Love and Tolerance: A Resurrection Post

I grew up in Europe of the late 1930s. Fascism was in power, Communists were evil, Laurel and Hardy were funny, Errol Flynn was an action star, the Generalísimo was in charge, school uniforms were the order of the day, and Jesus was safely affixed to his cross where he could do others no serious harm.

Early 1970s Spain was a time capsule, capped by the Pyrenees and held captive under the tricorn hat of the Guardia Civil. The Luftwaffe weren’t bombing the north country, but the Basques were still violently upset over the last time they had. Terrorist tension ratcheted up to the sound of ETA bombs while Belfast refugees lived in unsettled ease, hiding from their troubles in the heartland of the Inquisition. It was in this country — Franco’s Spain, the land of my first immigration — that culture shock and anachronism became the warp and woof of my life. It was here that I would learn to be a militant Protestant just shy of being Irish.

I still recall the warm waters of my uncle’s baptistery. I was no more than five when I first waded into my official declaration of Christian discipleship. And though as a Southern Baptist minister fighting the culture wars of the sixties and seventies in central California, he was both compassionate and combative; his was a gentler faith[1] than the Protestant stand I learned in the land of revered icons and idols. Saints, signs, and superstitions assaulted us from every corner and crosswalk. I remember the day my brother Timothy joined the queue of children charmed by the nun. As he grew closer to her breast, he was appalled to see that they had lined up to kiss her crucifix. He ran away in shock as she declared him anathema for breaking rank. But simple abstention wasn’t enough.

One day in third grade, we were all given an icon of Mary on cardstock. My Protestant friend, Juan David, and I rolled our eyes as our classmates happily kissed her face in adoration. Recess was called and as was custom, we made our way to the restroom before entering the playground. As Juan David and I stood facing the wall of the group urinal, we came to the same decision in silence. We both flicked our cards into the water trough while still in full stream, showing no mercy to Mary or the boys who fruitlessly tried to save her from our indignation. The next forty-five minutes marked the longest recess I ever experienced in school as he and I alternately ran and fought until the whistle blew and called all boys back into the classroom, Protestant (just he and me) and Catholic (everybody else) alike.

When we moved back to the USA, I was full of fight and argument against a Catholicism few here practiced. Despite the paucity of Catholics in the buckle of the Bible Belt that I now called home, I dove into serious study of the pagan origins of Christian traditions during my early teens which fanned the flames of my anti-papal fire to a degree that it threatened to singe even my Protestant brethren. Babies in the baptistery were thrown out with the water as I surged forward in search a purer truth and practice. Somewhere along that line, I began to forget about the Person and the people he had come to save. I fell in love with dogma and grew cold to Deity.

Christians are often accused of intolerance. We are, perhaps, most intolerant of each other. The history of Protestant persecution and retaliation is well documented. You’ve read some of its remnants in the scraps of my life detailed above. Any Christian that doesn’t meet my level of devotion is nominal. Any fanatic whose faith isn’t as rational as mine is a radical. But that is not the sort of intolerance that the current culture rails on us about. They are mostly incensed at our framework of salvation and assertions of morality.

Hardly any would argue that murder is moral, but many will debate whether abortion is murder. Assert that it is, and you are intolerant, ignorant, and misogynistic. Hardly any would defend the pedophile on the grounds of sexual orientation. But call homosexuality a perversion and you are intolerant, homophobic, and puritanical. Few enjoy being cheated on, but call adultery sin and you are an intolerant prig out of touch with the polyamorous reality of modern man who is subject to his evolutionary inheritance. None care for the company of bratty children. But discipline your child away from his harmful nature, and you are an intolerant, abusive ogre intent on contorting and controlling his life.

Christianity loses its soul without sin. When murder, fornication, adultery, and rebellion become behaviors with no moral consequence, love your neighbor as yourself loses all possibility of significance. Love isn’t simply an undefined bag of sentiment and jumbled emotions. Neither is it the “live and let live” of the worshippers of tolerance. Love involves the discipline of moral behavior, of not crossing my neighbor’s boundary to do him harm. Tolerance demands that when others do, I remain silent. Love also demands that if my neighbor is being harmed, I should rush to his aid. Tolerance demands that I mind my own business. After all, they are consenting adults, right? Perhaps? Maybe?

Sin is why Christianity has a Savior. When Christians proclaim with Jesus that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; our use of the definite article is seen as exclusionary. The central theme of our faith, salvation, brings light to its antithesis, damnation.  This is viewed as our greatest intolerance of all. How can you believe in a God who would condemn people to Hell, they ask. How could I not believe in a God who died and went there to save me from it, is my reply. Love isn’t tolerance. It is truth in action willing to save the perishing. It isn’t dogma, it is deeds. Its highest form isn’t human, it is Divine.

Nearly twenty years ago, a young lady in my church was getting married. She had been brought up Catholic and wanted a priest to officiate the wedding. She and her fiancée rented a small church and invited me to do the Gospel reading for the ceremony. And so it was that the priest and the house church pastor met in a Protestant church to marry a Charismatic couple. On rehearsal night, the priest ran me through the paces. At the appointed time, we would walk up; he to the altar, me to the podium. The music played and he nodded. We met in the aisle and walked forward, side by side. “Bet you never thought you would walk down the aisle with a priest?” Jesus said. For the second time in my life, I heard the Lord’s laughter.

 

[1] Glennon Culwell and my Aunt Jean brought Christ to the Larum clan. His autobiography, My Life in the Potter’s Hands is a candid retelling of the grace of God at work in all the messiness and trauma of life. If your view of Baptist ministers (or Baptists in general) is one of a bunch of stuffed, heartless shirts, you need to read this book.

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