Let’s Talk About Tolerance

Apologies in advance that this is a soap box of mine. But I find I am continually frustrated over the way we handle disagreement in the public square, and the ways we throw around the idea of tolerance as a way to squelch that disagreement. So I want to talk about that.

First, let’s discuss what it means to be tolerant. It’s a low bar. It basically means you are okay enough with someone having a different opinion than you that you allow them to exist. It does not require you to agree with them or endorse them or give them money or even want their particular belief to become mainstream. It simply means you are not trying to eradicate them for believing it. I would certainly hope that for the majority of mainstream opinions we can find ourselves to be nominally tolerant. We live in a country that relies on it.

That being said, we live in a country- and a world- that does, in fact, have a vast array of differing and conflicting beliefs. And those beliefs are going to collide sometimes. I think the problem is that we conflate the two spheres in which they collide, when our actions within each sphere is distinct.

In the public sphere, the general American role is to be tolerant of anyone’s speech or action that does not impede or threaten your own. For example, I’m fine with a Muslim woman choosing to wear a burqa if that’s what she wants to do. We are a land of religious freedom and regardless of my personal feelings about it, I defend her right to practice her religion. I also defend the right of conservative Christian organizations to refrain from hiring women if they don’t believe women should hold leadership positions. I clearly disagree, but again, they have the right to hold that belief and exercise it within their religious institution. This also means I defend the right for people not to practice a religion, which is why I support the separation of church and state. A child of atheist parents shouldn’t be forced to pray at public school. That infringes on their own religious liberty, even when it means they don’t want to practice one.

There is a line, however, when even the public sphere of tolerance requires us to say no, and that’s when it either infringes on broader American values or if it puts someone else’s freedom in danger. So a publicly held company cannot discriminate against a woman in the same way a religious group can, because it goes against American law. A state cannot refuse to accept the legality of a gay marriage certificate and its requisite benefits because it is federal law. At that point, your religious feelings about something are inconsequential. As an American citizen, you have to comply with the law of the land, even if you are simultaneously acting to change it.

When dealing with issues of tolerance at the public level, you have to move beyond your own personal feelings and convictions (gasp) and ask what ethical parameters are at play. This may mean you align with people who you actually disagree with (like me and conservative religious stances against women) but you do so to uphold the larger public rule, for the larger public good. That’s the best definition of tolerance. World Vision can choose to hire who they want. I can choose to give them money or not. I can choose whether to talk about their choice or not, and to critique it or applaud it. There is freedom for all of these things.

But tolerance that stops there makes us anemic if we are actually people of conviction.

So let’s move inside the other sphere, which is your own tribe. Here, you operate differently because you’ve moved closer inside your own identity. You’re an American citizen broadly but you’re a Christian specifically. And you have opinions and convictions. And so do other people. And they often conflict. On matters of existence, you can be publicly tolerant. But on matters of conviction, you have every right to take a stand, to have a voice, to dissent and disagree and champion and cheer. That goes for all sides of an argument.

Please note, then, that being tolerant in your own tribe means holding to your own convictions while acknowledging it isn’t necessarily the only one. But it does not require you to act as if you don’t have convictions, or as if you don’t believe you’re right. Of course you believe you’re right. That’s why you hold the belief in the first place. And yes, shockingly enough, that means you find something at fault with someone who is on the other side of that belief. We are going to have to get comfortable with that. 

This is where “tolerance” becomes unhelpful, because tolerance can morph into the impossible assertion that you are supposed to hold your own belief and never question anyone else’s. And it’s unfair and morally suspect when some Christians throw out “tolerance” as a way of demanding unity on an issue in which faithful people disagree. Tolerance is too often used as a silencing mechanism.

This is especially true when it comes to issues of social justice. Is tolerance of sexism really a virtue when you believe sexism is toxic and unhelpful and prevents people from living into the way of Jesus? Is being tolerant of the fact that young black Americans are being killed by police officers truly in line with the gospel of Jesus? Is being silent on issues of discrimination or racism or homophobia really a mark of wisdom, much less virtue? Is one’s silence on political issues tolerance, or just cowardice?

So here is where I come down: I vehemently support tolerance in the public sphere, and I vehemently encourage discussion, disagreement, debate and discord in the sphere of your own tribe. Tolerance is necessary in the public sphere but unhelpful and distracting and scapegoat-y in the tribal sphere. Tolerance, by its very definition, assumes the presence of more than one viewpoint. Let’s not be so timid that we refrain from engaging them.

Lastly, a word to my own tribe. I’m reminded of the remarks of Moltmann when he came to Atlanta last October. He reminded all of us (to the grave discomfort of most of the liberal theologians in the room) that the Reformation was itself an act of intolerance, and that we could stand to gain some of that passion back. We have become so anemic in our disagreements that we’ve become tolerable rather than convicted or passionate or engaged.

It’s time to get over that.

If this year has taught me anything at all, it’s that tolerableness has done absolutely nothing to help the Church, and nothing to help support the kind of theology I believe the gospel speaks about. We are past niceness at this point. We need to have very hard conversations and call people on racism and privilege and materialism and that’s not even getting into my own other crusade against harmful views of human nature in original sin. It’s okay that we disagree on these things. It is no surprise to anyone. We don’t have to whisper. Let’s be bold enough to discuss these things, and let’s not cry “tolerance” as a means of throwing a wrench in the wheel of ongoing debate.

It’s worth remembering that reformation is a continual process, in which we ask difficult questions and discuss what it means to follow Jesus in the evolving world in which we live. Faith is not a museum. It’s a road. Let’s be brave enough to walk it.

Add Your Voice!

Your email address will not be published.

Facebook IconTwitter Icon