Thoughts on Tolerance

Tolerance... the great buzz word of our day. Few other topics have been so weaponized and few other words so cause the mind to instantly flood with such a myriad of emotions. All kinds of groups have adopted tolerance as their banner and most of them think they are indeed among the tolerant in our society. And yet, tolerance has often become the very justification for vitriolic hatred and intolerance. So many have taken that path.

On the face of it, tolerance sounds like a bold and conscientious position to take, and it would be if it were plainly and properly defined from a world view that recognized the unique providential creation of all people from one bloodline. But tolerance by the world's definition is self aggrandizing; it is the epitome of self righteousness, for to believe oneself tolerant, one has to believe that he or she is the embodiment of tolerance and that those who are not tolerant as they are, are obviously wrong headed and intolerant.

The following thoughts on tolerance and judging is an excerpt from my first nonfiction book, called Living with Fish People (2015):

Tolerance is one of those words that is often poorly defined, over used, and almost certainly abused. It is a word that people rightly run to in defending those suffering social injustice, but it is also a word people run to in order to defend themselves from being told they are doing something wrong. Tolerance has become a catch phrase, a classroom subject, a point of accusation, and a badge of honor. But, how do you actually define tolerance? What is it really? It is easy to throw the word around when it suits our needs. The question we must ask is, does that really line up with what tolerance is?

If you look up the term tolerance in a variety of dictionaries, you will find that the word for word definition varies widely. Some define tolerance as being permissive, while others put it into the context of putting up with someone’s opinion or their behavior. There are however at least some correlative themes present throughout most of the dictionary definitions of tolerance. So that we have something to work with, here is a sort of hybridized working definition for tolerance that combines both the technical definitions and common Christian ideas about tolerance, given in my own words:

Tolerance is to be willing to receive someone else’s opinion, lifestyle, attitude, heritage, disposition, and idiosyncrasies as unique to that person without an undue declaration of condemnation.

The first part of the definition above, to be willing to receive, simply means to be willing to recognize something particular about another person without disparaging him or her, and to respectfully engage that person, in spite of any negative inward thoughts or feelings. That is an important part of being tolerant. To declare someone as less than someone else or to treat that person disrespectfully because of a personal trait or ideal would be wrong. From the Christian point of view, all people are equally valued and loved by God. No one is in a position to degrade another.

The second part of the definition above is intended to describe enough aspects of humanity to imply that nothing about a person is suitable grounds for their denigration. It means that every person should be taken as a whole person, not relegated or classified due to some idiosyncrasy. It is wrong for a person to classify someone as a bigot because they believe some else’s sexual behavior to be sinful, and it is just as wrong for a person to consider someone else a hopeless fool for engaging in some inappropriate behavior.

The third part of the definition, to receive… without an undue declaration of condemnation, is also a very important part of tolerance as defined above. No one has the authority to declare another person condemned before God. Christians believe that God is the sole judge of humanity and that each of us will face ultimate judgment, which will result either in eternal suffering in a state of complete separation from God or a complete state of righteousness in eternal communion with God. No human can make that kind of judgment.

Christians who march around carrying signs that read “God Hates Gays” and “Baby Killers Go to Hell” are acting outside the bounds given by God.

In the Bible book called John, in the eighth chapter, there is an account of a time when Jesus was teaching his followers at a place called the Mount of Olives. Suddenly, while he was teaching, the religious leaders of the day, men who were quite intolerant of anyone they did not feel measured up to their holy standards, produced a woman caught in the very act of adultery! The religious leaders were ready to stone this woman to death and according to the letter of the law, they had every right to do so. In order to try to trap Jesus, they challenged him with the question of what to do with her.

However, Jesus turned the tables on them and they found themselves faced with the fact that they too had at times been guilty of sins for which God had the right to condemn them. One by one, they dropped their stones and dispersed. When Jesus was left alone with the woman and no one was there to accuse her, he dismissed her, saying that he did not condemn her either.

Now that’s tolerance! People who are not familiar with the Bible or the things Jesus said and did often miss that. They accuse Jesus and his followers, right up through the Christians of today, as being terribly intolerant people. In some respects, they do have grounds for the accusations. Sadly, some people’s only experience with Christians is with today’s version of the religious leaders who brought the sinful woman to Jesus. They are the ones who likely would have marched on Jerusalem carrying signs that might have said, “God Hates Loose Women”, or “Women Who Sleep Around Burn Underground”, or something of the sort.

But, that is not where the story ends and we need to be very clear about what Jesus did and did not say in this exchange. He did not condemn the adulterous woman. In other words, he did not make a judgment call on her that is reserved only for the moment when she would stand before the judgment seat of God at the end of her temporal life.

That is not to say he didn’t judge the act she was caught in as being wrong, however. Most people who do not want the story to hit too close to home stop reading after John says that Jesus did not condemn her either. The last verse of the account says that Jesus then told her to go her way and sin no more. He fully recognized that she had been caught doing something clearly wrong and he called it what it was – sin, plain and simple.

Many of those who decry intolerance are not really talking about intolerance at all. They are decrying others calling their actions wrong, and there is a big difference between the two. It is necessary to judge one thing from another, one person from another, a person’s motives, a person’s values, etc. In today’s politically charged terminology it is often called profiling and it is part of the human experience. In many ways, it is necessary to existence. Without the ability to judge another’s character, values, or potential impact on our world we would not be able to protect our families, business people would not be in a position to question the motives of someone leading a potential hostile takeover, and police and service men and women would not be able to suspect anyone of anything as they tried to protect us.

Christians recognize the value and necessity of exercising righteous and proper judgment tempered with the limitations imposed by God. I am sure you have heard people quote the Bible phrase, judge not or you will be judged yourselves. That is a quote usually taken out of the Biblical context. Jesus was simply saying if you judge you had better beware, because you will be held to the same standard. What you may not have ever heard is he also taught that when you judge you had better do so based on the right criteria. God is the only one who can judge the heart of a person, but that does not exclude us from judging whether someone is doing something that is wrong or exhibits values contrary to our morals.

The secular world tends to define tolerance as, anything goes and you had better not tell me I’m doing something wrong. In a society where everything is politicized to the extreme and people are easily pitted one against another over ideology, the tendency of many is to define tolerance as total acceptance of and agreement with something, while demanding intolerance of any who do not ascribe to whatever society says should be tolerated.

Christians, as the case may be, could well be the most tolerant people out there because they understand the true nature and source of tolerance and judgment. They know the importance and necessity of judging rightly and carefully while at the same time recognizing that only God can judge the soul.

While many claim to be tolerant, no one has ever embodied true tolerance like Jesus Christ and no political action group, no advocacy organization, no public figure has a truer understanding of what tolerance is than biblical Christianity, despite what public figures, media sources, and others say. Such accusations stem from a sometimes willful, sometimes ignorant, definition of tolerance combined with a similarly ignorant understanding of Christianity. The differences between the worldly tolerant and Biblical Christianity are a different as night and day: Jesus taught love your enemies and pray for them; tolerance preaches hate, demean, and destroy your enemy. Jesus taught a right and reasonable perspective on judging others; tolerance demands judgment and condemnation of anyone who is deemed intolerant. Jesus taught that the greatest of all the commandments is love; tolerance demands love only for those who deserve to be loved. How different indeed!