The Painful Truth About Tolerance
Here we go. Another potentially incendiary post about modern culture through a biblical lens.
I use the word tolerance and immediately you have culturally-conditioned reactions. You do. No, all of you. Even you who think you have the right view of it. You especially have been trained to define tolerance according to your tribe. Which is pretty intolerant, really.
So let’s begin with a couple of definitions just to help you understand and parse the point I am trying to get across. How can two people walk together unless they are both headed the same way, no?
Tolerance = the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.
And immediately, some of you are pursing your lips. Stop that. It’s only going to give you wrinkles. (And if you’re offended by wrinkles, get over it, we all get wrinkles.) In case you were wondering, that definition is a copy and paste from Google’s definition of tolerance. I didn’t make that up on my own. So essentially, tolerance is me saying, “You know what, I don’t agree with your views on bananas, but I am okay with you having them.” My views, in case you were wondering, is that bananas are a necessary evil in this fallen world.
But some of you don’t like that definition of tolerance. Why? Why do you immediately say that tolerance is more than that? Why does your gut say that tolerance is about diversity and diversity about race and race about culture and culture about freedom and freedom about liberty and… and… and…
Here’s my immediate thoughts on that: tolerance is a word that has been submerged into a culture that doesn’t want it or doesn’t want what it really is.
And I would argue it’s true from both sides, of every issue.
Race for instance. (Yes, I know I am lighting a match in a gas tank here but in case you were wondering, that usually doesn’t make it explode.) I feel extremely passionate about race. I feel that passion over the systemic racism I see in our world that allows police officers to kill unarmed black people for running. I feel that sense of injustice in my bones. Now, what is tolerance in that situation? Tolerance, for me, is looking at someone who says, “Race isn’t a big deal in America,” and loving them even though I deeply disagree with them. Tolerance, for them, ought to be the inverse. They should hear “black lives matter” and say, “You know what? I don’t see it that way, but I am okay, perhaps more than okay, with others seeing this issue as primary.”
We don’t want to do things that way.
We don’t want tolerance to mean what it means. We want tolerance to mean approval and celebration.
I write. I’m a big fat failure of a writer, but I write. And words and their meanings are important. And in this case, there is a subplot that we rarely ever get to in the heat of our arguments and “screaming at the slow microwave” culture. And what’s that subplot look like?
When you tolerate me, you hurt me. I want you to celebrate me. I want you to approve of me. Then I won’t hurt anymore.
I am vaguely tolerated by some of my internet acquaintances. What does that mean? It means that, in our world of customizable information processing, they can just hit the old mute button on what I have to say. And that’s okay. In the sense that that is a form of tolerance. But does it hurt?
I think about this scene from Madmen:
“I feel bad for you.”
“I don’t think about you at all.”
That’s a critical, third-degree burn from Don Draper. Because it’s ultimately what Michael Ginsberg wanted. What he craved. He wanted Don to be emotionally involved, and at some level, giving him the approval and celebration he desired.
We all desire this, in some way, from those we would call friends, acquaintances, coworkers, family. And it’s why tolerance hurts. Don Draper tolerated Michael Ginsberg. He literally looked at him as a necessary part of the machine he was running. And nothing more. Nothing. He was interchangeable.
But we must recognize that the pain of tolerance is necessary for a functional society and should be approached with care beyond society and within the church. What do I mean?
I need to look at racists in our world and say, “Hey, you suck, but your humanity isn’t lessened because of how wrong you are.” Meaning, I won’t call for a person to be fined, jailed, or otherwise harmed for being a racist. Now, should they act on their racism in more than words? Different horse, different color. Should they be allowed, with their stated beliefs, to hold positions of authority? No and I believe in a democracy they should be prevented from holding power. Should they lose their jobs because of their beliefs? See, the details start getting messy the more it unravels, but tolerance says I can allow them a place in this world.
But in the church? In the church tolerance is, in many ways evil.
Yes, evil. Like it’s the fru-its of the Devil. Because of two things:
- I cannot profess to have true unity and communion with someone and only casually accept that they exist.
- I cannot reduce a brother or sister in Christ to tolerance, when they desire my acceptance, approval, and celebration.
So in the race question above, I can give you an example. A friend once asked me, “Well I feel like *’Democrats’ just aren’t good people.” *Not making this up: he used the term Democrats as a pejorative for black people. “What do you think about that?” he asked me. I was standing in his kitchen and there were half a dozen other guys standing around us. They looked at me and what I was about to say and in that moment, it mattered as a statement of authority.
“Well you could start by repenting of that and believing the gospel,” I said. See, I could have just said, “I disagree, but potat-oh pot-ah-to.” That would have been tolerance. In that space where this was a professing brother in Christ, I had to confront his sin and tell him I loved him too much to just accept it.
Tolerance in our society says, “We operate on the thinnest possible contract with one another in order to assure we don’t collapse into anarchy and chaos.”
But tolerance in our church says, “I hate you because we both are submitted to the truth of scripture and I don’t care about you or myself enough to help us remember the truth.” If I can’t celebrate and approve of you, in the church, it’s only and always because of one thing: sin. I cannot condone what God says is sin. I can’t agree to it. Even if you have bound yourself to it. Even if you consider that sin a part of who you are. Our world desperately screams into our face that sin is our only hope of identity. It tells us that it’s who we are, really. And the crazy thing?
It’s a little bit true. It’s half true.
Our sin is who we are… before Christ. But in Christ, it’s no longer an acceptable form of identity. And it can no longer be tolerated. It cannot be accepted or celebrated.
I don’t want to be tolerated, within the church, I want to be celebrated. I am growing more and more okay with the world tolerating me, but I know that’s a limited time thing. Eventually, with the arc our society is moving on, they will no longer tolerate me. And that’s okay too. The world hated/hates Jesus and if I am blessed enough to be counted in His camp? So be it.