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The Tolerance Myth Part 2


It has been almost fifteen years since I wrote "The Tolerance Myth". I have thought at times that it may need to be deleted from our list of articles, because, on the whole, we have come to see the benefits of showing a lot more tolerance toward people who disagree with us. However, there is still too much truth in what I originally wrote, to simply delete it.

And in this article, I would like to consider another aspect of tolerance which was not covered in that article. It is a subtle deception through which people exercise a sort of INtolerance that masquerades behind a campaign for more tolerance. I would like to address this matter from a Quaker perspective, since it is through Quakers that I have most come to appreciate the benefits and genuine Christian principles that can be a part of tolerance.

Quakers are part of a very short list of organisations that are collectively referred to as "peace churches". Others with a similar history are the Amish and the Mennonites. All three organisations are very small. By far, most Christian denominations (and there are hundreds of them) are not known as peace churches. However, every one of them (as far as I know) tolerates pacifists in their midst.

In other words, as far as the average Christian denomination is concerned, going to war or not going to war is a "pro-choice" issue, to be decided by each individual.

Can you see where this is leading? I am trying to show how, what starts out sounding like tolerance (i.e. tolerance of people who are pacifists as well as tolerance of people who believe in going to war) does not naturally lead to a happy mix of people from both categories. The pro-war position is going to just naturally flourish in an environment where you do not allow pacifists to act as the conscience of the rest of society. And I believe this is pretty much what happens (over time) with other issues as well.

In most controversies, there is someone who thinks something is wrong. It could be abortion. It could be homosexuality. It could be witchcraft. It could be war. In each case, there is the opposing point of view. Interestingly, the opposing point of view, the one whose actions are being criticised, rarely argues that the opposition is wrong. Abortionists do not argue that it is wrong to have babies. They only want the freedom to abort their own. Homosexuals do not argue that it is wrong to be heterosexual. They only want the freedom to maintain homosexual relationships themselves. Witches do not (at least openly) argue that it is wrong to have faith in a male God. They just want freedom to have faith in Someone Else without being criticised for doing so. And although people supporting war may be a bit critical of some pacifists, their primary desire is only to have the pacifists silenced so that they can be free to exercise their own personal choice with regard to war.

The side which pushes tolerance says, in effect, "You can believe whatever you like, but we do not want you to say anything about it to us and (preferably) to anyone else." This push to silence the critics, whether it be critics of war or critics of abortion, is rarely if ever expressed as a campaign to oppress. Instead, it is marketed as a campaign for more tolerance. But, of course, it only goes in one direction. Tolerance for war necessarily restricts tolerance for pro-pacifist campaigns and demonstrations. And tolerance for abortion necessarily restricts tolerance for pro-life campaigns and demonstrations.

Little by little, the gospel of tolerance has reached the point where it means, more than anything else, "Don't anyone tell me anything." But is that really tolerance? Or is it just mental laziness and/or selfishness supported by a totalitarian oppression of anyone who disagrees with you?

There must be room for debate; but tolerance is slow to concede such room. Rather than go through the discomfort of laying out ground rules for meaningful and fair debate, extreme tolerance treats all debate as dysfunctional. This totalitarian attitude toward tolerance needs to be addressed while there are still some forums open for it.

Someone has cynically said of Quakerism: "Quakers have no rules; but God help you if you ever break one of them." There may be more truth in that statement than many of us would like to think. We can have so many rules that only the initiated know, that someone coming from a difference perspective may never be heard, not because his or her arguments were wrong, but because they overlooked some minor tradition about how to go about expressing a point of view.

What I am saying here goes far beyond Quakerism, however, for I believe that it is symptomatic of the spirit of the age. Doctrines of tolerance have been the Trojan horses of many false and unethical practices. I remember, for example, my experience of the charismatic movement in Australian churches, some thirty years ago. Hardly a town in the country did not have someone announce that they were going to hold "combined church" meetings for the purpose of introducing people of all denominations to the wonders of pentecostalism. But almost without fail, those meetings which started out with talk of tolerance for all of the denominational differences represented at such meetings, eventually turned into denominations in their own right, who became convinced that they had the truth and others did not. Rather than "combine", the town found itself with yet another division.

Just about anyone purporting to bring messianic hope to the world preaches a similar gospel of unity for all. So far, however, I have not found anyone who has a program of unity that does not seek to spiritually lock up the dissidents. Anyone who doesn't accept their message of unity (with uniformity in the area of commitment to tolerance, if not in other areas as well), is seen as the enemy. They must be re-educated, pushed to the outer fringes, or just plain stamped out. We must learn to question those who come saying "Peace! Peace!" to see if it is really working in practical ways, whether that be in their own lives or in the lives of those whom they lead.

Tolerance for other points of view? Yes, definitely. But tolerance too for those points of view which think (and occasionally say) that not all points of view are equally right.

(See also The Tolerance Myth [10])
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