Last Thursday found me at the George Mercer School of Theology in Garden City in long conversation with Dr. Tony Kireopoulos, a senior program director of the National Council of Churches USA, and a Greek Orthodox theologian of some international note.
I say "conversation" because for the first hour it was me asking him questions, and him giving me both broad-reaching and detailed answers. The initial subject matter was the continuing ecumenical discussions and dialogue between numerous American churches and denominations, but we also moved into the vast area of inter-faith relationships and forums the world over. In particular the large forums (perhaps that should be forae, but I'm not a purist) between Muslims and Christians, and the discussion papers that these have produced. And all great signs of hope - and thank God, especially after statements such as those made by Islamic theologians at the beginning of this decade which basically, truthfully, if chillingly, said:
There can be no world peace until there is peace between Islam and Christianity.
It was eventually after lunch (and all ecumenical conversation must include excellent lunch!) that the question arose in my mind:
Why are we separate from one another in the name of God?
And my thinking process took the form of something that reads like a mathematical formula: Certainty embraces ignorance, and creates intolerance.
And that equation, although unanswered and imperfect, is as old as religion itself.
John, one of Jesus' disciples came to him, clearly worried and annoyed, and announced:
Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.
John's outburst sounds very familiar in the 21st century. That last phrase might be translated, “Because he was not one of us.”
It remains part of the human tradition. We like to be able to put people in their place, or tell people where their place is! And, of course, we all know where we stand!
It’s easy to make judgments about other people whether in arguments or in very rational debates.
John is making a judgment about an anonymous healer who he clearly perceived as some sort of threat – perhaps diminishing the uniqueness of Jesus and the Twelve. He didn’t belong. He wasn’t “one of them!”
A classic expression of intolerant religion.
The Hebrew scriptures are full of the same. There are passages where God is described as ordering the Israelites to destroy their enemies, especially Tribe A, Tribe B and that awful tribe C - because of the way they live and the way in which they do things.
In the book of Exodus God says that persons of other religions are to be totally destroyed. In the book of Deuteronomy prophets of other faiths are to be killed. It was clearly a pre-ecumenical age.
Of course once formalized and institutionalized, the Christian Church found this approach very practical. After the Emperor Constantine, who united Roman state authority and matters of faith, many battles were fought under the banner of intolerance.
The Crusades were fought as a holy war against the infidel, although to be historically accurate, and politically incorrect, many of these battles were simply campaigns to take back what the so-called infidels had seized in the first place, all in the name of their version of God.
Within the Church heretics were identified, and we all know what to do with heretics, don’t we? We don't sit down and drink cappuccino with them, engaging in polite debate. No Sir! They have to be faced down, removed - even killed. Because they are not like us, and are a threat to greater integrity.
Even a cursory study reveals that intolerance has a long history in Christianity, and that history has not ended yet.
Some Christians cannot exist without intolerance. It is such a central part of their faith that if it were removed all else would crumble. It is seen as the means to keep a sense of identity, orthodoxy, or even superiority.
Today’s Old Testament story is one that most people are unfamiliar with, but let’s be honest: When did the Book of Numbers ever make the best-seller list?
Two men, Eldad and Medad, were prophesying without proper authority. Joshua was upset and insisted that Moses put a stop to it all, but Moses would have none of it. “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all of the Lord’s people were prophets!”
Moses demonstrated there not merely wisdom, but tolerance in an age where such was unheard of.
Jesus also, saying: Whoever is not against us is for us. Both he and Moses could have been threatened by words and deeds that seemed to have no real license and authority, but both decided to let them go.
Some would say that this is a sign of weakness, or a lack of confidence. Especially with regard to the Church. These accusations have often been leveled against the Episcopal Church. Many assume that we don’t stand for anything because we are so tolerant.
Well, nothing could be further from the truth.
Historically, from our English and Scottish roots and through generations of great Anglican thinkers we continue to choose the path of tolerance – the via media, or middle way; the way of reason which, when combined with the study of scripture and the vibrant importance of Church tradition, leads to open minds and open dialogue.
This is not a wide and easy way as some shallowly assume. It is actually a narrow and difficult path that is often not clearly signed.
But any church, any denomination, any family of faith must tread that path, if there is to be peace, and mutual respect and understanding.
It is the path of Moses and Jesus. God give us courage to walk that road of grace. And to learn from one another along the way.