Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The intolerant gospel

By Gerd Lüdemann

The Early Christian message announces that God has brought to pass a new epoch. It began with the coming of his son into this world, culminated provisionally in the latter's resurrection from the dead, and was supposed to reach its fulfillment in his imminent Second Coming. The Gospel--its literal translation is "Good News"--has Jesus Christ as its center. The salvation or eternal damnation of individual human beings depends on whether they believe or do not believe in him. "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. But whoever does not believe will be condemned"-this is the clear message of the risen Jesus at the end of Mark's Gospel, the first of the four canonical accounts to be written.

But soon, the Good News developed into Threatening News-that is, if the offer of salvation was turned down! Church leaders soon equated right belief with obedience. They projected onto the screen of heaven a social fabric based on subordination and increasingly shaped by a culture of suppression. The canonical status of the New Testament writings--henceforth an eternal norm for the church--has radically blurred the vision of its followers, inhibiting their ability to recognize that all these texts emerged from controversies whose marks they still show.

The Christian church benefited from the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 c.e., and until the end of the first century it spread rapidly within the Roman Empire. Indeed, so rapid was its continued growth that a little more than two and a half centuries later this new and formerly outlawed faith became the official religion of the empire. Judaism laid the groundwork for Christianity's enormous success by endowing the church with the high ethical standards of the Old Testament. What an irony of history that the Christian religion showed so little gratitude to her Jewish mother as to relegate her along with other "enemies" of the Gospel to the realm of darkness. Yet in so doing, she did no more than certify her inheritance, for the legacy of Israel included the doctrine of election and with it the exclusive monotheism that judged all other kinds of worship as service to idols.

As an integral part of their missionary efforts, these enthusiastic Christians introduced First Commandment intolerance ("I am Yahweh, your God, you shall have no other gods besides me") into the Greco-Roman world. Oddly enough, it was their own religious tolerance and inclusiveness that afforded the competing Hellenistic religions little chance of asserting themselves against the Christians. Acquiescence, far from being an antidote against the Christian claim of exclusive revelation, allowed the church to take advantage of Rome's laissez-faire politics in religious matters and thus to expand relentlessly.

In this context, it is worth noting that the generally exaggerated accounts of Roman persecutions of Christians were limited in scope and severity. Lusting after martyrdom, many Christians in effect condemned themselves, and many a Roman governor failed to do them the favor of execution. And once they had begun participating in the political power structure, Christian bishops guided the governmental sword against pagans, heretics, and Jews to an extent that far exceeded the intensity of previous persecutions against their coreligionists. This intolerance remained in force until modern times.

Contrary to the popular thesis that Luther's understanding of freedom included tolerance, there can be no doubt about the great reformer's intolerance toward Catholics, Jews, Turks, Gentiles, and Protestant heretics. Rather, humanists and Christian minorities first raised the call for tolerance. And despite the initial lack of success these groups achieved, they finally succeeded against the will of both the Roman and Reformed churches. To be sure, the church's resistance against tolerance was, historically speaking, a necessity. For the overall thrust of Holy Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments, is to promote God and his reign and to silence all dissenting voices.

And while "peace" is a central theme in Holy Scripture, the aggressive side of Christian faith is all but certainly responsible for the many bloody wars started in and from Christian Europe. A key issue, of course, is how that peace is to be achieved. Here, the New Testament message is as crystal-clear as it is-at least by modern standards-indefensible: Jesus Christ himself will return to carry out God's will and by force, empowered by the authority of his resurrection, will establish his father's kingdom of peace on earth. On the basis of this promise, believers in Jesus Christ have at all times claimed access to that power and used it with a good conscience against those they perceive to be enemies of the Gospel.

Indeed, intolerance seems to an inherent, even necessary ingredient of the Christian religion. The noted theologian Karl Barth says it quite openly: No sentence is more dangerous or revolutionary than that God is One and there is no other like Him. Let this sentence be uttered in such a way that it is heard and grasped, and at once 450 prophets of Baal are always in fear of their lives. There is no more room now for what the recent past called toleration. Beside God there are only his creatures or false gods, and beside faith in him there are religions only as religions of superstition, error, and finally irreligion.

Clearly, it would be misleading to think that freedom in general and freedom of religion specifically are the consequence of the Christian message. Indeed, the religious tradition that claims as its founder the Prince of Peace has through the centuries shown an inability to endure other religious viewpoints. And this is as true today as ever, despite the protestations of church leaders who would like to have it appear otherwise in order to retain their welcome within the institutions of power that comprise the secular state.

In reality, neither Christian theology nor the church can champion freedom of religion without betraying a considerable degree of hypocrisy. For tolerance requires an unconditional acknowledgment of the freedom and dignity of human beings without recourse to God. Yet the jealous Yahweh of the Bible, who demands unconditional obedience, can never approve of such liberal affirmations.

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