically warned to stay ceremonially clean by giving dead men a wide berth, which is what the man lying in the road almost certainly looked like. One can only imagine how little legal mental maneuvering it took both men to justify their walking on by.

But the Samaritan, himself an outcast in the eyes of the Jews, saw the man differently. He refused to use a mutual affinity like shared ethnicity as a minimum requirement for justifying his compassion. The priest and the Levite looked at the bloodied and beaten stranger of unknown origin and saw uncleanness. They responded with self-preserving obedience to the letter of the Levitical law.  The Samaritan saw a human being in need and responded with self-sacrificing love.

Arguments that appeal to our love for those who are “ours”- our sons, our daughters, our husbands -are arguments that appeal to the self-justifying statements of the lawyer that Jesus rebuked. They are appeals to the to the self-protecting love of the priests and Levites, not the neighborly love of the Samaritan.

Neighbor love centers our compassion not only on the people who are “ours”, but on all those who are God’s. Neighbor love is not only about people who are God’s through faith in Christ, but about all those who are His because they are made in His image. Neighbor love is love that is directed at those who are not like me – who share neither my identity nor the experiences that identity generates – and seeks their welfare in exactly the same ways I do for those who are.

For white Christian women like me, neighbor love means a concern for protecting all men from the injustice of false accusations, not just men who look like my white husband.  It means teaching my girls to seek the safety and welfare not only of their own bodies, but the bodies of those who are the least like theirs – to treat boys as brothers with both their actions and their words, and to call others to do the same.   And for those who are not like me, neighbor love looks exactly the same – seeking the safety and welfare not only of themselves, but for women like me and my girls, even, as the Samaritan did, at personal cost.

In Jesus’ death on the cross, he proved that his admonition to the lawyer wasn’t just a clever riposte deployed to win a legal argument. He himself was our neighbor as he showed us mercy, taking our sin on himself and being broken for us on the cross. The one who was so unlike us in his holy perfection, nevertheless identified with us in our sin and our suffering at the cost of his own life, to restore us and make us whole.

Jesus was and is a neighbor to us. All those who identify with him must go and do the same.

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Book Review – “Why Can’t We Be Friends”

When I say I’m  “friends” with Aimee Byrd, I should qualify that statement a few different ways. Aimee and I  “met” like so many people do these days, online, some years ago now, connecting over our shared thinking out loud in the blogosphere about the place of women in our collective corner of Reformed Evangelicalism. We have some personal things in common also, which have prompted a few phone conversations as well. But we’ve never met in person, or IRL as the kids say. Not yet, anyway.

But the biggest reason I’d have to qualify the term is because of the most important and essential thing we have in common. We’re both committed Christians. So even though we’ve never met in person, if Aimee ever happened to be in my town and needed anything, she could count on it from me – a meal, a place to stay, a car or an outfit to borrow, even an organ (if I could reasonably spare it and we had compatible blood types). That’s what family does for one another. And in Christ, Aimee is not “just” my friend – she’s my sister.

Not too many Christians would raise an eyebrow too high at my framing our relationship this way because I’m a woman. But if the advance online discussion about her latest book is anything to go by, things might be different if the person writing about their relationship with Aimee his way was a man. That’s the dichotomy Aimee examines in her latest book. 

(Reviewer note – I’m taking the liberty of breaking book review convention and referring to the author by her first name instead of her last name, because see previous paragraphs about our being friends and family. Anything else just feels strange 🙂 )

In her last book, “No Little Women”, Aimee made an appeal for churches to invest more intentionally in the theological equipping of women.   In her latest, “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” she tackles a point of contention her previous book raised – a question that resurfaces with every new #ChurchToo story that emerges. What about the moral hazards created by men and women not married to each other spending too much time in each other’s company?  Aimee views this concern as symptomatic of a fundamental misunderstanding of the way God created His people to relate to one another. “Why Can’t We Be Friends” sets out to correct it.

In the first half of the book, Aimee proposes answers to the question posed by the book’s title- reasons she believes Christians are so reticent to believe that true friendship is possible or right between men and women beyond the bonds of marriage. She begins by considering the different voices we are conditioned to listen to – our family’s, worldly culture and the church – arguing that the church’s perspective is inordinately influenced by the world. She then moves on to consider different aspects of our identity as believers – the totality of our humanness, the mission we’re called to, and the role purity plays in our lives as Christians. In the last two chapters, she argues that our confusion comes from a critical misunderstanding of the true nature of friendship, and of our status as brothers and sisters in Christ.

With reasons for the problem defined, in the second half of the book, Aimee sets out to propose the solutions to them, centered around the idea of living as “sacred siblings”. She first considers the passages of Scripture which point to Jesus’ identity as “firstborn among the brethren” – that he is our spiritual elder brother. She then moves on to describe the implications for us as men and women, or brothers and sisters, as a consequence of our identification with Him in that role. In the final chapters of the book, Aimee considers some of the practices that can promote and nourish these kinds of relationships – cultivating the right church environment, promoting holiness, enjoying table fellowship, and celebrating and suffering together. At the very end of the book is an appendix that surveys sibling relationships in Scripture.

“Why Can’t We Be Friends” is replete with ideas and insights into the truly countercultural nature of our collective identity as a spiritual family in Christ that will challenge your thinking, and even stir your soul. Just some of the ones that resonated with most deeply with me included:

  • The numerous ways we have hidden the dramatically countercultural framing of mens and womens roles in the Bible under a stifling blanket of stereotypes, even as the New Testament repeatedly challenges them (pgs. 41-45)
  • The irony of early church Christians being judged for the perceived excess in their love for one another, while today we are judged for our inordinate reticence (pgs.111-112)
  • The idea of personal purity as an ongoing holistic pursuit of holiness energized by communion with God, not a set of behavioral boundaries we draw around ourselves to promote sexual continence (pgs. 63 and following)
  • The disproportionate weighting of times familial language is employed in the New Testament (amplified by the recently updated Christian Standard Bible, the Bible I’ve adopted as my regular reading Bible and which is referenced throughout the book)
  • The implications of Jesus as our elder brother for our identity as brothers and sisters with Him, and in Him with eachother (pgs. 131 and following)

These two points are the pivotal ones that inform so much of the later chapter regarding how men and women can and should interact in different contexts. They’re the ones that have stuck with me the most, and are the ones that I’ve been referencing in almost every conversation I’ve had about the topic, and about this book since I first read it.

Perhaps there’s no greater proof of their significance and how Aimee unpacks them than in the way they also serve to call out a few of the book’s weaknesses. The greatest is the cover – both the title and the comic-book style graphic that accompanies it. Aimee writes in a serious and thoughtful but still accessible and personable way about the practical implications of our status as brothers and sisters in Christ – a topic that the church seems to be floundering in as much as the world is. We shouldn’t be throwing out the “friends” term altogether, because the Bible doesn’t. But it’s clear from Scripture, and Aimee’s thoughtful handling of the topic, that the leading definer for the relationship between men and the church shouldn’t be “friends”, but “family”.  It’s a term replete with sacred significance. A much more accurate pop song title that would more accurately summarize the book would be the Pointer Sisters’ “We Are Family”. The subtitle borrows from one narrow, albeit controversial aspect of the conversation. Meanwhile,  the graphic resembles a 1970s era cartoon of a guy and girl stealing nervous glances at each other as they sit at a bar – exactly the kind of tortured, risky scenario naysayers on this topic appeal to to disagree.  If this was all simply a cunning strategy to prompt pre-release buzz, it’s certainly worked. But in my opinion, the net effect both trivializes and misrepresents the content, and it’s disappointing.

Followers of a parallel and very related controversy over the Revoice conference for Christians will likely observe another weakness of the book – the lack of surgical carefulness with which certain critical terms are defined and used. Even though there is an entire chapter devoted to defining friendship, it left me with questions that dogged me whenever the word was referenced in the rest of the book. How does the nature of friendship change between those who are in the faith vs. outside it, married vs unmarried? What is the role of attraction in becoming friends and what are the differences between right attraction and wrong? When is attraction sinful and when is it not?  As another reviewer has noted, one key anecdote Aimee describes involving a friend’s lament over a moment of “attraction” to another man that Aimee dismisses will likely be a target of disagreement, simply because she doesn’t really call out the difference between attraction to someone’s good character, and lust or sinful desire. To borrow an overused but still useful word, there are “trigger words” in these conversations, and some more intentional defining and usage of terms would have added clarity, instead of creating confusion or potential controversy.

These two flaws, together with various places where the line of argument was a little circuitous, and some of the topic transitions a little abrupt, all point to what seems to be the general problem of less editorial stewardship than a topic this weighty and challenging clearly deserved. Had the book been more tightly focused, readers would have been better guided through Aimee’s arguments, and better helped to either be persuaded or not.

The net impression I was left with was akin to several experiences I’ve had hiking with my family. I’m far from a natural outdoorswoman, so smooth paths, clear signs and easily spotted landmarks are necessary blessings that keep me upright and moving in the right direction. One memorable trek to a vista we’d heard wonderful things about involved some ambiguous signage, hard to spot landmarks, and a couple of falls that tempted me to give up more than once. But the glorious scenery we encountered when we arrived, not to mention the time spent sitting and talking, made the trek worth it, to the point that we’re planning a return visit. And when we do, we’ll get there much faster and be able to stay and enjoy it longer.

Reading “Why Can’t We Be Friends” felt much the same – it was an occasionally tricky journey that nevertheless yielded great rewards.

The Mike Pence rule being deployed every time a tragic announcement about a Christian leader’s moral failure occurs is proof of why the topic of being spiritual family matters so much. So is the escalating arguments regarding spiritual friendship as it relates to same-sex friendship and attraction. “Why Can’t We Be Friends” is a less than perfect book about an incredibly important topic, with innumerable insights that will change the way you think about all of the Christian men and women in your life, not just the ones in your nuclear family. It will hopefully change the way you see them, and serve them, for the better. That makes it a book that’s eminently worth your time to read and consider.