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Bulgarian Baptist Considers Love for Neighbor

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Imagine a stranger watching the 2002 Tournament of Roses parade. It is gorgeous as always. The floats, equestrian units and marching bands move gracefully up and down the streets of Pasadena, Calif.

Float crews tirelessly give their best smiles and New Year’s wishes to the excited crowd. It’s a beautiful way to start the new year indeed.

But something was distinctly different this year. Speakers calmly announced increased security. Police inspected traffic. Armed guards appeared along the parade route.

Something else permeated the parade: patriotism. The parade opened with a “Salute to America” ceremony. West Point cadets, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the U.S. Marine Corps marching band and a military fly-over were featured. Flags and patriotic images dominated the scene. All helped kindle the spirit of the event.

The parade reflected the spirit of a nation at war. It is frightened and disturbed, and it is trying to find comfort in patriotic symbols, in memories of better times and in the power of its elite military forces. In the aftermath of terrorist attacks, this nation shares little memory with other nations, for the wars in America’s recent memory were all “out there,” and the suffering was not immediate.

Sept. 11 dramatically changed American life. The violent “neighbor” entered the seemingly impenetrable homeland. In a matter of hours, the world became very dangerous. Who is the enemy? Who are friends?

The enemy is as elusive and as real as the biblical leviathan. Maybe this is why bestial terms are used to describe the enemy: “smoke ’em out of their holes” and “get ’em dead or alive.” They can be al Qaeda fighters or Afghani Taliban, Iraqi citizens or even feminists and gays. They can be Muslim extremists, “bloody commies” or drug smugglers.

They can be from European, Semitic or Asian descent. They can also be home-made. They can be any wishful construct of the politician’s mind, of media sensations, of right-wing religious fervor.

In a nation that has never been harassed by a violent neighbor and that has never considered that violent neighbor’s needs seriously, the story of “looking for an enemy” repeats itself. As in the Cold War, the enemy may be anybody anywhere. And so the parades became distinctly different.

But there’s another way to celebrate hopes for the new year—less impressive than the Tournament of Roses, yet just as meaningful and beautiful.

I remember Christmases in Prague, where 11th-century architectural treasures danced in the city’s night lights. Tourists floated in the evenings around the big Christmas pine tree on the old town square.

They paid homage to countless boutiques, souvenir shops and galleries for last-minute shopping. They frequented local pubs, coffee houses and restaurants, most of them stopping en route at some of the small wooden Christmas booths along the streets.

Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Poles and Russians were there. And the Czechs, who suffered them all for centuries, served their former enemies and occupants spicy warm wine and cinnamon bread.

Now, they are all neighbors getting together as human beings—neighbors whose national identity is substantially shaped by shared common memories and the very fact that they are neighbors, for better or worse. These are neighbors who contested (and often violently rejected) the others’ national ideals and symbols, only to affirm them eventually.

Reflecting on the Pentateuch’s witness, Jesus taught (Mt 5:43-48) that peace and security come from embracing history and including the enemy in the community of neighbors.

In Prague’s story of hope, the enemies have been named. They have been faced, suffered, forgiven and embraced. Enemies became neighbors.
Neighbors often know each other all too well. Their identities are shaped by rejection and embrace.

Memory can remember the glory and redeem the disgrace, leaving no space for fear or retaliation.

Parush Raykov Parushev is director of applied theology at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague, CzechRepublic. He is a native of Sofia, Bulgaria, and an ordained Baptist minister.