Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Hitler, Dante, and the Insufficiency of Tolerance

Lately I've been a bit consumed with eschatology (the study of last things). This has been in part because I've been teaching Revelation to the teens class on Wednesday nights for the last quarter, and have had to seriously examine a lot of passages that describe the return of Christ. A relevant issue to all of this is the issue of Hell. 

Hell's pretty unpopular these days. Nobody wants to believe anybody will go to Hell, except for a few choice people like Hitler or Hussein. Those guys could sizzle like bacon for a pretty good while before it would start to bother us.

So I've been thinking about Hitler, and in the spirit of Dante, I've been pondering what his punishment might be like. Dante's Inferno is a fascinating read, and a quite imaginative work. Dante holds strongly to the idea that punishments will somehow correspond to crimes. For example, in the second ring of Hell, Dante describes people being punished who are guilty of lust. Their punishment is to have strong unceasing winds that blow them violently about, taking away their ability to ever get rest or relief. This corresponds to their unwillingness in life to control the desires that they chased in a number of ungodly directions. 

I was wondering what sort of punishment would be fitting of a man like Hitler. He was hungry for notoriety and power. He dehumanized his enemies and treated them as trash. I thought about someone as infamous as Hitler, and wondered what sort of fitting spectacle would be his punishment. And then it occurred to me that perhaps nothing would be more fitting than to see him quietly enclosed in a lonely place and punished secretly, with no pomp or circumstance; to abandon him with no sign at all that suggested this man was in any way worth remembering or acknowledging. 

Up until around the end of chapter 20, I understand Revelation to be a book that is similar to the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the curtain is pulled back so that Dorothy can see what is going on that no one else can see. John is in exile, when suddenly the heavens open up, and he is invited to see what God and his allies are up to while Christians are dealing with oppressive and bestial world powers. We hear Angels shouting victory and singing new songs. We see martyrs and leaders reigning with Christ, and we smell the incense of their prayers. But one group is strikingly absent. 

The lost are kept outside of the New Jerusalem. They are sent to a "second death" in the Lake of Fire. But in all the discussion that goes on for pages and pages of the action and excitement that happens in the presence of God, the lost are completely absent. They aren't protesting, banding together, or knocking on the gates. They simply aren't part of the future that God is bringing into existence. If their souls continue to exist, it is only in that they are tolerated to exist, but no value is attached to them once they've been cast aside to be discarded.

All of this led me to think about the great clamor we all hear these days about the importance of tolerance. In every setting, people are pushing for the perceived virtue of tolerance. (Tolerance isn't always virtuous.) But when you listen to what people are really wanting, tolerance isn't it. Tolerance means I let something exist, despite finding it a total bother. Many of the people I hear shouting for "tolerance" are themselves quite tolerated. They are allowed to exist, so why keep asking for it? The deeper thing I believe people are begging for is to receive respect. Respect goes beyond tolerance. Respect dignifies and acknowledges where it can. 

I read an excellent book a few weeks ago called Leadership and Self-Deception. The book is all about one important principle in dealing with people: no matter what people do or how they have disappointed you, always continue to treat them as human beings. The place we so often fall short is that we allow people to become nuisances, obstacles, or burdens, and in doing so, we cease to acknowledge the value of their humanity. This is why we will chew out a co-worker, we will humiliate a clerk behind a counter, or we will have no patience or second chances for someone who has disappointed us in any way. We mentally categorize them as less than human so that we can treat them as such. They become something we tolerate instead of someone in whom we see value. This is a Hellish way to live.

I believe God will have painful judgments for many people who have lived far beneath what they were created to be. But he will wait until the end of their days to deliver his verdict. A challenge for me is not to be a merely tolerant person, but to be a loving person. It is ok to acknowledge when someone has annoyed or frustrated me, but I can express this in a way that simultaneously acknowledges that I believe they have intrinsic value, having been made in God's image. I can express disappointment for people or condemnation of their behavior in that they were created to do things much better than what they've chosen to do, and with God's help, I know this is possible for them.

I don't know what God will do with Hitler. I don't fully grasp how all things will unfold as the Kingdom of God continues to break through into the corrupted world we're living in. But I do know that for my part, it is my job to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to the oppressed, freedom to those who are captive, and the year of the Lord's favor to all who are willing to accept the good news. To love people in the way that God loves them goes beyond tolerance, because in every person it sees their value and seeks their redemption. 

May you live today in a way that God would deem worth remembering,


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