Editor's note: This commentary by Brigham Young University-Hawaii President John S. Tanner is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought.
Only a short while ago, I awoke to the horrific news that 49 people had been killed in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, with more in hospital. Since then, another has died. The victims were gunned down in cold blood as they gathered to pray, by a shooter filled with rage and hatred for Muslims and immigrants. I felt sickened by the news. I wept that morning as I prayed for the victims and for a world where, as prophesied, the love of many was waxing cold.
Now, New Zealanders have gathered to bury the dead. My heart welled with emotion again, but this time with tenderness as I saw images of a country coming together in love and solidarity to “mourn with those that mourn.” New Zealanders of every persuasion observed a Muslim call to prayer. This was followed by two minutes of silence. Many non-Muslim women, including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, donned the hijab in solidarity with those who had been targeted for their religion, ethnicity and immigrant roots. Ardern quoted the prophet Muhammed and then concluded by reaffirming, as she has all week, “We are one.”
Indeed, we are. This is a message that Jesus taught and that we strive to put into practice. Jesus, too, lived in a time and place riven by ethnic and religious hatred and strife. Jews hated Samaritans, Samaritans hated Jews, and both despised their Roman colonizers as well as any who collaborated with them, like the publicans. In this environment, Jesus called on his disciples to love their neighbors as themselves.
A cynical lawyer, “willing to justify himself,” asked the master, “And who is my neighbor?” His question was about limits, boundaries and labels. He wanted to know who can legitimately be excluded from his circle of love. Who stands outside, beyond the pale of those to whom we are obligated to show kindness, equity and mercy?
Jesus answers with the parable of the good Samaritan, which recasts the question altogether. The lawyer wants to know where to draw the line; who is neighbor and who is not. To this, Jesus poses a different, better question: “Which of these was neighbor?” — meaning who acted as neighbor. Jesus invites us to examine the lines we draw not only in our neighborhoods but in our hearts. This is the proper way to think about neighborly love. Not who is worthy of it, but how well we practice it. The lawyer wants to know how to label others: as neighbor or stranger. Instead, Jesus reminds him to reflect on how he loves others.
In order to love our neighbors “as ourselves,” we must understand them as we do ourselves. This is one reason for learning about the history, literature, culture and religion of our neighbors. Some years ago, I was responsible for preparing a group of BYU students in London to visit Israel. I asked them to learn about Judaism and about Islam. To learn about the latter, I had them read a surah from the Quran each day for a week. I asked them to visit one of the local mosques on their own. I had them memorize the “Five Pillars of Islam” and learn about its history, especially its origin and subsequent division into Sunni and Shia.4 comments on this story
There is a French expression “tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner,“ meaning “to understand all is to forgive all.” I don’t go quite this far, as the saying seems to erase the very notion of evil. To understand a mass murderer is not necessarily to forgive him. But certainly, understanding is prelude to compassion.
Today we have been reminded by events in New Zealand that we are one. This is a good day to celebrate our diversity and our unity — a good day to resolve anew to love our neighbors as ourselves.