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05/29/2013 11:22 am ET | Updated Jul 29, 2013

Pope Francis and the New Pluralism

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Pope Francis made waves when he suggested -- OK, he more than suggested, he said -- in a sermon last week that Jesus Christ redeems all: those who are Roman Catholic and those who are not. Those who believe, and those who don't. Christians, atheists, the whole kit and caboodle.

While it's perhaps understandable that the pope's statement got a lot of attention -- he is the pope, after all, and one can hardly imagine his predecessor saying anything remotely like this -- as Father James Martin pointed out in an email to The Huffington Post, the idea that Jesus offered himself for all people, not just his followers, has "always been a Christian belief."

The pope went on to invite his hearers to meet others at the place of doing good works. Because all people are created in God's image, all are capable of doing good. The implication is that Christians shouldn't be surprised to find others, whether of different religions or no religion -- doing good and should be eager to partner with them.

Why this change of tone from, if not the Vatican, at least its pope? I suspect that part of it is that this pope has never separated himself off from the masses. He was famous in his native Argentina for living a simple life, even as a Cardinal, and for living among the people. And even in his heavily Roman Catholic homeland, that means he likely encountered all kinds of people -- the fervently faithful and the lukewarm, Christians and non-Christians, the pious and the irreverent.

That kind of pluralism does something to you. It's one thing to stand back and decry all those who don't believe as you do as infidels or pagans or godless or whatever zealous phrase comes to mind; it's another to say those things about people you know, work with, like and admire. We don't live in a religious ghetto anymore. We are surrounded by people who believe differently, and that makes a difference.

When I grew up, I only knew one kid who wasn't a Christian. But my kids are surrounded by children of all different faiths and many of no particular faith. These are their friends. In this kind of pluralistic world, traditional concepts of hell and damnation for everyone that is different than you seem downright, well, medieval.

Which might be the problem. Most conceptions about hell arose during a time when Christians represented not just a majority in the West but a totality and feared what they saw as the specter of Islam in the East. Crusade after crusade was conducted in the name of recapturing and protecting the "Christian world." But when it's no longer a Christian world, then what?

But while this kind of Christian triumphalism may have caught on in the Middle Ages and still hold sway in certain quarters of conservative Christianity today, as Father Martin points out, it was not part of the original story. Indeed, while Pope Francis made his statements about Christ's universal redemption in a homily on Mark 9, where his disciples tell Jesus they tried to stop a man from casting out demons because he wasn't one of them, he might just as easily been talking about the passage from Luke 7 that millions of Christians will hear read this Sunday morning. In this story, a Roman centurion sends messengers to ask Jesus to heal his servant and then says that Jesus doesn't even need to come, that he can just say the word and that will be enough.

The typical way this story is preached is to admire the centurion's faith, as Jesus seems to. "Not even in Israel have I found such faith," Jesus says in response to the message sent from the centurion. But in a commentary on the piece, Jeannine Brown observes that perhaps the point isn't the centurion's faith, but that it's a centurion who models such faith.

Such a scenario would most likely have surprised some of Luke's original audience, who read this story 30 or 40 years after the event it narrates happened. Because the one thing that hadn't changed across those decades was that Rome was still in charge, still occupying Israel, still enforcing its will upon Israelites of all ranks and stations. Which means that this centurion was one of those directly responsible for Israel's oppression.

But perhaps that's why this story was told by several of the evangelists in the first place. I mean, just because this man is in the Roman legion doesn't mean that he is incapable of doing good. Clearly he already has. Indeed, the Jewish leaders in his town commend him to Jesus on the basis of his good works.

All of which means he is more complex than perhaps many of his day or ours want to make him out. He is a Roman centurion and a man who does good for those in his community. He is part of the force occupying and oppressing Israel and he builds synagogues for the townspeople under his authority. This passage reminds us that we should never reduce someone to a single attribute or judge someone based on only one element of who they are.

And in case that's not enough, there's one more thing about this story that I find particularly arresting: We have no particularly good reason to believe the centurion becomes a follower of Jesus. I mean, he does not ask to follow Jesus or confess him as the Messiah. For that matter, he doesn't even seem particularly interested in meeting Jesus. He simply sees in Jesus authority that he recognizes and, quite frankly, needs. Maybe he becomes a disciple, maybe not. Neither Jesus nor Luke seem particularly interested in that fact. Instead, Jesus praises his astounding faith and Luke tells later Christians about it.

Unlike the world in which notions of hell and Christian exclusivism gained wide appeal, the world in which the gospels were written was also heavily pluralistic. For this reason, most if not all early Christians had family and friends who did not share their beliefs. Perhaps, then, Luke included this story to remind Jesus' follows -- then and now -- that God loves all people, intends to redeem all people and uses all people for the sake of the world God loves so much. Pope Francis, at least, got the message.