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01 March 2008

The tightrope between passion and compassion

The tightrope between passion and compassion

General Director Joel Edwards grapples with an apparent contradiction…

You could argue that Jesus Christ was the most intolerant man who ever lived. He was also the most tolerant. And with Jesus Christ as our model of human behaviour, we have to aspire to holding two seemingly contradictory attitudes at the same time. I suppose nobody ever said that being a Christian was easy.
Here He is with some of the intolerance rhetoric: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices - mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel" (Matthew 23.23).

And here with the tolerance: "Then he turned towards the woman and said to Simon, 'Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered has not stopped kissing my feet'.... Jesus said to the woman, 'Your faith has saved you; go in peace'" (Luke 7.44-45, 50). "This woman" being, of course, a prostitute.

How do we square this slightly odd circle for our lived-out faith in contemporary Britain?

Let me offer a suggestion: Jesus' intolerance was always to do with injustice. He hated it with a passion, like no human being before or since. He could not tolerate the way that institutions, religion or sin could rob human beings of their full potential.

Making mistakes

True tolerance is not about remaining silent in any circumstance
As evangelicals wrestling with the tolerance issue, we tend to make two mistakes. The first is the more obvious and one I have highlighted before. It is intolerance as culture war, where we become aggressive, hostile and negative to a post-Christian culture that has taken a lot of our power. We present ourselves as anti-everything and often deserve the "Christians are so intolerant" accusation.

We can also seem pathetically and superficially meek, as if we believe that Christians should never raise their voices or become angry. But true tolerance does not mean this at all. It is not about remaining silent in any circumstance. Sometimes, quite frankly, we need to display the spirit of Jesus and the God of the prophets in the face of injustice and sin. Jesus was able to quite brilliantly walk a tightrope between passion and compassion, and we have to learn to do the same. He was harsh and outspoken when he needed to be.

His withering list of woes to the Pharisees and teachers of the law tells us not to hold back when institutional power - and particularly religion - oppresses or abuses. His outburst of physical violence in the temple, overturning the traders' tables, is a model of intolerant anger that we should be displaying to the creeping commercialism that has infected nearly every area of modern society. We need to be more vocally opposed to consumerism, which has set itself up as a new religion but delivers little for human flourishing and is threatening the very future of the planet.

In his own multi-cultural, multi-faith world, Jesus' statements about His unique nature and ministry made Him appear intolerant. His words about the reality of heaven and hell in an era where the Roman Emperor thought of himself as God would have been deemed as ideological intolerance. And He would pay the price for this intolerance with His life.

We too must maintain our passion for the exclusivity of the Gospel. We have no need of a diluted message.
But in the midst of a godly and gutsy intolerance of injustice, we must never ever lose sight of the compassion of Jesus that underpinned and informed every passion. Our choice to tolerate or not to tolerate must always come from love.

Radically tolerant

Jason Clark has made some observations about the story of Jesus, Mary and Martha that exemplify the radically tolerant side to Jesus' character. Jesus is teaching, Martha is getting the dinner ready, and Mary is sitting at the Rabbi Jesus' feet, listening to every nugget. For a contemporary audience the message of the story seems to be about priorities: Mary was doing the right thing. After all it's not every day that the Son of God pops in for lasagne.

But Clark points out something else. Jesus was tolerating Mary's company in the presence of a group of men who were having an intellectual and theological discussion. At this time and in this place that was largely unheard of and unacceptable. Equally, the way that Martha complains to Jesus that she is lumbered with all the work would also have been intolerable in that cultural context.

But does He chastise her that she, as a woman, would dare to speak to him, a man and a Rabbi, in that way? No. He listens, He understands, He sympathises, He gently corrects. Jesus changes the rules in unprecedented ways that are always driven by His love and compassion.

In the 21st century, committed Christians have to run the gauntlet between this passion and compassion. It is never either/or. It is always both/and. Biblical tolerance is not about never getting angry, opposing anything or having any convictions. It is about always ensuring that a passion for the truth about God and His passionate intolerance of injustice never obliterate our ability to be compassionate to all people.

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