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How tolerant are Christians?

September 14, 2010 One Comment

by Michael Keith

In a speech responding to a pending Koran burning by a pastor in Florida, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said: “My God and my Christ is a tolerant God, and that’s what we want to see in this world.”

What does tolerant mean?

The word “tolerate” has lost all its meaning these days. To tolerate something is to not agree with something yet allow the disagreement to remain. Tolerance is recognizing different claims, even contradictory claims, and allowing them to co-exist—not coerce, ban, or outlaw the “other.” It is the freedom to disagree.

On the other hand, intolerance is not allowing for disagreement; seeking to destroy any contradictory claim and limiting freedoms. Intolerance enforces its view to the exclusion of all others. Intolerance hates the “other.”

However, being tolerant these days means agreeing with everything; never expressing disagreement with anything. It’s seen as accepting every idea—even contradictory ideas—because pointing out the contradiction would be deemed intolerant.

People view intolerance as voicing dissension or disagreeing with something. If someone claims to know the truth, if anyone claims something is right or wrong—it is considered intolerance. And then we see this so-called “intolerance” punished, language banned and people shunned.

The way we use the word “tolerant” these days is exactly opposite to its real meaning!

Because of this misunderstanding of tolerance, many people believe everything—and therefore believe in nothing. This misconception of tolerance stifles debate and discussion. As soon as someone makes a claim to the exclusion of another, we hear the accusation of being “intolerant.” This is very “intolerant tolerance” indeed!

So how do Christians understand tolerance? Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45).

We are to love our enemies and pray for those with whom we disagree. We ought to treat all people with love and respect. However, this does not mean we necessarily accept what they believe or teach. This is tolerance.

At the same time however, Christians are to “speak the truth in love” writes St. Paul in his letter to the early church in Ephesus. We are to speak respectfully against such sins as abortion and same-sex marriage, for example. Unfortunately, in some cases Christians have spoken out on these and other issues in a less than respectful and loving way. When Christians act in such ways our actions only lend to the perception of what people label “intolerance.” If Christians are accused of intolerance, let it be for speaking the truth in love, not for the way we communicate.

This is not a “live and let live” attitude. Some of the things we argue against in our society are things we believe society should not tolerate, such as same-sex marriage, assisted suicide, euthanasia, and abortion. Other things we tolerate while still considering them wrong, such as homosexuality (these days we don’t insist that it be criminalized) and the right of others to worship as they see fit, while still maintaining that only faith in Christ saves.

While our world holds an “intolerant tolerance” attitude toward much of what the historic Christian faith holds true, we must seek to live our lives “tolerantly intolerant.” We will love and respect those with whom we differ. We will allow ourselves to be mocked and judged without responding in kind. We will speak the truth in love. This is tolerance.

Rev. Michael Keith is pastor at Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan. He blogs at www.scottishlutheran.blogspot.com.

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