Thomas Friedman begins his book, “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” with a story about the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
Before 9/11, the consulate was located “in the Palazzo Corpi, a grand and distinctive old building in the heart of the city’s bustling business district, jammed between the bazaars, the domed mosques and the jumble of Ottoman and modern architecture.”
After 9/11, the consulate was relocated to a facility in Instinye, about 12 miles from the city center, which, Friedman quips, “looked like a maximum security prison – without the charm.”
In the Palazzo Corpi location, the consulate was incarnate – engaged and entwined with the culture, the society, the tradition, the life of Istanbul. It was welcoming and inviting.
The facilities were not bomb proof, but “it was an easy place,” Friedman notes, “for Turks to get a visa, to peruse the library, or to engage with an American diplomat.”
In the Instinye location, the consulate is transcendent – disengaged and abstracted from that which makes Istanbul, Istanbul. It is inhospitable and unappealing.
The facilities are bomb proof, but Friedman observes, “They are also strong enough to deter most visitors, friends, and allies.”
And here is what Friedman calls “the hard truth.” It worked. It is a safer and more secure consulate.
It has prevented diplomats from being attacked. In fact, the facility is so effective that a captured terrorist proclaimed the consulate “so well guarded they don’t even let birds fly there.”
The contrasting consulates Friedman describes can serve as a metaphor for the choice Christians make each and every day between social engagement with risk and social disengagement with safety.
For those of us familiar with the gospel narratives, we are well aware of the path modeled for us. It is the path of flesh and blood, presence, engagement, integration and community. It is the path of love.
Not sentimentality and warm, fuzzy feelings, but involved, costly, risky love that:
â— Visits and embraces the sick
â— Welcomes and befriends the outcast
â— Fellowships and associates with the reviled
â— Sits with and comforts the lonely
â— Dialogues with and listens to the misunderstood
â— Seeks truth and justice for the misrepresented
â— Protects and defends the immigrant
â— Encourages and affirms the insecure
â— Risks myriad other forms of social engagement in order to bring healing and hope into the lives of those around us
Someone once said, “To love is to suffer; and to love much is to suffer much.” With a minor tweak, this can serve as a wonderful summation of incarnation. “To love is to risk; and to love much is to risk much.”
Incarnate, engaged love is risky because it refuses to remain aloof, distant and safe. It chooses to be engaged with and in the world as a life-giving, life-changing and life-sustaining presence and power.
Incarnate, engaged love is risky because it requires crossing boundaries that identify us – not to lose our identity but to prevent the boundaries that define us from becoming impenetrable barricades that divide us.
By contrast, “a place where birds don’t fly” is a place of safety because it is a place of disengagement. But it is also a place where we become less human because there is no possibility of encountering and recognizing ourselves in “the other.”
Jesus’ ministry offers a path of risky social engagement that seeks to meet and understand, to engage and help, to welcome and embrace “the other.”
When we do this, when we risk this, we find ourselves meeting and understanding, engaging and helping, welcoming and embracing ourselves in the process.
How? We come to see what Jesus saw – himself in the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked and imprisoned. We come to see ourselves in “the other” in the myriad forms of impoverishment that we all experience (see Matthew 25).
The choice, as communities and individuals of faith, is always before us: the path of disengagement with safety or engagement with risk.
May we follow in the footsteps of the one whom we confess as “savior and lord” by finding new and creative ways of sharing the way of risky engagement that leads to the world’s redemption.
Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com.