Two years ago Rodney and I were in Rome, Italy where we took a quiet tour of the catacombs, an underground burial place that primarily housed the bodies of early Christians, some 500,000 bodies to be exact. The tour guide took us five stories below ground where the air was noticeably cooler, flash photography forbidden, and the sheer number of hollowed spaces where bodies had been laid to rest, overwhelming.
“You may notice how many smaller tombs there are.” The tour guide suggested to the hushed group. “These were the tombs of children, and babies. It’s a disproportionate number,” he went on, “because Christians regularly gathered the children and babies abandoned by the side of the road by Roman families and either raised these children as their own, or if they had already died, took their bodies to bury properly.”
This was the story I thought of when I read of one of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners, the doctor, Dennis Mukwege, from the republic of Congo, who had taken it upon himself to care for women raped and victimized, working to restore the dignity stolen from them in the most dehumanizing of ways. I thought of this “Dr. Miracle” as he was nicknamed, because there is something very 1st century Christian like in his work. In his holistic understanding of the Gospel, not sharing merely in words and Bible verses, in testimony or tract, but in the back breaking, emotionally exhausting, life disrupting work of loving people in their most vulnerable positions.
It’s an idea I suspect he got, like the 1st century Christians, from Jesus himself.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus tells the story of a man travelling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho being robbed and beaten and attacked. He’s left for dead, Jesus says, and then a priest approaches who, upon seeing the man, passes by on the other side, followed by a Levite who does the same thing.
And then the star of the parable appears. The Samaritan. The least likely candidate in the minds of the listeners, to be the one who does good to this man lying there—vulnerable, exposed. The Samaritan takes pity on him, Jesus says. He feels something. Compassion. Empathy. So he bandages the man’s wounds, he pours oil and wine on him and then puts him on his donkey and takes him to an inn where he pays the innkeeper. This is the one, Jesus tells those listening, who treats the man as a neighbor, who obeys what just a few verses earlier Jesus had called the second greatest commandment of loving your neighbor, even equating this law of loving others to the first, of loving God.
The whole law, Jesus says, hangs on these. Where the measure of how well we love God is found in how well we love others.
Which seems clear enough. Except a couple of months ago there was The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, and a couple of weeks after that, an article where an American pastor was quoted for saying he wasn’t paying as much attention to social justice issues because he felt when he did that, it was elevating the issues over Christ. I cringed when I read it. I doubt the Roman children buried by 1st century Christians saw their cause as strictly “social justice”. I doubt the rape victims in the Republic of Congo see it that way. And in fact, I doubt Jesus would see it that way either.
Surely not if he stands by the story he told of the beaten traveller and the Samaritan who stopped to care for him. “Get your hands dirty”, Jesus seems to encourage. “Bind the wounds, pay for his care, pour the oil and the wine. You don’t have to say my name to tell people all about me.”
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For any person of faith, Christian or otherwise, the first and most elemental question is: what do you believe? But beliefs in Jesus and who he was and what he did was never intended to be the sum of who we are. Which is why just as important, if not more so, is the question that must follow.
What does your belief compel you to do? How does your belief compel you to behave?
First century Christians believed in a resurrected Savior, but they didn’t stop there. They were compelled to act in the most extraordinary of ways because of it. They didn’t put stock in the eye-witness accounts of a Jesus who cooked breakfast on the beach for his friends because it made for a nice story. They heard these stories and believed so deeply in the message it had for the world at large, that they behaved in ways no rational person could understand. They took in children left on the side of the road, as their own. They buried babies who weren’t old enough to understand or receive this “good news”, because they knew the good news was in the actions being done, even if literal words were not said aloud. And now, 2,000 years later, we see it in a man from the republic of Congo, who shares the Gospel with his heart and his work, with his long days and longer nights, to women in tears and angry. Numb and broken. He loves his neighbor. Because they are image bearers of the God he serves. And that’s as good a reason as any.
We are nothing if we are not a faith that behaves out of love first and foremost. We are nothing if not a faith that acts. We started as believers in a resurrected Savior. But it wasn’t a fanciful story that made it catch on. It was what the story coupled with what it caused them to do in response. To live sacrificially, at no small cost to those who believed it, and to the growing benefit and good of those whose behalf they acted on, their neighbor.
I suppose that while a whole lot of us were arguing here in the Sates about the various statements different factions in the Christian faith are making, and the theological soundness of such statements Dennis Mukwege was doing what I think Jesus probably intended for anyone who claimed his name to do. He was caring for the women who needed care. He was binding their wounds—physical, spiritual and emotional. He was crossing to their side of the road, he was looking in their eyes instead of avoiding them.
In a time when it is getting harder to harder to know our neighbor, like our neighbor, let alone love our neighbor, a doctor in the Congo is doing the hard work the rest of us splitting theological hairs, are missing. He may not have been preaching the gospel in the most literal sense. But he was living it. A much harder and more demanding task. And more than the women he serves are better for it. The Church is better for it. The world is better for it.
And thank God for that.