Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays.
We gather as families, remember the pilgrims, recall the faith of our ancestors, count our blessings, give thanks for our freedom.
Many will have engaged in charitable acts for their less fortunate neighbors, especially for the homeless. Others will have delivered small gifts to next-door neighbors or friends across town.
Then, we turn to the banquet: the turkey, dressing with giblet gravy, squash casserole, mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes, biscuits, cranberry dressing, pecan and pumpkin pie.
Following the feast is an afternoon nap with a professional football game as background noise. Then, maybe a neighborhood walk or talk with neighbors.
Theologically, it is the one day where we ignore the sins of gluttony and sloth. Socially, it is America as sentimental community, a patchwork of neighborhoods. Economically, it’s a pause from the grind of daily life and before manic Black Friday. Spiritually, we gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing from sea to shining sea.
Thanksgiving in and of itself strengthens community, encourages neighborliness.
Let’s build on the good of Thanksgiving Day for the continuous good for our neighbors.
This will require a shift from a day of celebration to a way of transformation, from observance to pilgrimage, from sentimentality to the substance of faith.
From a biblical perspective, love for neighbor is anything but an observance. It isn’t sentimentality. It’s knotty, sometimes distasteful, transformative work.
Responding to the question about what was the greatest commandment in the law, Jesus answered love for God. Then, he added, “A second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Matthew 22:36-40).
Jesus defined the neighbor. An enemy was a neighbor, hardly an act of sentimentality (Matthew 5:43-48). A hated Roman soldier was neighbor (Matthew 5:41-42). A despised Samaritan was neighbor (Luke 10:29-37).
Most Christians can readily recite the moral imperative to love neighbor. It’s putting into practice the imperative where we squabble and stumble, and slip into sentimentality.
What does it mean concretely to love a Muslim, a Syrian refugee, an undocumented immigrant? What does it mean to love a demigod? Or what does it mean to love someone in the other political party who speaks hatefully and makes undeniably bogus promises? What does it mean to love a fellow believer who compromises faith for cultural acceptability, or adheres to a literal rigid doctrine that sounds judgmental?
Love for neighbor is neither obvious, nor simple. It involves courage and compromise, delay and disagreement, idealism and realism.
My own pilgrimage of understanding of love for neighbor has evolved.
I began with a “spatial” understanding of love for neighbor. A neighbor was one who lived down the street, on the other side of the tracks, across the ocean. Neighborhood was defined in time. Neighbor was defined in need.
My earliest professional work was as director of hunger concerns for the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
My role was hunger education. My task was to advocate for ministries and some public policies that benefitted those who faced hunger domestically and internationally. Love for neighbor meant feeding the hungry.
As I connected between poverty and the environment, my definition of neighborhood “evolved.” My awareness of the Bible’s green message grew.
I came to understand that neighbors included those who live across time. I even wrote a book titled “Loving Neighbors Across Time: A Christian Guide to Protecting the Earth.” A central idea was that the only way to love a neighbor across time was to leave them a decent place to live.
Another wrinkle in my definition of love for neighbor occurred some years later. After a quarter century of harsh Southern Baptist rhetoric about Jews, relationships had hit rock bottom.
The Baptist Center for Ethics sponsored a luncheon during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s 2004 annual meeting with congregations inviting their Jewish friends as guests to take steps toward restoring relationships.
“Like Esau and Jacob, we meet today. We need to bless one another. We need to foster good will for the common good,” I wrote. “We would do well to reclaim the centrality of Jesus, who taught us to love our neighbors, not as means toward conversion but because it is the right thing to do.”
For me, love for neighbor was about doing the right thing – seeking the welfare of others – without sneaking in evangelism or ideological makeover or Americanizing the other.
Interfaith engagement with Jews opened the door to another wrinkle, engagement with Muslims.
In a prepared statement for a Muslim-Christian dialogue session at the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America in 2008, I said, “I am a Baptist Christian, who professes faith in Jesus and prioritizes Jesus’ commandment to love neighbor.”
I distanced goodwill Baptists from those who disrespect the Prophet Mohammed, denigrate Islam as an evil religion and demonize Muslims as people of violence.
During the documentary production of “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims,” I learned from American Muslim leaders that we didn’t need to water down our faiths in order to collaborate. We have different sacred books. We have different religions. Nonetheless, we can seek the welfare of the other.
This Thanksgiving, I’m especially grateful for what I’ve learned from Islamic American leaders like Sayyid Syeed – and many others. I’ve had broken bread, traveled overseas, sought the common good with Muslims.
I enter Thanksgiving with gladness for the opportunities and challenges that I’ve had. I hope the same is true for you.
Let’s challenge others and afford them opportunities to shift from the sentimentality of love for neighbor to the transformation of neighborhoods.
Editor’s note: Watch Sayyid Syeed share his appreciation for the Baptist legacy of promoting and defending religious freedom for all people in footage from “Different Books, Common Word.”