Dear Evangelicals,

It’s time we talked about tolerance.

Tolerance: welcoming the other whose beliefs, culture, values and practices differ from ones own.

[A gift from my facebook newsfeed] This week I watched a video rant about tolerance by an evangelical pastor. Over the last couple weeks more than 2.4 million people had watched this pastor lambast Pharrell Williams and Ellen Degeneres for canceling a guest (Kim Burrell) because of her homophobic comments. He was outraged over Ellen’s intolerance toward a gospel sibger’s (and his own) version of Christian sexual ethics.

“there’s no room for any kind of prejudice in 2017" — Pharrell

This pastor argues that the act was hypocritical because it was not tolerant reject this gospel singer’s belief. One cannot say they value tolerance while rejecting those who they do not perceive as tolerant. So: Is tolerance inherently hypocritical because it rejects intolerance? What does the Gospel of Christ have to do with tolerance?

I think we need to start by untangling some of the word games. And here is where we start:

Tolerance is not a belief, but an outcome.

It is not a value, but a result. Let me explain: It could be said that “I value tolerance”. But when I am valuing tolerance, I am in fact appreciating openness, or celebrating diversity, or even just choosing not to assert superiority. Tolerance is the product, or outcome of other values — values such as diversity, love, and inclusiveness. Tolerance is not an end in itself or a value, but what happens when we love our enemies.

Tolerance is also a posture.

When we decide to love those who are different than us, to accept their ways of life as valid, we are adopting a posture of tolerance. Tolerance is a posture that arises from a set of values, behaviors, and choices.

Tolerance is about differences between people

Tolerance doesn’t mean welcoming any action or attitude. I’m fact, welcoming hatred, bigotry, or racism would be the definition of intolerance. Instead, tolerance means we accept others with different religions, languages, cultures, and values. We celebrate the different ways people live, worship, eat, and speak — we are tolerant because we recognize the humanity in the other. To say that valuing tolerance means you have to accept anything is to misunderstand what tolerance is.

If tolerance is not a “value”, what does that make intolerance?

Intolerance is not the opposite of tolerance.

Intolerance is the outcome of a failure to love, not the opposite of the value “tolerance”. It arises from fear, superiority, and bigotry. It points to a lack of things that lead to exhibiting tolerance — love, openness, and generosity. And it is a posture of non-inclusiveness or superiority.

Intolerance is not simply believing someone else is wrong, it refuses to accept the other as valid. It is a decision not to respect the beliefs of others.

Intolerance is an attitude or posture.

It is an attitude which arises from fear or superiority at best, and bigotry or hatred at worst.

Intolerance is not disbelief

Just as tolerance of another’s belief is not the same as believing. A person can choose not to believe something without being intolerant toward it. Intolerance is rather disallowing the belief of the other or invalidating the belief of the other.

A few suggestions:

  • Accepting is not the same as endorsing I can allow you space to be different is not the same thing believing that you are right.
  • Love is a much higher call than tolerance — but we need to start somewhere. For Christians, Christ’s radical love goes beyond tolerating enemies; he instructs his followers to love, pray for, and bless their enemies.
  • Intolerance is often the outcome of fear. When we do not understand why someone believes something or why they practice something, this causes us to fear them. The best antidote for fear is getting to know the other, which enables us to not just accept, but love them.

Final thoughts for those still reading…

Tolerance is always an uphill battle. It requires that we surrender our cultural, spiritual, and ethical superiority to make room for someone who is other. It demands that we recognize the humanness and the right to agency in the other. It asks us to respond to diversity and strangeness by listening instead of talking.

For those who want to make America great (again), tolerance was written into our country’s founding document. Our constitution declares that all peoples are created equal, and goes on to guarantee religious freedom to all peoples. (Even though it’s writing was coterminous with the enslavement of black and brown people, genocide of native peoples, and disenfranchisement of women generally.) Despite the bloodstains on our country’s history, America’s government has at least the intention of tolerance towards all. Diversity does not weaken our nation, it makes us stronger. Tolerance does not affirm the superiority of other ways of life, it acknowledges the validity of other ways of life.

Evangelicals need to come to terms with this: Jesus was not an evangelical. He was not an American. He was not a capitalist or an advocate for democracy. He was not heterosexual. He was not middle-class. He was not white. He is ‘other’.

Evangelicals need to take a hard look at their beliefs and see if they have space to tolerate the teachings of this Other.