Is Tolerance Enough?
The world is still reeling from President Trump’s recent comments about whether we really need more Haitian immigrants and how African nations are “s***hole countries (1). Perhaps even more shocking than his abhorrent comments is the fact that there are people who continue to adamantly affirm his rancor, revealing the heart of a nation that desperately needs healing and transformation. For years, people have attempted to address symptoms of this attitude with tolerance. Many educators and politicians use the word “tolerance” in advocating for inclusivity. People display “coexist” bumper stickers and schools organize anti-bullying programs. Tolerance is the one virtue promoted at almost every opportunity, the one virtue our society regularly exhorts and embraces as a key ingredient of our democracy.
Tolerance is such an important virtue that organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) have made it their mission to promote and teach it. However, in their efforts to teach tolerance, the SPLC acknowledges, “Tolerance is surely an imperfect term.” (2) In their efforts, they have found that “the English language offers no single word that embraces the broad range of skills we need to live together peacefully.” What is so imperfect about this “tolerance” so acclaimed by our culture, and is there truly no better alternative?
The term “toleration” comes from the Latin word tolerare, meaning “to put up with, countenance or suffer—generally refer[ing] to the conditional acceptance of or non-interference with beliefs, actions or practices that one considers to be wrong but still ‘tolerable,’ such that they should not be prohibited or constrained.” (3)
As acceptable as this definition may seem, we might imagine that a family in which siblings are taught merely to tolerate one another would create a less than ideal environment. A society built upon this definition of tolerance would understandably also fall short of the peace for which the SPLC strives. Tolerance too easily allows us to simply distance ourselves from those who hold different beliefs or refrain from voicing our own opinions, which often leaves an undercurrent of tacit disapproval and tension. Other times, tolerance condemns those who question a belief or maintain that a certain belief is right. Yet, tolerance must also acknowledge the fact that some beliefs are inherently contradicting and mutually exclusive. Establishment of law and order in any civilization depends on the consensus that certain things are intolerable. Our society is no exception, and has even gone so far as to adopt “zero tolerance” policies for certain issues that mandate immediate and harsh punishment, regardless of the circumstances. The fact that both extremes of tolerance and zero tolerance can coexist and be considered ideal in certain situations indicates that perhaps neither is the true solution.
As we look closer at the definition of “tolerance,” we begin to understand why it may be a rather imperfect word, inadequate to face the current climate. Political and religious division and polarization have especially increased in recent years. The SPLC documents that in 2015, the number of anti-Muslim hate groups nearly tripled from 34 to 101 and the number of hate crimes against Muslims increased by 67% (4). In 2016, the number of operating hate groups rose from 892 to 917. Political polarization has also increased, with 95% of Republicans being more conservative than the median Democrat and 97% of Democrats being more liberal than the median Republican, according to current Pew data (5). Individuals and institutions are using religion to justify discrimination, while many religious individuals and institutions are being discriminated against. These statistics cannot adequately capture the magnitude and severity of the conflict and division we face today, but they help us to understand how facing this climate with a tolerance that is nothing more than non-interference certainly leaves us ill-equipped.
Is there truly no better word than “tolerance?”
A Better Alternative
The SPLC often invokes Martin Luther King, Jr., looking to his legacy for the vision they advocate. Interestingly, King never once used the word “tolerance” in his speeches. Instead, King taught agape (6). This ancient Greek term describes selfless, unconditional love extended to all people. Novelist and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis called it “gift love,” love that cannot be earned or merited, but that is given out of joyful resolve to consider others before ourselves (7).
Although the SPLC chooses to use the word “tolerance,” they have found the word too problematic not to address. Interestingly, their new definition-- “respect, acceptance, and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human”-- more closely resembles agape love. Could “love” perhaps be the “single word that embraces the broad range of skills we need to live together peacefully?” (8)
If so, how could this word be overlooked? Why might we choose tolerance over love? Perhaps because it is used so casually and frequently that it has lost its meaning and impact. We love the Patriots, pizza, and puppies, but we also love our parents, spouses, and children. “Love” has come to include such a broad spectrum of affection, from the whimsical to the profound.
Regardless of society’s frivolous use of “love,” we all are moved by stories of self-sacrifice: Frozen’s Anna breathing her last breath to save her sister Elsa, Rio Olympian D’Agostino stopping mid-race to help her injured competitor, or off-duty firefighter Siller letting only death stop him from pulling people from the World Trade Center. Such stories often prompt us to wonder what we would have done in these situations. We would like to think that we would have done the same, but the reality is that we daily struggle with sacrificing for others, even on a much lesser level. We have trouble sacrificing our comfort and convenience, much less our pride and prejudices. Even ethnic and gender differences can become insidious obstacles.
Christianity is rooted in a profoundly sacrificial love that remains consistent in every situation, from the mundane to life-and-death. The Bible gives us a glimpse at love expressed in the face of ethnic and gender differences during a time when intense animosity existed between Samaritans and Jews. Jews often viewed Samaritans as inferior because they rejected traditional Jewish teachings for their own unique systems of worship and Scripture, often welcomed Jewish criminals and refugees, and were considered a “mixed race" (9). For instance, Jews did not allow Samaritans to sacrifice in Jewish temples and considered marriages with Samaritans illegal. The hatred between Jews and Samaritans was so strong that Jews traveling between Galilee and Judea would sometimes choose to circumvent Samaria, as traveling through Samaria could lead to violent conflict (10).
In John 4, the Bible tells about a Jew who deliberately travels through Samaria. He meets a Samaritan woman, seemingly arbitrarily, but we later discover that he intended to find her (John 4, New International Version). The woman immediately recognizes him as Jewish. Accustomed to the cultural division of the time, she is surprised that he not only chooses to speak with her, but also asks her for a drink of water. Why would a righteous Jewish man man be willing to accept drinking water from an unrighteous Samaritan woman? When the man’s friends arrive, they are equally surprised. However, he is neither ashamed nor embarrassed to be found with her, rather he intentionally set aside his own reputation to find her. To the woman’s amazement, she discovers the man’s name is Jesus, the promised savior for whom everyone has been waiting for centuries.
Tolerance as our culture defines it might commend Jesus for crossing ethnic and gender boundaries, but as she discovers, His acceptance of her goes much deeper. Though she attempts to hide shameful secrets, Jesus already knows the truth about her. Still, He chooses to reach out to her, pushing past not only differences, but actual wrongdoings that even she sees in herself. He recognizes her inherent value despite her offenses.
Mere differences are often difficult to overlook, much less actual wrongs. Yet when Jesus saw a destructive evil in the Samaritan woman’s life, He did not condemn her, but instead had compassion, speaking truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Love does not define others by their wrongdoings. Neither is love blind to wrong or satisfied to leave people in brokenness. Love recognizes others’ inherent, God-given value and sacrifices for their good.
As noteworthy as Jesus’ sacrifice of His reputation as a perfect Jew was in this instance, Christians would say it was eclipsed by His incomparably greater sacrifice in relinquishing His divinity to enter our brokenness and lay down his life for our sins. In the New Testament of the Bible, the word agape is used to describe the love that is of and from God, who is Himself love (1 John 4:8). “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us… while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son…” (Romans 5:8, 10). Here we find that Jesus’ love extends to not just the errant or even evil, but to true enemies. We often have trouble embracing those whom we know are outright wrong in their thinking and actions and naturally become defensive when people oppose us. Though we may not consciously identify such people as enemies, we create distance between ourselves and others that often stands in the way of true reconciliation and peace. Love moves towards others rather than keeping them at arm’s distance.
In order to move towards us, Jesus humbled himself. He, “…being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7). Our pride often hinders reconciliation, as we are often more concerned with our own position than the good of others. Pride fights for its rights and demands acknowledgement and appreciation. True humility comes from recognizing that we all fall far short of God’s perfection, and love for others comes from amazement at God’s unwarranted grace.
What makes Trump’s comments particularly offensive is the heartless arrogance behind them. Sadly, it reflects too much the heart of our nation. We have to ask ourselves, as well as our efforts have been in teaching tolerance, whether we have done little more than teach people to suppress their disdain, disdain that inevitably surfaces and manifests itself.
Only love can truly enable us to “live together peacefully,” the SPLC’s ultimate goal (11). What does such love look like?
Jesus dined with tax collectors who were stereotyped as corrupt. Are we willing to spend time with the underprivileged to be a positive influence in these communities instead of criticizing its members for being responsible for their plight? Jesus loved and freed a woman caught in adultery from the consequence and bondage of her sin. Can we help AIDS victims regardless of how they contracted it? Jesus welcomed a religious leader who came to question him in secret. Do we patiently and humbly engage with people who will not even outwardly acknowledge any agreement with us?
As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, agape love “is an overflowing love… the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likable, but because God loves them.” (12)
If the love of Jesus is truly the key to reconciliation and peace, we cannot be satisfied with tolerance alone. We must instead embrace agape love.
1. Davis, J.H., Stolber, S. G., & Kaplan, T. (2018, Jan- uary 11). “Trump Alarms Lawmakers with Disparaging Words
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12. Loving Your Enemies as Yourself.