Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Yes, Virginia, Tolerance is a Christian Virtue...

Tolerance is a Christian virtue.

I would venture to say, many (if not most) of you, respond to the above statement with incredulity or even outright scorn. And, I can understand why.

In recent years, tolerance has become associated with the "secular" swing of Western society. In some ways, this has resulted in positive change. It is a good thing that our Muslim and Hindu friends (and other religious minority groups) can and should expect to be shown respect and deference in the public sphere. In other ways, the tolerance bandwagon has resulted in silliness. Concluding that a junior high student wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "John 3:16" is engaging in "intolerant" and religiously offensive behavior is more than a little exaggerated. (In fact, I think it undercuts the instances in which true intolerance is taking place.)

All this is to say, I understand why many of you would initially disagree with my opening statement. And, I would be standing alongside of you, I think, until just a few weeks ago. In my religious upbringing and theological education, while others were singing "Kumbaya" and "Give peace a chance," I was taught to spit the word tolerance like a loogie from the mouth. Tolerance was for the ACLU (grrr...) and "San Francisco liberals" (gasp!), not real Christians who aren't afraid to speak their mind and stand up for what they believe in.

Today, however, I see it differently. Tolerance is for real Christians--especially for those who aren't afraid to speak their mind and stand up for what they believe in. I think SBC leader, Paige Patterson's favorite descriptor for Christians like this is "green berets." I would venture to say, that tolerance, therefore, is for Christian green berets.

How did I come to this conclusion? Dr. Fisher Humphreys visited Liberty Heights Church a few weeks ago and taught on a number of spiritual life topics: virtue, prayer, forgiveness, and discerning God's will. In the first session, he spent quite a bit of time in Colossians 3 and he spoke for several minutes on the matter of tolerance. Allow me to quote verses 12-14, which contain the scripture most relevant to our present discussion:

Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

The words I have bolded above translate a Greek word that appears a number of different ways in English translations. Most will translate it as the NIV has done: "bear with each other" or "bearing with one another." The CEV translates it rather bluntly, "put up with each other," while the good old King James (and Young's Literal) says is quite beautifully, "forbearing one another." Any way you read it, however, the contemporary English word for all this is tolerance. If you are bearing with someone, putting up with someone, or forbearing someone, you are tolerating them (along with their ideas, habits, etc).

If we are to understand tolerance rightly as a Christian virtue, however, there are three vitally important things we must observe from Col 3 (see also the parallel in Eph 4). First, Paul is not speaking about tolerating (forbearing with, putting up with) sin. Indeed, the basis of his admonition to "put on" Christian virtue is that his audience has already begun to "put to death" whatever belongs to their "earthly natures" (v. 5):

...sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

Do you see? Paul speaks of putting on Christian virtues, including forbearance/tolerance, only after exhorting them to put away sinful practices that are a part of their sinful nature, which is now dead in Christ.

So, from this we can address the most common objection to tolerance, "Well, tolerance is certainly not a Christian virtue because it is not acceptable for us to tolerate sin in the church." To this I say, "You are correct that we must not tolerate sin. There is a real place for correction and rebuke in the church, along with biblical directions for how to do so. But, we're not talking about that now. We're talking about your tendency to demonize those with whom you disagree. More often than not, the contemporary evangelical community errs on the side of intolerance, not indulgence. It is not necessary to embrace the former in order to avoid the latter."

The second important thing to note about Paul's promotion of tolerance is that it is grounded in five Christian virtues he lists one verse previous: "compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience." All of these play a role in one's ability to forbear with a brother or sister in Christ, but I think a focus on humility is the most important. Humility, rightly understood, is a matter of knowing one's place in relation to God and others. That is to say, you are aware of the fact that you are not God and live in light of this truth in relation to others. When properly situated in relation to God, one is properly situated in relation to your fellow Christians (and everyone else, for that matter): on the same level of worth.

If this is the case, and you have become the kind of person who is constantly aware of your absolute dependence upon God, then your relationship to others becomes what God intends it to be: compassionate, kind, gentle, patient....and, yes....tolerant. Not because you are a lilly-livered, yeller Christian who can't stand for anything. But, because you are a child of God who has confidence in God's ability to be God without your help.

By putting on the genuinely Christian virtue of tolerance, therefore, you are able not to bring up over and over again, that minor difference of doctrine that "just sticks in your craw," every time you speak with your pastor after church. Christian tolerance enables you to loose your grip on the volume level of the sound system in the sanctuary. And, perhaps most importantly, Christian tolerance allows you to let go of the need to assume the worst of those with whom you disagree: that they must either be ignorant (of the truth--your version of it, of course!) or evil (they're clearly not really a Christian if they believe that!).

If God is God without you, then you can trust him to deal with your brothers and sisters in Christ, just as he deals with you: with kindness, patience, love, and yes, tolerance. Your pastor may be wrong and the volume may be too loud. But, because you follow Jesus, you know you are not God. And, that means you do not have to get your way and not everyone has to agree with you. This is a beautifully simple truth that is tremendously liberating in the long run.

Finally, the third thing we must recognize about the virtue tolerance is that, in the context of Col 3 (and Eph 4), the primary place of its exercise is the Christian community of faith. This is quite an interesting truth, I think. Sadly, many Christians, and even those simply exploring Christianity, would say that the church is probably one of the least tolerant places on earth. I can bear witness to this impression. The most cruel, hateful, and soul-haunting things ever spoken to me have been spoken to me by Christian "brothers" and "sisters."

What shall we say about this? This reality is yet another reason for us to finally take seriously Paul's admonition that we "bear with one another," based upon our intentional "putting on" of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Certainly, if we cannot bear to put up with our brothers and sisters in Christ, with whom we have the most in common (in terms of faith, at least), how then shall we begin to put up with (and even cultivate genuine love for), those not of our number, with whom we have so little in common? Let us learn tolerance for one another so that we may also show the world we are disciples of Jesus.


Steve said...

If God's people are to live together, spread the faith, create a local church, seek answers together and live in love, tolerance is the first step away from worldliness and toward righteousness. Were we machines or stones, it might not have to be so, but we look at how God has always borne and forgiven us, and the only response is to tolerate each other with all the differences found there.

AO said...

Emily, I have often wondered if people fear tolerance because they realize if they are required to tolerate someone or something, then it would mean that someone would have to tolerate them. I believe that may scare the Jesus out of people. Because let's be honest, he is incredibly tolerant with us.

I will confess outright, that I am fear tolerance, because I do realize that Jesus tolerates my sin, my very nature mind you, because he loves THAT much. I have yet to discover THAT kind of love. And as you well know... tolerance number one requirement is love. And that maybe another reason people disregard tolerance... the sheer amount of love it requires is just too much. Thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking post. Blessings to you dear.

UnderMidnight said...

tolerance involves putting oneself out, enduring others' perspectives that may differ from our own or are outright hostile to us.
historically, christians have found it easier to just murder instead.

i have learned to ask what love requires of me in a given situation.
i increasingly find myself intolerant of hatred in its various masks and forms, especially when its source claims to represent jesus.

our whole nation is polarized. one is either a liberal, god-hating athiest queer faggot, or an insane, sociopathic, brainwashed conservative religious freak.
dialogue and growth, hell, common sense cannot occur in this environment.

i think the word "tolerance" has gone from vocabulary word with a definition to a symbol that represents a rally point for both sides of agrument, but does not necessarily represent anything that the word actually means.

to me, tolerance is learning from others with whom we may or may not agree. it is appreciating other people for the beautiful human beings they are. it is gaining understanding of others and other perspectives. tolerance is engaging the world with open hands. it is bringing the love of jesus into this earth and shining his light into the darkness rather than hiding the light from the world we are commanded to reach.
tolerance requires us to be mature and emotionally and mentally in order to reach out without our personal issues inhibiting our abilities.

i find it interesting and sad that, when i was on staff at a christian website, it was always the rigid fundamentalists who deconverted to atheism. i remember one of our admins crashed and burned and that hurt to see. it still hurts. i never saw it coming. once someone is gone you can't get them back, not from that.
i'm rambling so i will shut up now.

i really miss you.

Steve said...

UM: that last paragraph sounds like a real story there, if sad. I thot I worked in some crazy environments, but ....

Ooh! my verification word: "Smite"

UnderMidnight said...

my comments always look like I have add cause they go all over the place. that was an all-too-frequent true story. i failed to include the point to it. intolerance, i believe, is often (though not always) a mask of fear.
in this instance, the person mentioned moderated an apologetics forum. her rigid, pre-modern worldview was the sand castle upon which she had set her faith. her opinion of those she looked down on, or in this discussion, was intolerant of, turned out to not be misguided piety, but fear.
and the little sand castle fell down. Bart Ehrman is another personality whom i believe falls into this category.

ddflowers said...

Hey Emily! Hope the pregnancy is going well for you.

I wanted to comment on this statement of yours:

"Sadly, many Christians, and even those simply exploring Christianity, would say that the church is probably one of the least tolerant places on earth."

My journey has shown me that a large part of the problem here is found in this sentence. The church is not only viewed as a "place" but practiced this way as well. This is why I don't believe you will ever see people embrace all of Christ in genuine community within the institutional church.

"Church", not only to UNbelievers, but to many believers... is simply a "place" where we go for religious things. The only difference in this place I go on Sunday and the place I work on Monday... in one place you frequently read from the Bible and mention the name of Jesus.

Are we willing to face the horrific fact that a large part of American Christianity has embraced a biblical rhetoric but does not resemble the heart of Christ in her practice.

I am aware that these "intolerant" people are found within every group in any venue. My point is only to make... that the present form of "church" that is being taught and practiced... will only be able to give birth to a divisive, power-over, "intolerant" group of individuals who are not willing to forsake the assembling of men for the simple community of the saints who are knowing the indwelling Christ.

I appreciate this blog post. I have been thinking about these things as well. Peace.

tikesbestfriend said...

I believe that Freedom is a gift given by God. I believe that love, of all, should be a Christian Virtue.

Tolerance? Not so sure. As I study my particular baptistic history, I see that we were tolerated in England, New England, and all sorts of places. But, we were never really given any rights...freedoms. We were tolerated, but rarely respected. We were tolerated, but never seen as equals.

I know what you're trying to say, and I agree with you in spirit. However, I would choose a different word.

Be Well in your Journey as God leads.