Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tolerance and Openness in the Christian Community

26th Sunday of Year B
(Mark 9:38-43; 47-48)
September 27, 2009

IF one looks back to what happened in the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, one may probably assert quite convincingly that at the root of the upheaval in the Soviets was the search for a way of life that would give comfort, contentment and security to the people. Is there a single formula to achieve it? This is a question that has not been sufficiently answered even to date. Of course, under the regime of Lenin and Stalin who rejected anything that has to do with capitalism, the answer did not surprise anyone: there was only a formula: the Communist formula. But after the collapse of the union, each of the republics seemed to have had a different idea on just what kind of system would give the people the kind of life they longed for. For some, like Kazakhstan , some form of union with Moscow was necessary. But for others, like the Baltics, there was no substitute for complete independence. To be sure, what Lithuania did could have invited the intervention of Moscow , were it done 25 years before. One easily recalls the tanks that rolled when Yugoslavia attempted in the 50s to break away from the union. But in this decade, the slogan of Gorbachev’s Moscow is glasnost, openness, tolerance.

Can this be said of Christianity? Though some people would wish that uniformity be observed in everything that has to do with religion, the 1st Reading and the Gospel share the view that we should have tolerance and openness to those who differ with us. Our relationship with others, which arises from our relationship with God, is to be informed by openness and tolerance. In the first reading we are told that Moses bestowed the spirit on the gathered seventy elders who began to prophesy. But Eldad and Meldad, who were not in the gathering but had been left in the camp, likewise spoke in enraptured enthusiasm. Having known this, Joshua asked Moses to stop the two from prophesying, but the latter answered, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!” (Num 11:29). In the Gospel, John and other disciples tried to exclude a non-member from exercising the ministry of healing and exorcism in the name of Jesus. But Jesus did not stop the strange exorcist. On the contrary, he warned the disciples against arrogance, jealousy and intolerance and challenged them to open to others, for God rewards those who show even the small courtesies to those who teach in Jesus’ name (Mark 9:38-41).

What do these stories signify? Reading the first Genesis account on creation (Gen 1:1-2:4), we notice that all that is good comes from God. In effect, we cannot limit, nor claim to know, the many ways by which God shares his goodness with the rest of humanity. What is obvious is that where there is goodness, God is at work, whether we like it or not. It would be presumptuous of us were we to claim that God communicates his goodness only through us, or through our Christian community. We must admit that God is free to share his goodness with other than us. Regrettably, various sects claiming to be rooted in Christ keep attacking each other, as if they had the monopoly of God’s truth or his goodness. Yet, we find that in Num 22:28, God can make an ass talk. In Isa 6:5, we read that the prophet had unclean lips, unworthy of being God’s messenger, and yet God used him to proclaim his message. Indeed, it is not incorrect to say that God is even at work among atheists. That is why we should be tolerant of those who are not part of our Christian community, those who do not share our views, and those who disagree with us. What is decisive is that their good words and deeds come from God (see 1 John 4:1), that is to say, they manifest God’s goodness.

Indeed, within the Christian community, there has to be room for openness and tolerance. And this is said not as a suggestion. For tolerance and openness should in fact characterize the community. Of course, differences always arise. In Paul, there are two things that are important in Christian relationship, when it comes to differences within the church. First, whatever is said or done is a witness to Christ; it proclaims the risen Lord. If it is consistent with Christ, we can be sure that its inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3). Second, whatever is said or done, far from creating violence, division, quarrel or friction, contributes to the unity of the community (1 Cor 12:7). Most things are to be subordinated to these, and have to be tolerated and accepted. For we must not become obstacles to the saving power of God, we must not allow ourselves to stand between Christ and other people when it comes to the work of salvation. Doing so would be scandalous, and as the Markan Jesus puts it, “it would be better if anyone who leads astray one of these simple believers to be plunged in the sea with a great millstone fastened around his neck” (Mark 9:42). That is why, even in terms of belief, we cannot lord it over others on the presumption that we have the monopoly of truth and goodness, we cannot be oppressive or cynical of others who are not with us. Jesus himself said that “anyone who is not against us is with us” (Mark 9:40).

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