Yesterday afternoon, I had a little fender-bender with a lady who was driving a very big SUV. As we waited patiently for the police to arrive (45 minutes later), I earned that she had immigrated some years ago from western Ukraine, where the fighting with the Russians and their sympathizers had been largely absent. But I could not help but think of the years of fierce struggle between Orthodox and Catholic Christians over the recovery of churches and other property seized under the rule of the Soviet Union.
I suspect that my sense of regret at what Christians have done to one another out of zeal for doctrinal and behavioral orthodoxy was amplified by the having witnessed the previous two weeks of splendid and highly baroque celebrations in Rome – canonizations included. As I could not help but recall last night, the face of the institutional church is historically at least two-sided.
The origins of Christian intolerance are ancient: we can detect the roots in the Easter readings from the Acts of the Apostles we have been hearing – the conflict between the Hellenized converts and the Jewish disciples that led to the development of the order of Deacons, and today we learn of the growing chasm between the Hellenizers and Judaizers that would imperil for unity of the infant Church for decades, until the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 and again more thoroughly in 135.
The inclusive vision of Barnabas and Paul would ultimately prevail, one Paul would articulate in his letters to the Christian Galatians and Romans. In Christ, he had come to realize, salvation by obedience to law had been supplanted. The new covenant is one of grace and mercy, of greater inclusion and expansion than ever imagined. All are welcome.
Over and over, however, Christians have been tempted to retreat to the comfort and safety of religious law. And they have all too often fallen. Every human society needs rules of belonging and procedure, but the drive toward regulation too easily decays into an obsession with control, and control too easily leads to rigidity and intolerance. Intolerance produces persecution, and persecution relies on terrorism, torture, and ultimately execution. The sad history of post-Reformation Europe in this respect hardly needs recalling. Martyrs abound on all sides.
How far all this is from what we hear in Jesus’ words — “Anyone who lives in me and I in him will produce abundantly, for apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not live in me is like a withered branch….”
So as the US president heads toward Rome to meet Pope Francis, let us pray that the life of the Spirit will well up vibrantly in him and all of us, just as we are witnessing outdoors at this lovely time of year, when rising life erupts so gloriously in leaf and blossom. May distrust, suspicion, triumphalism, and bigotry wither on the vine. And as we approach the 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation, may all our works bear the abundant fruit of mercy, peace, and reconciliation.