Beyond a Fear of Difference

A significant part of my work with young adults is encouraging them to pay attention to the world around us. And then as Christians in particular, to notice and reflect on the ways in which our lives as followers of Jesus relate to this world we participate in.

Inevitably, as most committed Christians will encounter, we bump up against topics that create angst or uncertainty.Whether it's approaches to injustice that involve troubling forms of violence, or exorbitant amounts of money spent on seemingly trivial matters, or the presence of vastly differing beliefs around issues of personal morality, much in the world creates tension for the follower of Jesus, let alone a young adult in general. And really, it should (the whole New Testament is about navigating such tension after all).

But how Christians respond to the differences of our world is no simple matter. And this isn't just an issue Christians face. Society in general, for all our talk about tolerance, struggles to exist in the presence of difference. Judgementalism, violence, exclusion, and alienation are just a few of the symptoms of a cultural problem many people, Christians included, cannot seem to shake: a fear of difference. Whether it's Christians ignoring God's call, or humanity ignoring the call for tolerance in general, we end up like Jonah in the Old Testament. We see "them" and we self-righteously run the other way. We accept a posture of fear and ignore the very thing our world needs: presence.

It's often assumed by both Christians and non-Christians that the Bible is one long narrative (or rule book) about not getting too close to "them." And yes, there are warnings - e.g. intermarrying in ancient times or adopting pagan rituals in Roman times - but we risk equating these warnings with a complete disengagement and lack of presence with those who are different. We forget where Jonah's fear got him.

A fear of difference wasn't the way of Jesus. He was known as a friend of sinners for a reason - he was actually their friend. Literally. We hear the word "pagan" or encounter people who are different and feel discomfort or even fear towards "them." Perhaps we even feel justified in our judgment and avoidance, forgetting all the while that the label "pagan" is preceded by the encouragement to "live such good lives among the pagans" (1 Pt. 2:12). Among=presence.

The tension between the way of Jesus and the way of world cannot be easily navigated or reconciled, I'll admit. But fear cannot be our response to difference either. Like Jonah, we are sent into the places of difference to be a presence - friends - with those we differ from. And like Jonah, we cannot refuse this call. This is the way of Jesus. This is the way we are sent beyond a fear of difference:

I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. (John 17:14-18 NIV).

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