Archive for October 5th, 2007

Enemies at the Gate: Christian Intolerance

great wall

Your Jelly Fish version of Chrissianity (sic) is well documented…great job “coverting”(sic) souls to Christ with you gummy bear Jelly bean Jesus version of the Gospel! You guys are well defined by this little piece appropriately called “Back Rubs 4 Jesus” ( ) Ha! That suits your sweet, sweet, candy cane Chrissianity (sic) just fine! What a farce! Chocolate Soldiers every one of you!

This was a recent comment on an article I wrote about the largely negative consequences of extolling a gospel of hell and damnation;

There were other more reasoned responses, some of them even suggesting that my position may be exaggerated, but I think the digestion of this one particular remark is the proof of the pudding. Although this fellow’s ‘ministry’ is a little over the top and would garner little sympathy among many of us, his wording is not really that outrageous. I find it to be similar to what has been expressed by many conservative Christians.

There seems to be a lot of resistance to the idea of remembering Jesus primarily as he has been portrayed in the Gospels. Many of the arguments I hear say that the image of Jesus found in the Gospels, the patient, loving, peaceful and tolerant peasant, fond of little children and the lame as well as lepers, prostitutes and thieves, represents only one aspect of God. There is also God the punisher, the wrathful, the one who hates sin to such a degree that he cannot tolerate sinners. It is said that this picture of God can be found throughout the Old Testament as well as in John’s Revelation. I personally don’t see this vision in scriptures, but nevertheless, I don’t believe that this is the real reason why so many are fond of this stern and vengeful depiction of God.

I think this attraction stems from an ingrained need for people to identify with a group and the accompanying urge to keep those who do not conform outside of the tribe. A sense of insecurity pervades many churches, a fear that the flock will be corrupted by the sin of others. In practice this makes it easier for us to ignore some of the deeper meanings of Jesus’ teachings; those about unconditional forgiveness, love, mercy and tolerance. We often find it easier to accept Levitical exhortations against homosexuality rather than Jesus’ command not to judge others. (Matt 7: 1-2) [For more thoughts on why we have this tendency towards conformity check out this thread on ‘Suddenly Christian’ ;]

We pay lip service to our slogans welcoming everyone to our churches, becoming gate keepers instead. When we forget that our churches are made up of nothing but sinners we find ourselves taking pleasure in our own salvation, even cultivating a sense of pride in our privileged position with God. We learn to notice those characteristics of the ‘saved’ versus the ‘unsaved’ and find ourselves, perhaps unconsciously, avoiding those who do not meet what we believe are God’s standards. We forget that God loves the sinner, the pagan, just as much as he loves each of us within the church. If he can find value in our lives, working through us and with us, what makes us think that he is not doing the same with them?

Though told to go out into the world and feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned, we tend to restrict these activities to our fellow church members. Perhaps just the idea of membership is the problem. Our churches take on the character of Coast Guard rescue vessels, our pastors at the helm while the rest of us serve as crew. We gallantly ply the treacherous seas of this world, searching for souls that need saving and hauling them on board. Not a bad analogy, perhaps, until the ‘saved’ realize that unless they agree with the captain’s theology or the crew’s uniform standards he may find himself tossed into the drink once again. It is easy to find yourself shunning the sinner when your theology tells you that God considers them fuel for the fires of hell.

How did we get to this point where we have “captains’ manning the helms and steering us into waters that appear to be Biblical yet turn out to be dangerously shallow? Why do those of us who claim to have met the risen Jesus feel the need for the guidance of generation upon generation of authoritarian pastors, vicars, priests and bishops? Could it be that a man-made hierarchy within the church contributes to the “common sense” that there is also another hierarchy; that of the churched versus the un-churched, the saved versus the un-saved?

In the second century, Irenaeus, Bishop of Gaul and student of Polycarp became alarmed at the lack of cohesiveness within the early church’s theology. He took it upon himself to identify those teachings that were false (heresies) and had a tremendous amount of influence over what became today’s canon as well as much of today’s church doctrines and dogmas. Although not everything he taught has been included in common church doctrine, much of it was first enunciated by him, including the idea that scripture was divinely inspired. Some of what we find most controversial to this day is grounded in his personal theology.

One of the greatest challenges that he faced was how to go about establishing the authority that he (and other church leaders) needed to mandate what was truth and what was not. With this in mind he was able to find biblical and historical justification for “apostolic succession”; the idea, for example, that John the Apostle (allegedly) taught Polycarp who taught Irenaeus and so on and so forth. Once his authority was established those that disagreed with him were labeled as heretics and expelled from the congregation. No dissent, no compromise, no question was tolerated. Unfortunately, this is the model that the church chose to adopt. Elaine Pagels, in Beyond Belief notes that, like our clergy of today ” Irenaeus promises that he will explain for them what the scripture really means and insists that only what he teaches is true”. This stands in stark contrast to the type of discourse that can be found in most synagogues, where the rabbi and congregants remember how Abraham and Moses would question God, even getting him to change his mind on occasion.

Jesus challenged the religious authorities of his time; with their policies of excluding those who did not meet their standards of righteousness. He did not seem to be interested in establishing a new religion in his name but instead on shaking things up for the religious status quo. When asked, he tells people to follow his way, to be like him. He says that all of the law hangs on the commandment to love God and love each other. He tells us to love our enemies. He says that those who feel hate for anyone at all are at great risk. He says that the world will know that we are his followers by our love. He says all these things and then he hangs out with hookers and thieves. He tells one thief that he will take him to paradise, no strings attached. He embraced and healed lepers, who were thought to be guilty of terrible sexual sins.

This new religion, Christianity, soon became something that was rarely identifiable with the example of Christ. When weak they were persecuted by the Romans and displayed the strength one finds with God’s grace and mercy. Upon becoming strong, the church took on the role of persecutor and those dissidents that suffered at their hands now took on the role of Christ crucified, dying for what they held to be the truth. Today there are those who seek God but because their sin is seen so differently from many others they now stand outside the gate. If Jesus would invite them in, who are we to keep them out? Perhaps more importantly, what human has the authority to demand such inhospitality?


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