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This is part 3 of a series of posts called, “Identifying and Subverting Cultural Narratives.”

Tolerance is the idea that everyone should have the freedom to be themselves. You shouldn’t try to change people or hold them to your standards. You certainly shouldn’t push your religion on others. Religion is a private matter, so proselytizing is immoral. You shouldn’t label, define, or stereotype people. Since your view of morality is personal, you can’t impose it on others or judge them. Instead, you should accept people for who they are. Slogans like “don’t judge me” and “live and let live” express the concept of tolerance. Whereas hyper-individualism focuses on realizing one’s own desires, tolerance extends freedom to others. While hyper-individualism says, “I’ll do me,” tolerance says, “You do you.” Before moving on to consider the benefits and detriments of this ethical principle, I want to first illustrate it using two short videos.

Cultural Example 1:

In this video, the hardworking shop owner judges and mistreats the homeless man because he is a lazy nuisance. However, what he doesn’t realize is that this homeless man protected the shop at night from graffiti, urination, and robbery. This video shows how wrong it is to express intolerance toward others who are different than us, especially in light of our limited knowledge of the situation.

Cultural Example 2:

Here the point is that you shouldn’t pigeonhole Obama into a rigid presidential role. He’s does normal guy stuff too. This buzzfeed video ends with Obama asking, “Can I live?” His aid responds, “You do you.” We come away with the impression that we should not impose our expectations on others.

Benefits of Tolerance

Tolerance has quite a few benefits worthy of admiration. The first of which is that a tolerant society respects people’s freedom of choice rather than forcing them into a particular mold based on family trade, social status, or religion. Extending people freedom to be themselves facilitates a more colorful and interesting society where people can express their uniqueness. For example under the Puritan theocracy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the government so clamped down on religious freedom that they persecuted bible-believing Christians who diverged from their way of thinking. For example, they ran Roger Williams out even though he was a conservative Baptist. Ironically, Christianity has withered in countries that continued to have state-sponsored churches whereas America’s religious toleration has led to incredible flourishing. In addition, a pluralistic society cuts down on hypocrisy, arguably the behavior that irritated Jesus more than any other. Other benefits include a diminishment of racism, increased opportunity for employment, and avoidance of hurtful stereotyping.

Detriments of Tolerance

However, this system of tolerance also can lead to disengagement from society. Rather than working for a better world, we should “live and let live.” For example, how does tolerance help us when it comes to issues like income inequality? The rich are not harming the poor nor are they demonstrating intolerance, but they may exercise a disproportionate control over everyone’s lives both in terms of corporate and political influence. Shouldn’t we let them do them? A second detriment of tolerance is that it reduces morality to behaviors that affect others. What if someone is hurting himself, slowly digging himself into debt with a gambling addiction? Should we just let him sink without intervening? Lastly, we’ve witnessed how society has used tolerance as a stick to beat others who are intolerant. For example, when Dan Cathy, the COO of Chick-fil-A, explained why he didn’t support gay marriage, activists organized boycotts and protests. Public shaming and corporate intolerance contribute to a culture of outrage that increasingly limits freedom of expression. Christians oftentimes feel they need to stay in the closet about their beliefs for fear of getting ridiculed or fired.

Deconstructing Tolerance

Now that we’ve looked at the pros and cons of tolerance, let’s examine the idea a little more closely. According to Merriam-Webster, tolerance is a “willingness to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different than your own.” However, no one actually lives according to this definition. We like to think of ourselves as tolerant, magnanimous people, but in reality we all put limitations on tolerance. As a society we don’t tolerate murder, rape, or child abuse. Thus, “tolerance” is a neutral concept, not a virtue in itself. It can be used for good or ill. For example, I should not tolerate my child torturing the dog for fun. I should express intolerance. Why? Well, it is wrong to torture animals. So, here we see the true nature of tolerance. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but it depends on underlying moral commitments and beliefs about human flourishing. This is why tolerance sometimes ties itself into a knot. For example, if you believe everyone should practice tolerance, but you run into someone who is really intolerant, you can’t help but shaming them. Thus, tolerance often transforms into intolerance, precisely what it opposes, when it encounters intolerance.

Our culture tends to put two main limitations on tolerance:

  1. no harm: People are free to do as they like so long as they don’t harm others.
  2. no intolerance: People should not express intolerance toward others.

People generally agree that the no-harm principle should limit tolerance. Thus, we should not tolerate behaviors that hurt others. But, how do we know what behaviors qualify as harm? That will depend on our deeper moral commitments. For example, is it harmful for a man to watch pornography regularly? He’s not hurting anyone else? He’s supporting an industry of hard-working actors, which, in turn, benefits the economy, right? Well, he’s also retraining his mind to objectify women, which will skew his future relationships with women and possibly result in significant anti-social behavior. Consider a second example: should women have the right to choose to have an abortion? Here tolerance can’t help us at all, since the situation pits two freedoms against one-another. Who should have freedom: the mother or the baby? If we grant the fetus freedom then the mother must carry it to term. If we grant the mother freedom then the fetus must die. So, how do we know which side to take? Once again, tolerance depends on deeper moral commitments. Ironically, in our society today, those who push for tolerance most vehemently, often end up curtailing the human rights of children in the womb. Furthermore, it is not clear whether we should act for immediate harm or ultimate harm. For example, should someone lie to avoid hurting her boyfriend or should she tell the truth? If she is worried about immediate harm then she should lie, but if she wants the relationship to workout ultimately, lying will probably erode relational trust, causing problems down the road. Once again, the no-harm principle is not enough to go on to make moral choices.

Consider too, how belief in God plays into the situation. Why should an atheist care about the no-harm principle at all? Obviously, our cultural milieu pressures him to play along as if he believes this way, but he can certainly cheat whenever it’s to his advantage (especially if he knows he can get away with it). But, if someone believes in God, then doesn’t the no-harm principle extend to him? Shouldn’t we care about hurting God? For example, with any sin I commit, I defy what God says is right. Even if my sin does not affect other people, it still disregards God. Thus, whether one believes in God or not the no-harm principle fails to provide us with consistent guidance.

Let’s examine tolerance a bit further. Tolerance is all about extending freedom to others, especially those who are different from you. As Americans, we think of freedom as an inalienable human right. In olden times we wanted to be free to choose a career, a spouse, or where to live (over against communism, for example). Now, in the culture of tolerance, we tend to absolutize freedom, arguing that everyone should be free to do whatever they want however they want with whomever they want so long as it is not illegal. However, such a view of freedom is naïve at best and self-destructive at worst. We all have limitations and need to assess the trade-offs when freedoms come into conflict. For example, say a woman wants to be free to enjoy her lover without worrying about sexually transmitted diseases, but he won’t limit his freedom to sleep around with others. In this case, his freedom inhibits hers. It’s difficult to see which side would be right here based on tolerance. If they got married and practiced sexual fidelity, she could enjoy her freedom, but this would curb his. When freedoms come into conflict, how do we decide which should take priority? Consider Tim Keller’s take on this:

A sixty-year-old man may have a strong desire to eat fatty foods, but if he regularly exercises his freedom to give in to that desire, his life will be curtailed in some way. He must choose to lose a lesser freedom (to eat these foods he enjoys) for a greater freedom (health and long life). If you want the freedoms that comes with being a great musician—the ability to move people with your music and to make a good living for your family—you will have to give up your freedom to do other things in order to practice eight hours a day for years. Freedom is not, then, simply the absence of restrictions, but rather consists of finding the right, liberating restrictions. Put another way, we must actively take tactical freedom losses in order to receive strategic freedom gains. You grow only as you lose some lower kinds of freedom to gain higher kinds. So there is no absolute negative freedom. (Tim Keller, Preaching, pp. 144-5).

So tolerance cannot make it on its own since it is unclear when to express it and when to limit it. We need some deeper principle to guide us when choosing what to tolerate in ourselves and others. Now, let’s turn to see how the bible can provide some insight.

A Christian Perspective

Jesus said the two greatest moral principles are to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. However, true love requires sacrificing some freedom in order to create a trusting relationship. If we give up our self-sovereignty in an effort to love and obey God, we gain freedom from having to figure out everything on our own, but we give up the freedom to do whatever he says is wrong. By giving up some lower freedoms we enjoy a trusting relationship with God that can both satisfy our souls and help us be more harmonious members of society. The greatest choice you can make is to sublimate your will to God’s by committing to and following after his anointed one, Jesus Christ. When we do that we limit our autonomy, resulting in liberation from the selfishness that constantly spurs us on towards sin. Here is how Jesus, himself, put it:

John 8.31-36
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Sin is so deceptive. As I wrote in my post on hyper-individualism, we think we are free moral agents, but we are full of competing impulses, some dark and some light. We need God’s help to figure out our true selves so that we can lead authentic godly and fulfilling lives. When we try to become free from social constraints and traditional values we may correct some errors, but we may also find ourselves enslaved to an insidious selfishness. Like food in your teeth, selfishness, though visible to those close to us, is often impossible for us to spot without some external mirror to show us what we really look like. This is why the Christian ethic requires humility. Although typically lampooned as arrogant, Christian morality actually begins by recognizing our limitations to discern right from wrong. We do not go around saying we know better than society about abortion, gay marriage, or pre-marital sex. No, the genuine Christian says, I don’t know. I can’t trust my own moral compass and I certainly can’t just go along with whatever the culture says. I need help. I need some external, accurate perspective to guide me. This is where scripture comes in. It tells us what God thinks about how we should live. This is really the best of both worlds, because, we can find out what is right and wrong with confidence, but without thinking we are better than anyone else. Thus, we can speak authoritatively about a particular issue, but only in those areas that God reveals his clear guidance.

Even so, Christ does not call us to take over the world’s governments and impose our morality on everyone else. Taking into consideration Jesus’ own cultural and political setting, we see a man who never forced his will on others. He did not try protest the Roman occupation as an outsider or campaign for a position in the government as an insider. He told people the gospel about the kingdom; he called people to repentance; he liberated people from oppression. He did not try to change the divorce law, even though he disagreed with the reigning interpretations of the day. Instead he told people what God said about the subject, appealing to their hearts. Christians may take different positions on the degree to which we should participate in government, but we all agree that genuine lasting change has to come from within.

So, pulling this all together, Christianity is pro-tolerance, but not with the same limitations as our culture. Instead of shaming people for their lack of tolerance or intervening only when they harm others, the Christian view looks to humility and love, while looking to Jesus as our example of how to deal with conflict. We recognize our own finitude and leave defining morality to the creator. Then we look for ways to love God and others as ourselves. The standard is quite high:

Philippians 2.3-4
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

This is far more difficult than just tolerating people. True love is deep, because it gives of itself. It is active rather than passive. We get involved in people’s lives, helping them to find their creator so they can enter into a relationship with him. Once someone meets God and comes to grips with his outrageous love, he or she is much more open to what God says on a particular moral issue. It just won’t do to lecture others about godly morality while they are alienated from him. It would be like an anonymous girl telling you to give her the phone number for your spouse. Why should you listen to a stranger? What gives her the right to tell you what to do? Yet, as soon as you realize it is your daughter who is asking, you don’t hesitate to give her the number. Relationship changes everything. So too, it is with God. The goal is not to force outsiders to do what he says, but to invite them in.

Check out part four of this series: Progressivism.

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