Gamaliel shows the better part of wisdom in this passage. Though not embracing the way of Christ, he sees a part of it in his own way when after hearing his contemporaries calling for blood and expulsion of this strange sect of Judaism before them, he says “no”. He says new need not be wrong, but simply different. We need to trust God enough to know that destroying our neighbors and fellow human beings over difference of believe is wrong. We need to trust that if we speak the truth we have, and let them speak the truth they have, God will make clear which way will be right and end up sustaining only what truly furthers God’s good purpose.
Sadly Gamaliel’s contemporaries don’t fully act out on his suggestions and still flog the early Christians and tell them to be silenced, but Gamaliel’s advice does limit their response.
It sets an example for us to follow as well. Too often we identify as Christians with the early apostles, persecuted and on the run. They are called to remain faithful, to not give into the pressure to be silenced. But for much time in the West we believers have more been like the council considering the plight of other minority groups – in power, in authority, in the majority. There have always been voices like Gamaliel in our Christian community: calling us to respect people with other beliefs, other approaches to life, and to recognize we don’t need to legislate religion or morality, but trust to be the only Judge of human hearts. However, our history is littered with the bodies of those killed in the name of enforcing true religion – from the ones the church deemed heretics when it became official religion of Rome, to those killed in the Inquisitions of Europe and the Crusades, to the times in America that Puritans did witch trials, or even when mainline Christians attempted to push Latter Day Saint Christianity out of New York. The compassionate, tolerant spirit of Gamaliel which Acts praised was not there.
How different the approach that was used to enforce one brand or religion or politics upon others was to the way of Jesus who teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount to be tolerant of those who are different knowing God sends rain on the just and unjust, calling us not to return evil for evil but to love those we feel threatened at as enemies, to good to them. When Christianity is reduced to a formula of orthodoxy to be defended at all costs rather than a way of compassionate living to be lived from the heart, it becomes just as damaging and damning as the very ways of life that threatened it in its early days.
We need to constantly ask – are we turning the faith of the persecutors into a path of persecuting others?
We see it happen all the time when people quote their Bible and use their so-called religious beliefs to justify standing in the way of human rights of others of different faiths, sexualities, or cultures. We see it when people quote Scripture to justify anti-semitism, homophobia, or mistreatment of people of other faiths than their own. We see it too whenever people try to use the name of Christ to draw circles to keep others out, when that same Jesus was the One who was criticized for welcoming all kinds of people (not just the orthodox, religious, and well loved in society’s eyes) at table.
Let us embrace the path of loving respect, not rejection. Love all, let God be the Judge.
And I sure ain’t whistling Dixie,
Your progressive redneck preacher,