For some time I have considered writing a piece—even something brief—on tolerance. Tolerance seems to me to be something that goes along with Christian values in such a way that I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to be challenged. However, I don’t have to look far to find opposition. It seems that there’s not much tolerance for tolerance these days.
When I get an idea to write about something it typically comes from one of several sources. Often actual encounters—say, conversations with my family—are the source of inspiration. Generally I find my kids to be fairly tolerant people, though at times they’ll surprise me. Sometimes they cause me to wonder if there is a climate of intolerance overall, but with them it tends to be something as simple as not being able to tolerate the tastes in music of others.
At other times I get my inspiration from something I’ve seen in the news, but cases of intolerance that find their way into the news tend to be severe. Most recently I’ve been able to get ideas—at least for this post—from what I see people post on various forms of social media and blogs, and once in a while something from a friend on Facebook. Unfortunately in the attitudes of ordinary people I sometimes find a good bit of intolerance and occasionally it’s even directed at the notion of being tolerant itself.
When I see someone say something like, “I’m going to go ahead and say this even though I know the tolerance police are not far away” then I know the best thing to do might be to skip it, but I rarely do this. They hook me; I read what they have to say, and I rarely come away feeling like the world is becoming a more open-minded place.
The fact is that tolerance isn’t a bad thing and we shouldn’t sit by quietly when someone tries to paint it as such. It reminds me of a few years back when the easy target was "political correctness." I always thought that those who were opposed to political correctness should preface whatever they’re going to say with “Excuse my bad manners, but…” Really, being opposed to tolerance is the same kind of thing. It comes from a failure to recognize the legitimacy of other people in their views, their self identity, and their essential humanity.
Tolerance is a Christian value, though I wouldn’t say that Christians have exclusive rights to it, and as such it’s one of the things that most attracts me to Christianity. Actually, I feel an obligation—a duty—to stand for tolerance because in doing so I am standing up for others and that is precisely what Jesus taught us to do. The truest meaning of the word “others” is that it refers to those who are most unlike us.
Sadly, it’s easy to find intolerance nowadays in values that some are putting forth as being Christian (though I doubt the label applies). Intolerance is also easy to find among those who feel they’re defending something patriotic or traditionally American. Christianity and the tolerance and love that Jesus taught demand that we learn to transcend our presupposed values and see through the eyes of those who are most unlike us. There has never been a time when it wasn't perfectly clear to me that the values taught by Jesus far transcend any notions or ideals of nationalism. I think we can learn to see the same thing when it comes to sectarian differences.
As Christians, one of the primary places we need to consider being tolerant is when it comes to people whose religion, whose expression of faith, is different than ours, and although I’m primarily thinking of Islam as an example it’s not hard to find religious intolerance directed—by so-called Christians—toward Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and perhaps as a recent trend toward liberal mainline Protestants. However with the latter the intolerance has taken the more subtle form of “They’re declining in numbers anyhow so who really cares?” It’s not hard to find this same kind of intolerance directed toward liberal or progressive Catholics who might be seen as being too concerned with social justice over other more "tolerable" positions.
We who follow Jesus have a duty to stand up against the oppression of others. For example, when we learn of a community that is trying to stand in the way of a house of worship being constructed, as has been the case in Murfreesboro, Tennessee recently, as well as other notable places, it’s time to speak out. It’s time to label groups who promote opposition to others faiths for what they are: hate groups. This is just one of the activities that has led me to value and support the work of the SPLC for many years.
Another area where legitimized intolerance—hate—is seeking to gain ground is in regard to the LGBT community. Regardless of what our particular religion has to say about sexuality, we do not have license to be against other human beings. This is as clear as I can say it. The Christianity that I have been taught has instilled the value that we are not to judge and condemn others. This is a sensitive area for me because as a deacon I have an obligation to be faithful to Church teaching. However, never has the Church taught me to have a closed mind or turn away from anyone. Never has the Church taught me to deny human rights or reject another human being on any basis. Intolerance begins as a subtle negative attitude and grows.
Years ago before my ordination to the diaconate, I volunteered at the University of Texas Catholic Center. I was helping with the fall ministry fair, which had been going all morning. One table was for a ministry offered for and by gay Catholic students. There was a sign up list and I noticed that no one who had visited that day had signed the list. I tried to put myself in the shoes of the fellow who had stood at that table all morning as students had walked by without signing. It was approaching late afternoon and most everyone had gone already. I walked over to the table and signed my name on the list for the ministry. I simply said, “However I can help let me know.” When I signed I did so somewhat reluctantly because I noticed that the pastor, who I knew well, and who likewise knew me, was watching. As I stepped away from the table I turned around momentarily just in time to see the pastor also signing the list. At least it had two names that day. Sometimes being tolerant may put us in an uncomfortable position, but tolerance is like faith: it is intertwined with courage.
One might be tempted to think that in the year 2012 racism isn’t as much an issue as it once was. To believe this would be incredibly blind. Racism still exists—sometimes hidden in our seemingly harmless attitudes or the jokes we hear and choose to laugh at—and we are called to recognize it and eradicate it. Intolerance toward those who are racially or ethnically different from us is easily recognized in attitudes that oppose immigration reform or that say those who were not born here do not belong here. Christians are called to be givers, and this includes giving others the opportunity to live in our nation. We are called to give freely and completely, and there is absolutely nothing to fear in it.
As a Christian I am called to see all people of the world as my brothers and sisters. Recently here in Texas I’ve seen political advertisements of a candidate who swears he will secure the borders. What is the source of this fear? What is it that would make others go on a campaign to hold up a halting hand of rejection rather than extend a hand of welcome? Christianity is about offering what we have and sharing it with others. It is social; it is progressive, and it is based on what Jesus taught us to be and to do.
The role of tolerance as I see it is twofold. First, tolerance asks us to be accepting of and open to all people, but especially of those whose values, whose faith or even lack thereof, whose sexuality, race, nationality, language, immigration status, disability, health or even level of education is different from our own. Second, tolerance demands that we speak the truth always and take a stand for those who are the object of intolerance regardless of how unpopular our stance may be.
Tolerance is a Christian value but it goes far beyond the confines of one religion. A sign of the success of Christianity, far from the numbers we attract on Sunday, is how faithful we are to our values and how we apply them to society as a whole. When we teach tolerance in time we will find that others may be much more willing to tolerate us. We can judge the success of Christianity by how committed we are to others. Our job, as Fr. Roy Bourgeois once said, is not to be effective but to be faithful. Thanks to many honest, courageous, and tolerant people, we may learn what it truly means to be faithful.