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Tolerance Isn't a Four Letter Word

The class president of a Christian university recently wrote an article for his school paper revealing that he’s an atheist. The student’s name is Eric Fromm, and in the article he wrote, “I was baptized Lutheran and raised Methodist, but as time went on I slowly came to the conclusion that God wasn’t real.”

I was struck to hear of his classmates’ reactions. “I actually have gotten more hugs than ever before,” Fromm told ABC News. “It’s a very strange thing.”

This is a remarkable picture of solidarity and support in spite of glaring differences—tolerance, as it’s sometimes called.

Tolerance has become a contentious idea in this culture’s psyche. Say the word in a group of people and watch what happens. What you’ll likely find is that some people speak about tolerance longingly, as if thinking out loud about heaven. Others, however, react to the word like bile on the tongue.

The 18th century French philosopher Voltaire once said, “Of all religions, the Christian should, of course, inspire the most tolerance, but until now Christians have been the most intolerant of all men.”

When I first read these words I was left wondering if such a thing could really be said about a faith premised on the teachings of Jesus Christ, teachings such as “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” “judge not” and “forgive as you have been forgiven.”

Voltaire was painting with some pretty broad strokes, and I don’t think his charge can be leveled against everyone. However, I’m a Christian and I know for certain that there was a time when Voltaire’s statement could be said of me. 

I was a young student sitting on the bleachers in the gym. I noticed a classmate, Jack, reading from a skinny pamphlet. Jack explained that it was a religious text of some kind that claimed an afterlife simply meant living on in the memory of others.

For as long as I could remember—well before I ever cared one way or another about Jesus—I had believed in heaven; which I envisioned as a place of reasonably priced oceanfront property, endless sea sounds and golden tans. I found Jack’s words unsettling, and to my shame I started mocking his book.

Most people, if they’re being honest with themselves, will admit to being guilty of a similar self-righteous spat. I guess I felt compelled to defend my Westernized idea of heaven because, on some level, I thought that his beliefs threatened my own.

This is the lie at the root of culture wars and political propaganda: If someone doesn’t believe what I believe, then they’re a threat, an enemy.

At the beginning of Romans 2, there is a gorgeous juxtaposition between the hawkish and hypocritical judgment of people and the “kindness and tolerance and patience” of God.

The author, Paul, drops the hammer on those who judge others for the very deeds that they themselves practice. I think this is something we’re all guilty of. Personally, the vices in others that rile me up most are the very vices that live within me.

Paul delivered the pièce de résistance when he wrote, “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?”

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Did you catch that? God doesn’t change hearts through breathless, red-faced debates and browbeating. Rather, He is rich in kindness and tolerance and patience.

As someone who subscribes to the teachings of Jesus, I agree with Voltaire. Christians should inspire tolerance. And it would seem the God we hold so close to our hearts holds tolerance in high regard. But how does this idea of tolerance play out practically as we interact with a big world of diverse politics, philosophies and dogmas?
 
As Paul wrote to the Church in Rome, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Like those who delivered hugs to Eric Fromm, seek peace and practice tolerance. Some people will contest that it couldn’t possibly be so simple, but Christians champion a God who seems to be under the impression that kindness, tolerance and patience change lives.

As sobering as Voltaire’s indictment may be, what’s more sobering is that a number of Christians wear the title of “intolerance” as a badge of honor. They scrap and fight as if every tussle will be rewarded in heaven. I don’t know if God ever blushes or if He feels embarrassment, but if He does I have a sneaking suspicion that this sort of behavior is what does it.

Honestly, isn’t it a bit patronizing to assume that God needs us taking shots at anyone who diverges from the hope we have? Here’s the truth: God doesn’t need a helmet. He doesn’t need us to hold His hand while He crosses the street. By all means, share the hope you have, but stop treating God like your mom’s precious china. God has thick skin, and He wants the same for us. Remember Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek? Maybe He was trying to teach us how to take a punch.

There is a popular misbelief nowadays that tolerance equals acquiescence. Not only is this untrue, but this very idea dilutes tolerance of its beauty and strips the word of its spirit.

Tolerance isn’t syncretism. Tolerance isn’t a proclivity to blend in and conform.
 
Tolerance is the adaptability of love. Tolerance is the ability to show kindness and patience in the face of differences.
 
Tolerance isn’t a four-letter word. Tolerance isn’t something to be suppressed or censored.
 
Tolerance changes hearts. Tolerance, in its truest sense, is something to be learned from God.

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