Tolerance Is Ok. But what else have you got?

September 13, 2012 - 9:51am -- fraser

American and global cultures are painfully conflicted. No doubt, living with all kinds of people who are very different can be difficult.  For the last part of the 20th century, folks started talking about the need for tolerance.  Without having studied in too much depth the history of the word's political clout (that was a disclaimer), all I see is the half-assed nature of the word.  Maybe there was a time when tolerance was a step removed from segregation, and at that time it would have served a positive purpose.  But if all we are doing is tolerating each other--putting up with each other the way I used to put up with my college roomate's farts, though harboring enmity all the while--then we aren't changing much of anything, we're just delaying negative effects.  Tolerance is a head word, an academic exercise in living and letting live.  But shouldn't we trying for more than that?  If we want to get into the heart and soul of the matter, maybe we need to have conversations, share the burdens in meeting a community's needs, or even acknowledging that we are part of the same community (instead of our popular infatuation with patronizing talk about "the Muslim community," "the Christian community," or "the gay community").  It cracks me up to hear the subtle language turns that still enable "us-them" world views.  

This spring, I heard Thom Tillis, Speaker of the House in the North Carolina General Assembly, speak.  He outlined why he allowed Amendment One (the state constitutional amendment that declares that marriage is only between one man and one woman) to proceed all the way to a state-wide vote.  But then I couldn't help but laugh out loud when he proudly proclaimed, "I have friends who are gay."  Of course, that just sounds like the worn out "I'm not racist; I have friends who are black."  Sigh.  In the world of tolerance, this kind of divided thinking makes perfectly logical sense: having friends who are gay (or black) apparently excuses a person from supporting policies that deny freedoms to your friends.  Tolerance and acceptance are not the same things; friends and acquaintances are the same things.  What makes tolerance so cheesy (though still better than segregation and violence) is that it still provides a kind of cultural permission to use words as battering rams against the Other, as long as we smile when we say them: "I'm a very tolerant person, but you are going to go to hell for saying you don't believe in God."  

The problem we have is rhetorical, for sure, but it is also spiritual and communal.  So, what if we tried to do something different?

It was so cool back when the Egyptian revolution was taking place in 2011 to see Muslims standing guard around Coptic Christians so that they could pray without being harassed.  In return, Coptic rebels stood guard around Muslim rebels while they prayed.  They may not have shared religions, but they took care of each other as part of the same community, neighbors in a cause.  How sad it was, then, when power and violence and blame took over and the country has again decayed into factions.  But for a moment, they showed what was possible by not only honoring differences, but by working together and sticking up for each other.  The painful division since is a reminder of how hard it is to be neighbors, community.

Is it possible for Jews and Muslims to be part of the same neighborhood?  Is it possible for Christians and atheists to be friends? These are different questions altogether from whether or not we are simply going to put up with each other.  Being neighbors means baking a casserole for your neighbor across the street when their mother dies AND having the sensitivity to know whether or not you should use bacon or shellfish in the recipe.  Every major spiritual tradition would encourage this kind of compassion.  What if we decided that tolerance is just the kiddie pool and now we are ready to start swimming in big kid pool for real?  That would mean getting out of our own arrogant isolation and fear and actually trying out humility and friendship as virtues worthy of our best.