Through the news media and internet we receive amazing insights into events around the world. On-the-spot reports and photographs enable us to see the people and their situations closeup. Sometimes the newsreader gives a warning that some of the images may be distressing. This weekend I saw a photograph of Rohingya Muslims crossing the Naf river to escape from Myanmar into Bangladesh. About fifty desperate men, women and children were crowded on a raft made of plastic containers that looked as if it was almost sinking.
Other photographs showed Rohingya women and children with wounds and burns received when they were attacked by soldiers and their houses were set on fire. They had escaped, but husbands and brothers had been killed. It is estimated that there are 1 million Rohingya Muslims refugees in Bangladesh in need of food, shelter and medical care.
Recent media reports from Yemen also show a terrible humanitarian crisis. The conflict between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis rebels has caused massive shortages of food and water. It is estimated that 3.2 million people are at risk of famine and 150,000 malnourished children could die in the next month. In both Myanmar and Yemen the conflict is caused by people who hate their fellow human beings.
An expert in the law once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus answered the man by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. There was a long standing bitter rift between Jews and Samaritans. They had nothing to do with each other. In the parable a Jewish man was attacked and robbed on a lonely road and was left half dead. Two Jewish religious leaders passed the man and did nothing to help him. Then a Samaritan saw the man and took pity on him. He bandaged his wounds, put him on his donkey and took him to an inn where he took care of him. The next day he left the man in the care of the innkeeper and promised to pay whatever it cost.
Then Jesus asked the expert in the law, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He answered, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” God commands us all to “love our neighbour as we love ourselves.” God expects us to love all people, even those who may be our natural enemies, and to show that love in a practical way.
Dr David Nott is a remarkable doctor. He is a consultant surgeon at Royal Marsden, St Mary’s and Chelsea and Westminster Hospitals. For more than 20 years he has spent several months each year working as a volunteer war surgeon with Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Committee of the Red Cross. He has worked in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Darfur, Gaza, Haiti, Iraq, Libya, Nepal, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Syria and Yemen. This year he was presented with the Robert Burns’ Humanitarian Award that recognizes those who help to change people’s lives for the better.
As well as treating victims of conflict and catastrophe, Dr Nott teaches advanced surgical skills to local medics and surgeons. One of the doctors he helps and encourages is Dr Hamza al-Khatib, who lives and works in war-torn Aleppo in Syria. Dr Khatib moved back to his home in rebel-held eastern Aleppo four years ago. He made the journey on foot with his wife and 6-month-old daughter. The journey was very dangerous and he was afraid for their safety.
Aleppo used to have 9 hospitals. All have been bombed by government and Russian forces. The situation in Aleppo is a daily nightmare for medics and the people because of barrel bombs and Russian fighter jets’ missiles. Recently a 9-year-old boy brought his 7-year-old brother to the hospital. The younger boy died and they had to give his body to his brother to take away. Every day Dr Khatib survives is a victory, yet he never regrets returning to Aleppo. He said, “The presence of every single one of us is important. We help each other. If I went back in time I would do the same again.”
One of the two great commandments God has given us is, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus spoke of a Samaritan man who helped a Jewish man who had been robbed and beaten by thieves who left him half dead. Two priests saw the wounded man, but passed by on the other side. The Samaritan, at risk to his own life, stopped, treated the man’s wounds and took him to a place of safety. After telling the parable Jesus said to the people, “Go and do likewise.” We can pray for people like David Nott and Hamza al-Khatib as they seek to save the lives of people terribly injured in today’s conflicts. We can also ask ourselves what we can do to truly love our neighbours as we love ourselves.
Some people try to justify their evil actions by quoting the principle “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This legal principle is known as “lex talionis”; the law of retaliation. The principle was given by God to Israel through Moses. It did not give people an excuse for vicious personal revenge, but limited the extent of retaliation. It established the principle of justice. The punishment must fit the crime. It did not authorise either excessive revenge or personal mutilation of the person who had committed the offence.
God gave Moses examples of its application. “If an owner hits a male or female slave in the eye and the eye is blinded, then the slave may go free because of the eye. And if an owner knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave, the slave should be released in payment for the tooth.” So the lex talionis provided protection for the weak and vulnerable, for women as well as men. When they were mistreated they were entitled to legal protection and compensation.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sets out much more radical principles. There is to be no retaliation and revenge in his Kingdom. He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, don’t resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat as well. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your father in heaven.”
The teaching of Jesus is a challenge to us all. Retaliation and revenge, whether committed by individuals or governments, are not a sign of strength, but of weakness. The experience of God’s sheer love and grace in Jesus, of which none of us is worthy, creates the context in which loving our enemies becomes a possibility. I remember meeting with a group of Iranian Christians to study the parable of Jesus about the Good Samaritan. In the parable a Samaritan man saves the life of a wounded Jewish man, even though Jews and Samaritans were enemies. One of the Iranians said, “If we are to obey the teaching of Jesus in this parable then it means we must love Iraqi people!”