We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, February 10, 2014

Dueling Definitions

In a recent posting on The Christian Post, a guest contributor, Lisa Cherry, wrote an editorial entitled, "The Definition of Tolerance, which offers two competing definitions of "tolerance".  The first is the traditional definition of tolerance as being "being nice and kind and respectful." This is the definition the author prefers. The second is what she takes to be the contemporary meaning by which tolerance has become a politically correct "buzz word" that means "giving everyone and everything equal space to be right; acceptance of all views and actions as equally true; and lack of any judgment toward one another." Cherry observes, "Tolerance is no longer a sweet little character trait that promotes interpersonal peace. It has become monumental and powerful."

She then goes on to state that the real issue at stake regarding tolerance, however, is not tolerance at all.  It is, rather, the issues of the nature of the Bible and of truth.  She contends that the forces of "tolerance," so-called, are seeking to undermine the absolute truth and trustworthiness of the Bible.  In what appears to be an oblique reference to Satan, she suggests that the truth's "real enemy" has thrown up the values related to open-mindedness as a "smoke screen" to confuse and distract people.  Cherry concludes, "I don't know about you, but I am ready to shake off this dead-end notion of tolerance for a little while. I say we press past its emotional land mines. I'm thinking underneath its prickly facade is the truth that, when embraced, will set our families and our world on the path to spiritual healing."

As a progressive Christian, I can't help but note how powerful the concept of tolerance is becoming in our culture.  The long battles over civil rights are one key impetus for this change, and from the moment that the first proto-abolitionist called for the end of slavery, tolerance has been a divisive political issue and so it remains today.  Undoubtedly, some of those who promote tolerance have themselves behaved and spoken intolerantly, but that does not lessen the importance of tolerance as a core social value.  Each human being has a right to be treated fairly, without prejudice, for who they are.  For progressive Christians, Jesus is the very model of tolerance in teaching and in deed.

What remains troubling, however, is the manner in which she associates the Bible with intolerance and seems to celebrate intolerance as being godly.  An increasing number of Americans make that same association to the detriment of the Christian faith, and as intolerance recedes it drags our faith with it.  The growing majority of Americans who accept the rights of the LGBT community observe the resistance of the Christian Right to those rights and draw what is for them an obvious conclusion: Christianity is an intolerant religion.  Cherry's arguments only serve to confirm that conclusion—for a segment of American Christians, a sadly large and loud segment.

And one of the great puzzles for the rest of us is this: how does one practice tolerance with the intolerant?  Martin Luther King's answer was non-violent resistance—to not fight fire with fire.  Not easy.