What Does It Mean to Love Our Neighbor?

The story of Isaac and Ishmael is difficult to read. The account follows two half-brothers born to the same father and different mothers. As the story played out, one was adored and one was banished. One was considered the heir of their common father; one was disinherited. When Abram and Sarai proved unable to conceive, Sarai gave her husband her slave, Hagar, as a wife. To Abram and Sarai, Ishmael was born. Later, in response to a divine encounter, Abram and Sarai changed their names to Abraham and Sarah. God promised that, in their old age, they would have a child. Sarah laughed at the motion, but she and Abraham did indeed have a son--Isaac.

Sarah became fearful that Ishmael would inherit part of what she believed should come to Isaac. She had Hagar and her son Ishmael cast out in favor of her son. Isaac became the ancestor of Judaism and, through Judaism, Christianity; Ishmael the ancestor of Islam.

The strained relationship that existed thousands of years ago is not too far removed from the tensions that survive today in too many places. The modern descendants of Abraham's children often cooperate and nurture and support one another. But all too often, the fear, dislike, and tension that existed between the two wives and two sons of Abraham prevail between their descendants today. The story of seeing family members as the threatening other to be feared and cast out becomes a familiar narrative today.

We continue to experience this today. We are fearful of the other and that fear can become a source of friction between the members of the three Abrahamic faiths. To many people's surprise, the Qur'an accepts both Moses and Jesus as major prophets, and Islam shares with Judaism and Christianity the understanding of a monolithic god. We Christians believe that we worship the same God as the Jews, but when it comes to Muslims, we often become skeptical and reject the idea.

The Christian reaction to this idea can become extreme. For example, a tenured professor at Wheaton College, Dr. Larycia Hawkins is under administrative leave for her statement that we "worship the same God" meaning Christianity and Islam. But this should not even have happened.

Our Christian faith teaches there are diverse ways to express our faith in God through our beliefs and actions. One just needs to read Paul's letters to the churches in Corinth and Galatia. From these letters, it is evident that early Christians practiced and believed in disparate ways. But that is only natural as God creates an amazingly diverse human family and we each observe the world in unique lenses that are shaped by our experiences and contexts.

Just look at your neighbor sitting in the pews on a Sunday morning. It is unlikely that each and every one of these churchgoers will understand God in the exact same way.

That should give us some understanding of the tensions between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. We cannot be guided by the same fear and jealousy that led Sarah to have Abraham cast out Ishmael in favor of her son Isaac. We should grow to learn to love and embrace each other as Isaac's sons, Esau and Jacob, did when they were finally reunited after years of estrangement.

God gave us two important commandments to follow. Love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. As we observe Dr. Hawkins' case and as we seek to live with our Jewish and Muslim neighbors, we hope that we can learn to reconcile this misunderstanding and learn to love one another in spite of our differences. We are not simply neighbors; we are family. Embracing the other is a prerequisite if we are to live peacefully on earth as the daughters and sons of Hagar and Sarah and Abraham.