JOPLIN, Mo. —
Let’s face it -- throughout human history, Christians have inflicted cruelty upon each other in the name of God. The frequency and harshness of these incidents can stagger our theological senses.
I recently researched an instance of unbelievable cruelty that happened in the 1600s in which a Russian patriarch, known as Nikon, was involved in a bitter theological dispute with a Father Avvakum.
After an argument failed to solve the mens’ problem, Nikon exiled Avvakum. When exile did not work, Nikon then imprisoned him. For 10 years, Avvakum lived in a dank, unlit, underground cell. Then, when imprisonment failed, Nikon had him burned at the stake.
The issue: Whether to make the sign of the cross with two or three fingers.
It is not at all surprising that a bit of ancient history reads “(Emperor Julian, the Apostate) ordered the priests of the different Christian sects and their supporters to be admitted to the palace and politely expressed his wish that they each might follow their own beliefs without hindrance or fear. The emperor thought that freedom to argue their beliefs would simply deepen their differences, so that he would never be faced by a united common people. He found from experience that no wild beasts are as hostile to men as Christians are to one another.” (From “Histories,” by Ammianus Marcellinus)
Yes, indeed, we have come a long way from those times. It’s true there continues to be instances of shameful behavior toward others who challenge our thinking, but we Christians have progressed quite well. We have worked diligently to learn tolerance. But does mere tolerance meet the standard to which we Christians are held?
In the New Testament we find a pertinent story (Acts 5). The Apostles were traveling teaching when they were arrested and brought before the authorities.
After much discussion, Gamaliel, a respected Pharisee and teacher, rose to speak. People respected Gamaliel, and when he spoke, people listened. Essentially, Gamaliel told the council to leave the Apostles alone. He said that if their movement was of God, then nothing could be done to stop it, and if it was not of God, then the movement would die.
The council accepted the thinking of Gamaliel, however, it couldn’t resist roughing up the Apostles. The Apostles were flogged, then sent on their way.
When we Christians simply tolerate those who challenge our religion, are we living up to the standard set by Christ? Or do we do a little “flogging” of our own with hateful statements and hurtful action? Am I being faithful as a Christian if I follow Gamaliel’s suggestion and leave those people alone? Is it ever enough for us Christians to do nothing more than “live and let live”?
I think not.
Christ expects more from us. Jesus tells us to care for our neighbors. Caring does not include the burden of rejecting those with whom we are different. In difficult times, caring offers aid and comfort. In calm times, caring offers interaction if not friendship.
Jesus asks us to pray for our enemies, but, admittedly, it forces us to pause and think. Dare we rationalize or ignore his word?
Jesus warned us not to judge others. He said that it’s tough to remove a splinter from another person’s eye if there is a log in one’s own. We are never able to see as clearly as God sees.
Being tolerant is one way, and it’s a good one. But being Christian is another, more powerful way.
Craig Tally is the senior minister of First Community Church in Joplin. His column appears bi-weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.