One of the most exciting books I’ve read recently is Bold As Love, by Bob Roberts, Jr. Roberts, a conservative Texan pastor, has written a relatively brief (under 200 pages), hopeful and winning treatise on how we Christians are to love our neighbor. In particular, our Muslim neighbors. And in even more particular, the Muslim neighbors we work with or actually live near.
In short, it’s the kind of book many Christians would reject without reading one word.
It’s easy to see why. While many of us want to live out the best of our faith, we don’t want to feel as if we have to compromise our beliefs in order to do so. Nor do we know exactly how to initiate deeper conversations with people when we know we differ on key beliefs.
Roberts, however, offers hope for the church. In his experience, he says, the impulse for friendship begins on both sides of any religious divide. This assertion reminded me of the Dr. Seuss story “What Was I Scared Of?” from The Sneetches and Other Stories. In it, the storyteller encounters a “pair of pale green pants with nobody inside them,” and cowers in fear for days. Finally, unable to delay any longer, the storyteller ventures out, only to raise a ruckus when he meets up with the empty pants again. But then, unexpectedly, he realizes that “I was just as strange to them/As they were strange to me!” and begins to comfort and befriend the empty pants.
In Bold As Love, Roberts encourages us to get out there and start having the conversations that will showcase our friendly intentions and offer our neighbors a listening ear. Roberts’ roster of close Muslim and Jewish friends points to his efforts’ success.
When it comes to speaking honestly about religion, Roberts’ model becomes important to a novice like me. Many of us have attended interfaith services, often leaving vaguely dissatisfied. Roberts points out that most passionately religious people believe in the exclusivity of their own faith, and that a watered-down approach that minimizes differences leaves everyone feeling unheard. Too, interfaith gatherings often leave us as ignorant about others’ faith as before the event. Roberts cajoles people not to be like Texans*, always on the verge of “fixin'” something, but to listen to new friends of other faiths, building bridges by getting to know what they honestly believe and sharing honestly what we believe. For this process, he uses the word “multifaith.”
As a pastor, Roberts shares, he used to think “the greatest thing I could do to bring down tension between Christians and Muslims was for me to befriend Muslims. That’s not true. The greatest thing I can do is lead a congregation and churches to connect with Muslims so they can see for themselves. I won’t change everyone… but some will change, and they will lead the charge.” (emphases his)
As we change and charge, though, Roberts warns that not everything in this process goes smoothly. “If you are going to be bold as love, you’d better get ready for your own tribe to give you more headaches than the tribe you want to connect with… Your own tribe can make your life miserable, if you let them. Don’t! Jesus hung out with drunks, whores, tax collectors, cheats – and his own tribe hated him for it. Are you in trouble with your own tribe?”
Maybe trouble with our tribe doesn’t sound like the most hopeful offering we can receive. Trouble rarely sounds hopeful! And I didn’t connect trouble with hope, either, except in the context of Roberts’ expansive love for others. But as I think about Bold As Love, particularly in this “hope” week of Advent, I can see how trouble can contain wild hope within it. Mary’s unsanitary, makeshift delivery room was surely trouble. Visits from uneducated, smelly, rough shepherds were probably not convenient. Having to escape from a widespread slaughter of male babies? That still troubles me. And yet out of all of that trouble came the Hope of the world.
“Where are we taking [Jesus]?” Roberts asks. “He didn’t enter us to stay cooped up, but to be bold as love.”
*Roberts can joke about not being like Texans, and so can I, because we are Texans. But y’all don’t start really thinkin’ that you ought not be like Texans, now, y’hear?