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Tolerance and Forgiveness

from the “Nurture in Time and Eternity” collection

Exodus 14:19-31
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

September 11, 2005
Marsh Chapel
Boston University

Nearly every commentator today proclaims that our world needs more tolerance and forgiveness, even when they disagree about whom to tolerate and whom to forgive. On this anniversary of 9/11/01, we should weep to see that tolerance and forgiveness are in far shorter supply now than before that date. The American response to the criminal terrorism of 9/11 was to lash out with a “war” on terrorism instead of an international police action and criminal prosecution. Finding no terrorists who wanted a stand-up war, we then attacked Afghanistan and Iraq, neither of which had attacked us, overthrowing their governments and driving their people into chaos and devastation. We lied to the world and to ourselves about those governments’ connections with El Qaeda and about our motives for invasion. Our government simply could not tolerate those governments which did not like us. Of course, on the other side the American wars fueled the intolerance and vengefulness of many Muslim people across the globe who identify with Afghanistan and Iraq, recruiting more terrorists than Osama bin Laden’s advertisements ever could. Many non-Muslim nations around the world became intolerand and vengeful against the American way of life because of our response to 9/11. So the world is in a pitiful state, now, with regard to the kinds of tolerance and forgiveness necessary for a world harmony of civilizations.

St. Paul, in our lectionary text this morning, states the case for tolerance and the forgiveness that must accompany it. “Who are you,” he wrote, “to pass judgment on servants of another?” The background of his comment on not passing judgment is that the Roman Christians were a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles, lower class and upper class. The Jews were worried about being kosher, and the lower class people were somewhat superstitious about eating meat that had been slaughtered in sacrifice to idols. In the ancient Roman world most butcher shops were attached to temples—that’s where you got meat, and nearly all meat had been sacrificed to some god or other. In Paul’s sophisticated view, kosher laws were unnecessary and the idols were just statues. He regarded the Christians who wanted to be kosher or to abstain from meat they believed to have been sacrificed to real competing gods as simply weak in the faith of free Christians. But they were true Christians, he believed, and therefore should be welcomed. He called on both sides to tolerate the scruples of the other, saying each side is ultimately responsible to God, not to some principle.

Our text from Exodus does not seem to have much to say about tolerance, quite the contrary. It tells the familiar story of the Red Sea crossing at the beginning of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, and the story is very confused. You will remember that the Israelites had gone into Egypt about two centuries previously, where Joseph, son of Jacob, or Israel, had been a high official. The land of Canaan had been in a deep famine, and the Egyptians took the Israelites in as a massive welfare case. Over the years the Israelites multiplied and flourished, and the Egyptians felt they had to suppress them with forced labor. You know the story of the burning bush when God called Moses to go to Pharaoh to bring the Israelites out to freedom. Moses called down plagues and pestilences upon Egypt to persuade the Pharaoh to let his people go. Yet in each instance, God hardened the heart of Pharaoh so that he said no. Yes, the Bible is clear that it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart. The final devastating horror was that God went through the land killing all the firstborn of people and animals, passing over only the Israelite families who had slaughtered a lamb or kid and smeared the blood on their doorposts. While the Egyptians were awash in grief, the Israelites stole their valuables and made a dash for the border. When the Pharaoh learned about that, he sent his chariots after the Israelites and our text tells what happened next. God led the people in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. When the Egyptians approached, God whipped around to the rear to defend the column of slow-moving Israelites. He instructed Moses to hold his hand and his staff over the Red Sea, which parted for the Israelites. The Egyptians in their chariots raced in after them, but their wheels clogged and then God sent back the sea and they were drowned. The Lord arranged all this, the text of Exodus says, so that he might gain “glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers,” in the eyes of both the Egyptians and Israelites. To our modern sensibilities, this seems like somewhat adolescent behavior on God’s part, hardening the Pharaoh’s heart so that God can demonstrate his military glory. In ancient warrior cultures, however, of which Israel was one for a while, such glory-seeking was a virtue. How conceptions of God reflect their cultures is the topic of another sermon!) Of course we do not know whether any of this is historical. No Egyptian records mention anything like the escape of the Israelites or the loss of the entire Egyptian army.

The arbitrariness of God in this story was recognized by the Jewish rabbis early on. They tell about a victory party in heaven the night after the Israelites escaped through the Red Sea. Since God had done the fighting for the Israelites, the heavenly host was celebrating the victory of their divine hero. But God was found weeping. “Why?,” he was asked. “Although I rejoice for my children, the Israelites,” God answered, “I sorrow for my children, the Egyptians.”

In the rabbis’ tale lies a fundamental principle for tolerance, namely, that the feelings of all sides need to be taken into account. Or to put the point more theologically, God is as close to any one people as God is to any other. All are children of God. Of course, to understand God’s dealings with people in the form of a story, as the Exodus account is a story, is always to adopt the particular perspective of the story. The Exodus is a great model of freedom for Israel, but a model of ingratitude and thievery for the Egyptians and an utter disaster for the people of Canaan on whom the Israelites fell next. The stories of the Egyptians and Canaanites cast very different lights on Israel’s story of itself.

Let’s think about conflicting stories for a moment, as we try to understand Christian tolerance after 9/11. We Christians like to tell a story of ourselves as spreading a religion of love, peace, and justice through a world where those ways of relating to God and to one another are in short supply. Our story includes the Christianization of the Roman Empire, of Europe, of the Americas, and many parts of Asia and Africa. When Jews tell their story of Christianity, however, with two thousand years of Christian persecution, culminating in the Holocaust, the Christian self-image can be viewed only as outrageous hypocrisy.

A few weeks ago we witnessed the bitter grief of Jewish settlers being forced out of their homes in Gaza by their own army. For many of the settlers, that was like what happened to their European parents and grandparents under the anti-Semites. Yet, whatever you think about the justice of that forcible removal, we can hope that it will give the people of Israel deeper insight into the Palestinians’ insistence on the right of return to their own homes from which they were forcibly removed when the modern State of Israel was founded. Will the Israelis come to understand that the Palestinians have a similar story?

Or consider the story we Americans tell of ourselves regarding the founding of our nation. Good, upstanding, educated colonists led a revolution to separate America from the British Empire, because the economic and political policies of the Empire denied the freedom of the Americans to develop our own economic and political interests. The Americans’ scrappy little standing army, led by George Washington, could rarely win a stand-up battle against the vastly more powerful British war machine, with its trained mercenaries, supplied by the best navy in the world. So the war was fought mainly by colonial guerilla insurgencies that kept the British off guard, disrupted their supplies, and finally made the suppression of the insurgency too costly, especially when the French intervened to block the British navy and the support for the war diminished in Britain. We won that war, and when the British came back in 1812, we beat them again, pretty much the same way. Americans love the underdog, the resourceful people that get around the imperial economic machines and do not let more powerful people tell them what to do. That story is an essential component of our special sense of freedom and democracy. Now you know where I am going with this point. What people have a story like ours today? The Iraqi insurgents, of course. And we Americans are playing the role of the British Empire. Many dis-analogies exist between the American revolutionary situation and that of contemporary Iraq, and these should not be discounted. Nevertheless, the positive analogy of these stories is very strong.

Tolerance requires that we disengage ourselves from our own stories somewhat and see those stories from the standpoint of the others involved. The examples I have cited illustrate different ways in which national or religious stories relate. The stories of the Israelites, Egyptians, and Canaanites about the Exodus illustrate how one event can play very different and morally conflicting roles in the separate stories of the participants. The views of the Christians and Jews about Christian history illustrate how different perspectives within a single story give rise to radically different interpretations. The stories of modern Jews and Palestinians about their being forcibly removed from their homes, and the violence this justifies as counter-measures, illustrate how similar stories with heroes and villains reversed can lead to irresolvable conflicts. Northern Ireland has this kind of conflict of stories. So does the recent history of Muslims and Hindus in Pakistan and India. The similarity between the American revolution and the Iraqi insurgency illustrates the irony when one story defining heroes and villains becomes the narrative framework of another situation with the heroes of the first becoming the villains of the second.

Now I submit that tolerance is impossible so long as any group identifies itself with its story, or interpretation of a larger story, without also being able to honor the alternatives. The real problem is that God’s creation is too rich to be reduced to self-identity through narratives. We are tempted to solve the problem by enlarging the stories to be all inclusive. Where that is possible, all to the good. For instance, Christian self-understanding can be enlarged to acknowledge persecution of Jews, with appropriate repentance. We Americans can enlarge our current story to see how we have betrayed our founding story of freedom and respect for the underdog in our current policies. But sometimes mere enlargement of stories is not possible. Sometimes conflicts are real, and to maintain a close hold on our own story is to be committed to an intolerant narrative. A few weeks ago I preached against what theologians call the narrative understanding of Christianity, one based on a cosmic story of God fighting the forces of evil. That kind of narrative shrinks God into a finite, parochial player in a larger cosmic drama within which God might be the biggest and best but surely not the creator of the whole. Such a narrative is also a formula for hate, because it misleads people into hating those whom they believe God hates.

The Christian gospel instead builds on the rabbis’ understanding of God’s tears for the Egyptians. God is the creator of the whole cosmos, and all people are equally God’s children. Fundamental Christian tolerance relates to other people through our and their relation to God, not directly through our conflicting stories. Paul was exactly right when he said, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.” This is to say, we do not live and die as defined by our own stories. “If we live,” said Paul, “we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” The same thing is true of every other people, regardless of their being Jew or Gentile, Christian or any other religion, virtuous or disgustingly sinful. Our primal identity is our relation to God in our own context, and that relation to God includes relating to other people as also first related to God in their context, and only secondarily as interacting with us in our context. Our fundamental relation to other people should be to treat them as living and dying to God, whose children they are.

No moral relativism lurks here, because we all, ourselves and all those others, stand under judgment to God. But we cannot make any deep, ontological judgment on those others, as Jesus remarked in the Sermon on the Mount. That judgment belongs to God. Because of this, our fundamental attitude toward others needs to be tolerance. Our proximate moral judgments need to be made in terms of our best understanding that is informed by stories in part, by historical, sociological, psychological, and anthropological understanding, by the critical imagination of the arts, and by experience of practical life. Most of all, our proximate moral judgments need to be informed by the conviction at the heart of our faith that even our enemies are loved by God and should be loved by us even when we have to oppose them. This is the meaning of Christian tolerance. Because we sometimes do have to oppose people, tolerance requires forgiveness, our forgiveness of them, their forgiveness of us, and God’s forgiveness of all. Paul said,

Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.


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