Tolerance at work

November 12, 2007

Can Tolerance and Christianity go together? Many outside the church view Christianity as the root cause of much intolerance in Europe, while many believers see tolerance as a mark of our relativistic society! How can those committed to Biblical absolutes condone tolerance?
And yet this week, British Christians are being challenged to examine their tolerance level. ‘Tolerance’ is the theme at this year’s annual Temple Address in London on Tuesday evening (Nov 13), sponsored by the UK Evangelical Alliance.
The rise of multi-culturalism across Europe in recent years makes it worth our while to listen in on the British conversation, wherever we may live on the continent.
Joel Edwards, EA’s general director, has been engaging in this public debate through The Times. In the latest edition of IDEA, the Alliance’s bi-monthly, he admits we evangelicals have ‘a massive image problem on our hands,’
A ‘tolerant evangelical’ is in most people’s minds an oxymoron, he confesses. That reputation is the result of several factors. Evangelical belief in absolutes. An almost parental attitude towards society, implying ‘we know best ‘cause God told us so’. And cultural attitudes based on modernity–black/white, either/or –which leave little room for ambiguity, mystery and cultural shifts.
And yet, explains Edwards, ‘the great paradox is that, more than anyone else, we believe in grace–the give and take of God.’ And biblical tolerance is all about grace. God has tolerated humanity. Despite our rebellion, he reaches out towards us. God doesn’t necessarily agree with us, but he remembers he created us in his image.
Justin Thacker, the EA’s resident theologian, says ‘we’re promoting tolerance because Jesus lived it’. Without agreeing with the lifestyles of tax-collectors and prostitutes, Jesus sat with them, ate with them, talked with them and showed God’s love to them.
In the popular mind, tolerance has been redefined to mean that everything and anything is ok; nothing can be said to be ‘wrong’. Yet Thacker clarifies that tolerance isn’t about agreeing with someone or throwing your own principles away. By definition, it involves some form of disagreement or disapproval. But it’s about deciding to tolerate difference–like Jesus did.
In fact, according to the IDEA article, tolerance should be a Christian byword. The primary reason for being tolerant of people of other faiths, for example, is because we are commanded to love our neighbour. You can’t do that without understanding them. And you can’t do that without accepting difference.
We must show a measure of tolerance towards people of other faiths, says Thacker. We need to invite our neighbours who are different from us, whether Muslim, Hindu, gay or transsexual, into our homes. We need to get to know them. Like Jesus, we should sit with them, eat with them, talk with them and show God’s love to them.
‘This is tolerance at work,’ explains Thacker. ‘We’re not denying that we might disagree with their beliefs or lifestyles, but we are demonstrating the same kind of openness that Jesus lived out.’
In recent years, the Temple Address has been the occasion to highlight biblical values for society, including forgiveness, hope, trust and respect. This year’s address will be presented by Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth.
(That’s Sir Jonathan on the right in the photo when I met him briefly at the launch of Britain’s National Marriage Week earlier this year in the Houses of Parliament. My right cheek was black and yellow and swollen from dental implants a day or so before. I’m sure that’s not what he was thinking as he warmly greeted me–but I hope the rabbi will tolerate my humour.)
The choice of someone from a ‘different religious perspective’ demonstrates evangelical tolerance, explains Edwards, adding that few have contributed to the wider debate about tolerance in society as much as the Chief Rabbi.
Sacks, who treats the issue of tolerance and diversity in his best seller, The Dignity of Difference, is also interviewed in the current IDEA edition as a prelude for Tuesday’s talk.
The rabbi stresses that Britain’s long tradition as a tolerant nation stems from its Christian heritage; tolerance was pioneered on a religious basis. Those who ‘did the hard thinking about what it means to live in a society where people have strong, conflicting beliefs’ were deeply in dialogue with the Bible, he says. It was the inspiration of the John Miltons and John Lockes.
‘We like to think religion automatically tends towards intolerance, but it turned out to be a critical force for tolerance,’ argues Sacks.
To deal with the tensions in society after 9/11 and 7/7 (the London bombings of 2005) we need people with a strong sense of values, claims Sir Jonathan. ‘The centres of moral strength in Britain are religious communities. And it’s to faith groups that we should be looking for the future.’
The day after 7/7, the Home Secretary convened the various faith leaders, afraid the country would go up in flames. ‘Most of us knew each other rather well and were friends,’ Sacks shares, suggesting why Britain didn’t experience French-style riots.
‘But tolerance cannot begin and end with faith leaders,’ he adds. ‘It has to be practiced at a street level by all of us. It needs street parties to get people together–with food, music and celebration.’
I agree with Joel’s choice. We do well to listen to the rabbi.
Till next week,
Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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