The Observation of an Atheist Historian: What Makes Christianity Stand Out Among World Religions



The radical quality of the love of Jesus stands out over and above all other examples. I have written on this before (the Christian expression of the Golden Rule compared to other religions). Most other world religions express some concept of the Golden Rule, but not in the way that Jesus did.

Other world religions state the Golden Rule in a limited way, such as not doing things to others that you would not want them to do to you. It’s the idea of refraining from doing evil. Under that concept of the Golden Rule, we simply need to avoid doing evil to our neighbors. There is no compulsion to do good to them. Ignoring your neighbor would be perfectly acceptable on the this principal.

Most major world religions do not express Golden Rule positively, as Jesus did: do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Doing unto others is an affirmative duty. Simply refraining from doing them evil is not the concept of the Golden Rule expressed by Jesus.

Jesus made this clear in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable begins with a man who was robbed and left injured on the road. A priest and Levite (the priestly cast of Judaism) walked by the man on the other side of the road, ignoring him, while a Samaritan (an outcast to Jews) crossed the road to tend to the injured man. The good Samaritan was the example of the person who demonstrated love for a “neighbor” because he didn’t just ignore the injured man lying in the road.  The idea of the Golden Rule that Jesus expressed includes an affirmative duty to do  good.

To be fair, some religions come close to an affirmative expression of the Golden Rule, which I affirm in the previous blog piece, but there is one additional expression of the Golden Rule that stands alone: that is the concept of loving even our enemies and doing good to those who intend evil toward us and do us harm.

I think of these things as I pause from listening to Douglas Murray in a discussion with Esther Riley on the Unbelievable? podcast with Justin Brierley, the host. (See Douglas Murray and Esther O’Reilly – Christian Atheism and the search for identity. The video is embedded below.)

Douglas Murray, an atheist and openly gay man, makes the observation that most Christian tenets can be found in other cultures, save one: that is the principal that of loving and forgiving even our enemies. Loving and forgiving our enemies is the ultimate statement of the Golden Rule. Even when we have enemies who intend to do us harm, and even when they actually do us harm, Jesus says, “Forgive them.” The conversation got into some recent examples of that expression of love and forgiveness that I will explore.

The first example involved the white, female police officer who came home to her apartment building after a long shift, entered into what she thought was her apartment, and, finding a man there, she shot him. She claimed that she was tired after her shift, went to the wrong floor, right apartment number, by mistake, and she thought it was her apartment.

Her first instinct upon seeing a man in the apartment was to draw her gun and shoot. What made this case such a public spectacle was the fact that the young man in her apartment was black, and her first instinct was to shoot him. It was his apartment. Botham Jean was shot in his own living room because the instinctive assumption of a white cop (to put it bluntly) was that he was dangerous.

Of course, the case reveals on public display the insidious nature of latent racism. Would she have reacted the same way if she found a young white man sitting on the coach?

As if that racial element to the story was not enough to draw national attention, what happened at the trial catapulted the story into the worldwide limelight. After the trial was concluded, and the verdict of “guilty” was pronounced, the victim’s brother stood up in court and asked the judge to do the unthinkable: he asked for permission to give the white, racist offender a hug. Words don’t do this act of extreme love and forgiveness justice: here is the video:

Botham Jean’s brother demonstrated this extreme act of love and forgiveness because of his Christian faith.

The judge in the case was an African-American woman. When the convicted former cop asked the judge if she thought God would forgive her, the judge responded by also giving her a hug and handing her a Bible.

The act of the judge sparked anger, as if it diminished or white-washed the ugly racial quality of the crime. The judge responded this way:

“Following my own convictions, I could not refuse that woman a hug. I would not,” Kemp told the Associated Press. “And I don’t understand the anger. And I guess I could say if you profess religious beliefs and you are going to follow them, I would hope that they not be situational and limited to one race only.”

(See Judge defends giving Amber Guyger hug and a Bible, saying she ‘could not refuse’) Her statement echoes the parable of the Good Samaritan. One point of that story is that the Samaritan, not the priest or the Levite, was good because he did the right thing (not because of who he was or wasn’t).

There is a form of color-blindness that ignores (to our shame and detriment) the reality of real injustice and the insidious nature of latent racism that still exists in our society. This very case is an example of the reason why we shouldn’t use color-blindness to cover up the vestiges of racism that still exist and need to be exposed. When the gut reaction of a white person is to shoot a black person first and ask questions later, we know we have a problem!

But these very sensitive and ugly points to the story shouldn’t detract from the beautiful and authentic demonstration of love and forgiveness from Botham Jean’s brother and the judge that was inspired by their Christian faith.

Another example comes to mind that, unfortunately, has the same racial overtones. A young white supremacist walked into a black church in Charleston, NC shot up the congregation on a Sunday morning, a killing nine and wounding many others. It was a horrific crime that was expressly motivated by the offender’s open racism, and the offender wasn’t the least bit sorry or repentant for what he did.

Very shortly after the incident, relatives of the slain church members asked the judge for permission to address the unrepentant shooter directly. When they were given permission, one by one, they offered him forgiveness, even as they expressed the pain of their loss, and though he remained unrepentant. (See ‘I forgive you.’ Relatives of Charleston church shooting victims address Dylann Roof)

This is a radical example of individual forgiveness and corporate forgiveness inspired by the words of Jesus that we are to love and forgive even our enemies. The only act that might be more extreme would be the act of giving up one’s life for another, even for an enemy, which Jesus did by going to his own death on the cross where he said, “Father forgive them….” (Luke 22:33-34), even as he was being crucified and the soldiers cast lots to divide up his clothing.

The discussion between Douglas Murray and Esther Riley focused on the social commentary that followed both of these demonstrations of forgiveness. Many people were angry that the public outcry against racism demonstration of justice was overshadowed by the story of the forgiveness shown by the victims’ families.

People wanted to focus on the racism and meting out the justice, but, Murray and Riley opined that the most poignant aspect of both stories was not the racism or the demonstration of justice, but the radical love and forgiveness inspired by Christian Faith that was perfectly modeled by what Jesus said and did in his own life.

While the story could be summarized as another incident of the oppressed always finding themselves in the position of victim and having to forgive their oppressors, the example of the African American judge provides a welcome twist. She did not stand in the place of the oppressed, but in the place of the ultimate authority – the symbol of justice and judgment. Her demonstration of forgiveness and offer of redemption is symbolic of God, our Judge, who offers all of us forgiveness and redemption … if we will accept it.

While I don’t want to discount the history of oppression of African-Americans in the United States, we shouldn’t miss the poignancy of the radical nature of Christian love and forgiveness that emerged in those circumstances. These stories are, in a sense, the Good Samaritan parables of our day, but they aren’t just parables; they are all the more poignant because they are real-life examples.

I don’t want to stretch the analogy too far, but I think we can stretch it a little bit further. These  two very clear examples of the radical nature of distinctly Christian love are similar to the Good Samaritan parable in the aspect of racism. While Samaritans were kin to the Jews of the first century, they were viewed as second class citizens. Upstanding Jews of that time didn’t mix with Samaritans, and Samaritans didn’t have the privileges that Jews had. In both the parable and the modern stories, the people considered to be lesser in some way were the heroes. They were the ones demonstrating God’s love.

Another thing I don’t want to miss in all of this is the significance of Douglas Murray making the observation that Christianity stands apart from all other religions in the aspect of the the radical concept of loving and forgiving even our enemies. The significance of Douglas Murray acknowledging this point is that he is an atheist. Yet, he acknowledges the ethical contribution of this notion of radical love and forgiveness that is uniquely Christian to society and its beneficial effect on society.

The discussion between Douglas Murray, Esther Riley (who is unapologetically Christian) with Justin Brierley is linked in its entirety below of you are interested:

Postscript:  I will add this postscript. The radical love and forgiveness that is uniquely Christian in construct, is not merely an ethical principal. It demonstrated by Jesus, who Christians believe was the exact embodiment of God, the Creator of the universe, in human form. Jesus shows us that God is, in His very nature, love, and invites us into relationship with Him.

Let me provide one more example of the radical expression of love. This one is involves a woman who I have heard speak personally. Her name is Jeanne Bishop. I will link to a Ted Talk below for her story.

She is a former prosecuting attorney who worked out of the Cook County State’s Attorney Office. Her sister, who was pregnant, and her brother-in-law were murdered in their own home when they walked in on an intruder.

It was a violent and senseless crime committed by a young high school student who entered the home with a glass cutter and sat, waiting for his victims to show up. He handcuffed Jeanne’s brother-in-law, and shot him point blank while her sister, Nancy, watched, in the head despite pleas to give him money to leave. Then he shot Nancy in the stomach and left her to bleed to death on the basement floor with her lifeless baby inside her. (See Jeanne Bishop recalls sister’s Winnetka murder 25 years later)

“[T]he coroner’s report estimated Nancy lived for another 10-15 minutes. Nancy crawled to a metal shelf, and using her own blood, left a simple message. It was a heart, followed by the letter ‘U.’

“Nancy then crawled over to Richard’s body, and died next to her husband.”

The prosecutor, whose profession often results in a certain jaded mentality toward criminals, found herself in the dilemma of the Christian who is called to forgive even for enemies. Through some personal struggle, she was able to do that. Her story, the one I heard her tell, is about the way the process worked in her life.

After some time and much difficulty, she was able to say that she forgave the young man in her heart, but she wanted to have nothing to do with him. Over time, she realized this was not enough, that Christ urges us to do more, that God was gently urging her to do more.

Motivated by her faith, and what she believed God was urging her to do, she met with the offender in prison and forgave him face-to-face. She came to know him as a person. Through the experience of doing the hard thing, forgiving him in person and getting to know him, she was eventually motivated to change her profession from being a public prosecutor to being a public defender of people like him.

This is what the love of Jesus, through the Holy Spirit’s intimate work in our individual hearts, can accomplish. He (not an ethical principal) works within us to change us from the inside out. Only then can such a dramatic act as forgiving a killer of one’s own sister with child and her husband can happen. And not just that, the once prosecutor became a compassionate public defender when she understood in a way that few could possibly understand the humanity of a criminal.

These acts of uniquely Christian love and forgiveness are truly supernatural. We are not capable of them in and of ourselves. Only by the power of a transcendent God who experienced the darkness of evil in human flesh Himself are we able to rise above it.

We still have racial barriers, but not just racial barriers. We have ethnic, gender, national, sexual orientation, political, socioeconomic, worldview, emotional and other barriers that wall people out from each other. Jesus breaks down walls, not as an ethical principal or even a force: Jesus is our peace (Ephesians 2:14). He brings light into our darkness because He is our light. (John 8:12) It an ethical principal that makes the difference; it is the Person of Jesus who desires to dwell in us through the Holy Spirit.


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