Some years ago I ran across the amazing story of a young black South African minister who had been arrested by apartheid authorities on bogus charges. He was terribly tortured by his captors, enduring unspeakable horrors. Amidst his anguish this young man would scream out to God for the strength to endure, only to be mocked by his captors, who would shout, “Hallelujah, brother! Call on your great God! But your God cannot save you now!” They tried to break his faith even as they broke his body. Finally, the intercession of outside authorities and a change in the political climate secured the young preacher’s release. He eventually recovered health enough to engage on a speaking tour in America, and naturally, people expected his message to focus primarily on condemnation of his torturers and the regime that had oppressed him. But his theme instead centered on one of most remarkable statements I have ever encountered: “The more you suffer,” he said, “the more you cannot hate.” When you have suffered much, you cannot hate! People expected him to hope that his torturers would burn in hell. But his horrific experience had caused him to believe that you cannot damn people you love, even those who regard you as an enemy.
Out of that excruciating experience, this young man gleaned three profound theological principles. First, he learned that God is sovereign. Whatever the evil intentions of his torturers, this young man became convinced that the creative and sovereign God had turned his horrific imprisonment into an instrument not only of deepening his own spiritual insight but of planting a seed of faith in the hearts of his torturers. Second, not only is God sovereign, capable of turning evil intentions into positive ends, but God is also surprising. This surprising God not only freed him from the torture chamber, but was using his testimony as an instrument for persuading his people to dismantle the apartheid system and embrace racial equality in his nation. But most importantly, this young man found that this sovereign and surprising God had filled him with a transcendent love that made him incapable of hatred or vindictiveness. He found himself unable to hate even those who had broken his body and ridiculed his faith. Having suffered much, he could not hate. God had filled him with a transcendent love that taught him, you cannot hate those whom you love; you cannot damn those whom you love; you cannot give up on those whom you love.
These three spiritual principles inform Paul’s passionately-argued essay in chapters nine through eleven of Romans, as he struggles to answer the question of what God will do with the Jews, his biological brethren who by and large have rejected the Good News that Paul has found so liberating. How will God ultimately treat his biological brethren who had turned a deaf ear to the redemptive good news of Christ? After all, said Paul, to the Jews “belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.” Is God going to give up on his covenant people because they have turned their hearts against the ministry of His Son? And if that is the case, has God broken God’s promises? And if God has broken God’s promises, does that mean that God is untrustworthy? Paul wrestles with these questions and comes to this conclusion: God, acting freely and by means of divine initiative, chose the Jews as a covenant partner. God in God’s freedom and gracious initiative chose the Jews as a covenant partner by which God could reveal to the world the nature of God’s actions in human history. But since that selection by God was not based on any merit in the Jewish people, but was solely an action of God’s prerogative, God is also free to choose another people to express and embody God’s positive will and way. That, says Paul, to everyone’s amazement, is exactly what is happening. God has chosen the pagan Gentiles to embody positively the divine work and will. Meanwhile, God seems to have closed the ears and blinded the eyes of the Jewish people to Christ’s Good News, even as God hardened the heart of Pharaoh to Moses’ entreaties.
Paul wonders, does this mean that God is vindictive, capricious and untrustworthy? No, for God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was in keeping with Pharaoh’s natural predilection toward intransigence and self-worship. Likewise, says Paul, God’s blinding of Jewish eyes and deafening their ears to the Gospel of Christ coheres with the Jewish community’s fixation on obedience to Mosaic Law and their orienting of all spiritual life around the religious rituals of the Temple. God seems for a time to have rendered the Jews deaf and blind to God’s mighty works in Christ, but this divine decree only confirms the Jews’ reflexive inability to equate the Messianic Anointed One of God with a crucified carpenter’s son at Golgotha.
Then Paul turns his attention to his Gentile hearers and says to them bluntly, you have no reason to boast. The fact that you Gentiles are hearing the Good News and receiving it is solely a result of God’s gracious initiative. Your inclusion in God’s family is solely due to God’s redemptive work. You have no room for spiritual smugness or spiritual superiority. Your redemption is solely accomplished through God’s gracious redemptive act. As such, any boasting on your part is vain and misguided. You did not earn your election into God’s family through your merit. God simply chose to include you. Even your acceptance of the Christ is a pure gift of God. God did not accept you because of your natural goodness. God through Christ accepted you solely as an act of divine prerogative, then God gave you the gift of allowing you to accept God’s acceptance of you. You have no room for spiritual pride.
That was Paul’s word to the Gentiles in Rome; that is his word unto us. By embracing Christ as Savior and Lord we do not make God embrace and accept us. God had already chosen to embrace and accept us. When we accept Christ as Savior we merely accept God’s acceptance, which means, as we consider our relationship to people from other faith traditions, we must begin from the outset by surrendering any sense of spiritual superiority. We must begin from a position of utter humility. We didn’t earn our salvation. We didn’t gain God’s acceptance through our own goodness. Our redemption is solely God’s work. God has dealt with us proactively, creatively, redemptively, graciously and inclusively. We don’t merit inclusion in the family of God. That inclusion is God’s pure gift. So we have no warrant for spiritual smugness or superiority. We know that our redemption is God’s work and not our own. Moreover, having acknowledged that God has dealt with us proactively, creatively, redemptively, graciously and inclusively, we cannot deny God the right to act in the same manner toward people of other faith traditions. More importantly, since God has interacted with us proactively, creatively, redemptively, graciously and inclusively, how can we not act in a similar fashion toward everyone we meet, regardless of their faith tradition? Paul’s words to the Gentiles in Rome is also his word unto Gentiles in Macon. We have no room for spiritual smugness or superiority. We can only accept our redemption in utter humility and respond to grace with graciousness.
Paul then climaxes his argument in extraordinary fashion. Of course, Paul should have hated his fellow Jews. They had subjected him to every form of persecution. They had tortured him like those apartheid captors did that young South African minister. Yet, like that young South African minister, Paul had discovered that you cannot hate those you love. You cannot damn those you love. You cannot give up on those you love. Paul passionately asserted, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” But Paul didn’t go on to say that those who reject this truth are cut off from God forever. In fact, he said the opposite. As he came to the end of this long, impassioned essay, his heart moved him to say, somehow, someway, all Israel shall be saved! He could not damn those he loved.
In fact, Paul trumpeted, “God has consigned all humanity to disobedience so that God can have mercy on all!” How does Paul know that God will do this? He doesn’t! But his heart has reasons which his logic cannot understand. He knows that he cannot give up on those he loves. Paul hopes that the God who has somehow found a way to include him in the divine family will somehow find a way to include the Jews, too.
My friends, we live in a multicultural world where we rub shoulders with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, and with people of no faith whatsoever. But they are all people – people. Regardless of whatever category we might place them, they are all, first and foremost, people, people of – flesh, blood, tears, breath and sweat, just like you and me, capable of love, mercy, goodness — and badness, just like we are.
But as Christians we live under a clear commandment from our Lord: we are to treat others as we would want to be treated, as children of God.
Paul has spent his life trying to pierce his people’s hard shell of rejection of Christ’s Good News. He admits that he is living in an age where they seem deaf to his words. I can appreciate the depth of that insight. I can also understand why Jewish people would not be open to our Gospel when some of their family members were herded into the Nazi gas chambers to the sound of Christian hymns blaring on surrounding loud speakers. I can understand what Gandhi was saying when someone asked him, “Why aren’t you a Christian?” and he responded, “Because of my experience of Christians.” When I was in the seminary I became good friends with a young Iranian Muslim and his wife. He even came to church with me, drawn to our faith because of the appeal of the concept of God’s grace, a concept he said was lacking in his own religion. I think perhaps in time he might have become a Christian. But then the Iranian hostage crisis came along, and he and his wife received so many death threats, so much hate mail and harassing phone calls in our allegedly Christian nation that he withdrew from school, moved to another city and cut off contact with me. I could not blame him.
The truth is, we cannot hate anyone into the Kingdom of God. The only thing we have to offer the world is Christ’s surpassing love. We cannot bring anyone into God’s Kingdom by trying to harp on the weaknesses of other people’s faith. All we can do is live our own faith with integrity.
There is a scene in Richard Attenborough’s amazing cinematic biography of Gandhi that has long stayed with me. It represents a climactic moment in the movie, all the more moving because it really happened. A hate-crazed Hindu came to Gandhi, himself a Hindu, and said, “I am going to hell. I have murdered a little Muslim child in retaliation for the Muslims’ killing of my little son.” Gandhi replied, “I know a way out of hell. Find one of the many orphan boys running around our city and raise him. But make sure he is a Muslim and raise him as a Muslim.”
If that story shocks our sensibilities, let us remember that Gandhi’s point is not so different from the one made by a young Jewish rabbi when a Jewish religious official asked him to define the meaning of “neighbor.” The young rabbi responded with a story where the hero was a heretical, half-breed Samaritan, who demonstrated the love of God to a wounded Jew when the religious officials of his own faith would not. That’s how we are supposed to love, said Jesus. For that is how God has loved us.
What will God do with people from other faiths? I do not know. You do not know. The truth is, this is a question that is solely God’s prerogative to answer. God is free to deal with people from other faith traditions in God’s own way. All we can know for sure is that God has dealt with us proactively, creatively, redemptively, graciously and inclusively. And the only way we can honor and worship that God truly is to live in the same manner with regard to those around us.