Tolerance isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

My recent experience with a few people has led me to consider that there is an alarming amount of intolerance among those who purport to be tolerant. I’m not going to divulge the details of the events I’m talking about as it would be disloyal and frankly a bit rude. But anyone who uses social media will have experienced something of this phenomenon – people being ‘de-friended’ for sharing or expressing political or spiritual opinions that differ from their own.

Rather than taking the expression of a differing view as an opportunity to enquire, “Why do you think that?” – to connect and discover an understanding about why we hold the views we do, people are being summarily dismissed. The de-friender ascribes themselves the role of judge and executioner and their peace is restored by tuning out the other view.

It strikes me as not only ironic but rather hypocritical behaviour. The very people who promote tolerance and free speech have an expectation that their voice will be heard amongst the masses; yet think nothing of stone-walling or silencing others. That is not tolerance it’s censorship; it’s intolerance.

Of course, I’m not in any way suggesting we engage with hate-fuelled and extreme political views and without challenging them. We are surely meant to ask ‘wtf?!’  No, what I’m talking about here is differences that are not hated-filled, just different.

I have been shut out by people because I disagree with them, and yet I have been branded the intolerant one. You cannot ask me on the one hand to tolerate your difference, to listen and hear your voice if you deny me the same opportunity. In doing so you don’t just deny me a voice but, far more importantly, you deprive us both of an opportunity to connect; to form a bond of community between two fellow human beings, to begin a dialogue which could diminish the barrier between you and me. You deny us both our humanity. You prevent a relational landscape from being developed where common ground and same-ness is more nurtured and valued than difference. I’m not your enemy, but you won’t even allow us to start being friends. And you call me intolerant?

As a Christian, my choices should depend on whether or not I believe those choices would bring me closer to, or further away from, my commitment to follow Jesus. I don’t deny that difference is difficult and challenging. And, yes, sometimes really fricking painful. But here’s the truth – Jesus doesn’t call us to tolerate one another, He calls us to love one another.

In pursuing the tolerance agenda, I wonder if Christians aren’t selling themselves short. Tolerance is a human construct; fleshy and susceptible to being very broken. It has monopolised the debate about human relationships and difference and has mutated into a weapon of pride to be wielded against those who don’t agree with or conform to a prevailing cultural norm. On the surface, ‘tolerance’ appears to include but it’s become misappropriated; more and more it seems to take the form a polarizing dynamic which excludes and pushes ‘the other’ away. Surely love is our higher call?

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-8

But how can I love you my brother or my sister if you exclude me because we disagree? How can we take the more worthy road – shoulder-to-shoulder – and work out love, grace, mercy and understanding between us if you refuse to connect with me? How can we seek to speak about and pursue the truth together if you silence my voice because the challenge of dialogue is too great for you?

1 Corinthians 13:4-8Tolerance carries with it a veiled sense of pride (and possibly fear) that places us at the centre of our own universes which, for our comfort and convenience, we desire to be occupied only with those who are the same as us. It is a self-reflecting universe that actively holds at bay those who are different. In doing so this form of ‘tolerance’ denies us all the opportunity to fulfil our basic human need to relate and belong.

This form of ‘tolerance’ is a fake and cheap alternative to love. Love is an infinitely better way. Love sees the inherent value in every person. Love folds people in; it includes them even in spite of difference.

This form of ‘tolerance’ sticks its fingers in its ears and says, “I don’t want to hear you.” Love reaches out a hand and says, “Let’s talk.”


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