The other day I met with men in my group. We looked at the press release of a basketball star’s comments regarding homosexuality. We used it as a case study to look at the underlying reasons why he made the comments he did and the underlying reasons why the author of the article responded as he did. We were trying to determine what central beliefs might lead to such remarks. In the course of our conversation the topic of tolerance came up – the popular normative value so highly esteemed by our society today.
Hardaway’s comments were deemed intolerant. They were certainly reprehensible, inappropriate and hurtful. But the issue I want to address is our society’s growing demands for tolerance on every issue that suggests a difference in beliefs, values, or worldview. Tolerance, it seems, has been redefined to mean acceptance or affirmation. This is not what tolerance really means.
I was reminded of an article on the subject entitled Are you tolerant? Should you be? Deconstructing the gospel of tolerance, originally written by Dan Taylor, a professor at Bethel University, in 1999. He made the following comments …
It is the only serious sin left. Even murder has its mitigating factors, but not this one. It is the pariah sin, the charge that makes you untouchable without need for further explanation. The sin is intolerance and the greatest sinners in late twentieth century in America are evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. America is sick of intolerant people and it's not going to tolerate them anymore.
A bit of tongue in cheek but nevertheless an accurate picture of the prevailing attitude of our society it seems. Dan goes on to make the case that the term tolerance has been hijacked and redefined to mean something entirely different than its original meaning.
One is not tolerant of something unless one objects to it. I do not tolerate something I either accept or am indifferent to, because it requires nothing of me…If tolerance requires an initial objection, it also implies withheld power. If I would stop something if I could, but am powerless to do so, I am not tolerant, merely impotent. True tolerance means I voluntarily withhold what power I have to coerce someone else's behavior.
Most social liberals, for instance, cannot rightfully be said to be tolerant regarding homosexual behavior since they have no objection to it. You do not have to tolerate that which you accept or affirm. If tolerance requires an initial objection, then conservatives, ironically, may be much more tolerant than liberals, because there are so many more things to which they object. The least tolerant person is the person who accepts everything, because such a person is not required to overcome any internal objections.
A challenge for those who prize tolerance as one of the highest public goods is to distinguish between healthy tolerance and a diseased moral passivity or indifference. What is the difference between a genuinely tolerant society and a morally bankrupt one, incapable of calling evil for what it is? Is Chesterton on to something when he says tolerance is the virtue of those who don't believe in anything? Too much of what passes as tolerance in America is not the result of principled judgment but is simple moral indifference. Invoking "it's not my business" may keep us from becoming a nation of prudish snoops, but historically, it also has led nations into collaboration with great evil.
Nevertheless—and here's the rub—it is widely acknowledged that no moral person tolerates everything. For some, the intolerable grows largely from issues of justice and fairness—racism, sexism, homophobia, economic inequity. Such people are divided on an issue like pornography, where values that they hold with equal passion—freedom of expression versus ending the exploitation of women—collide. Given that everyone agrees that some things should not be tolerated, the real issue should not be whether one is tolerant or intolerant, but what's included on one's list.
The charge of intolerance has become a potent weapon in the culture wars, all the more useful because it carries a lot of emotional firepower without requiring a great deal of evidence or logical consistency. People complain about others "forcing their values" on them, when they are perfectly willing to do the same on many issues. they claim "you can't legislate morality" when, in fact, the overwhelming majority laws of all kinds are rooted in a moral assertion about how things ought to be.
Dan Taylor has much more to say on the matter. He concludes his remarks by making a case for a higher standard than tolerance.
Ultimately, tolerance is too weak a concept to be attributed to God. God is so much more than tolerant that Christians can rightfully ignore tolerance as a fundamental goal for their own lives—but only if they are willing to live by a much higher standard. God does not call us to be tolerant of our neighbors. God calls us to love them—at least as much as we love ourselves. Before we all nod our approval, we should take a sober look at what that might entail. Biblical love is always sacrificial love. Don't say you love someone unless you are willing to suffer for that person. Sacrificial love does not say, "Do as I do or you are going to hell." It says, "I would rather be crucified than have you be harmed."