Love and Tolerance

Last night at Chi Alpha’s weekly meeting we had a guest speaker — missionary Mark Orfila. He’s been serving for over a decade in eastern Europe and has been thinking very deeply about American cultural values and how they relate to the Kingdom of God.

He said a lot of very helpful things last night, but I think the most helpful went along these lines (the thoughts are his but the words are mine):

If I had to choose between tolerance and hatred, I’d choose tolerance hands-down.

But we’re not facing a binary choice — we have a whole range of options available to us. And tolerance can’t be the ultimate good in a society for two reasons: one philosophical and one practical. There must be something higher of which tolerance is a special case, because if tolerance is the highest good then you have a real problem — how do you handle the intolerant members of your own society? If you tolerate them, then you allow intolerance to flourish. If you don’t tolerate them, then you promote intolerance yourself. Either way intolerance sneaks into your society. That’s the philosophical approach. But there’s an even bigger practical problem. Who wants to be tolerated? Don’t we all want more than to be put up with? Tolerance is a negative virtue — it’s about what we don’t do to people. I won’t hit you, I won’t insult you, I won’t stigmatize you. It’s a peculiar inverse of the golden rule — tolerance tells us not to do to others what we don’t want done to us. It creates a distance between us and never forces us to cross it.

The problem with tolerance for a Christian is not that it sets the bar too high but that it sets the bar too low. We are called to love one another; in fact, we are even called to love our enemies. And rather than merely respecting the distance between us, we are called to treat them the way we wish they would treat us. Tolerance is a poor substitute for love. If it’s the only offer on the table I’ll take it, but in most situations we should demand more (especially of ourselves).

Thanks for the clear thinking on a crucial subject, Mark.

One thought on “Love and Tolerance”

  1. Mark Orfila is awesome. Good thoughts on tolerance there. There’s two types of being disliked: active and passive. Active is when people tell you to get lost; passive is when people don’t care enough to tell you they don’t want you around. Guess which one is worse.

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