Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Defining Religious Language: Tolerance and Engagement

Tolerance is a word that gets used a lot, often by people who have not thought through the implications of the word. When we say that we are tolerant of someone, or that we practice tolerance, or that we believe in religious tolerance… what we are really doing is reinforcing our own dominate position over others, and dividing ourselves from them.

Tolerance is a word of repression, not of equality.

When I say that I tolerate something or someone, what I am saying is that I have made the decision, for my own reasons, to allow something or someone to continue in my presence. It places me in a paternalistic role, and expects that the person or entity that is “tolerated” be grateful for my magnanimity. If I truly viewed the other through a lens of equality, there would be no way for me to tolerate them… they would have an equal right to exist, as I do.

A practice of tolerance sets up dependencies, in which the person granting the tolerance has all of the power… but is able to hide that grab for power behind a cloak of good intentions, sometimes even from themselves. Others fully understand the use of the word “tolerance” and have made of it a cynical practice of justifying racist, classist, and theocratist power structures within a veil of liberalism.

When I hear the word “tolerate” it screams to me someone who is either deluding themselves, or seeking to delude others. There is nothing liberal about tolerance. Tolerance is a conservative value.

And we dare to act surprised when the “tolerated” dare to rebel against such benevolent tolerance.

Liberals are called in this world not to practice and promote “tolerance”, but rather to learn a practice of engagement with others. Engagement is to meet someone, assuming an equal footing. Or for the more radical among us, the practice of radical engagement is to view yourself in a lesser place than those you engage with. Paul of Tarsus was referring to this kind of radical engagement when he called upon the members of the early Christian church to “be subject to one another.”

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To enter into engagement with another person, three things are required. First, you have to step away from any feelings of superiority you might have. Second, you have to listen deeply to their stories, their feelings, their experience, and privilege those stories, feelings, and experiences as much as you do your own. Third, and most importantly, you have to accept that such engagement will change who you are, sometimes at a very deep level.

Allowing GLBT persons to attend your church is tolerance. Listening to their life stories, letting the church change to meet their needs, and giving up on feelings of otherness in regards to them is to practice engagement.

Click here to read the other essays in the “Defining Religious Language” series.

3 Thoughts on “Defining Religious Language: Tolerance and Engagement

  1. I think “respect” is a better choice. I don’t have the energy for constant engagement. I think simply respecting each persons humanity is best.

  2. Patrick McLaughlin on Thursday May 8, 2008 at 17:03 +0000 said:

    Hmmm. Maybe it’s a matter of definitions.

    For me, tolerance is a reciprocal act, a two-way street. Only those who tolerate have a claim to tolerance. So… it certainly could be paternalistic… and yet need not be. The example you give establishes a hierarchy of “ownership” of the church, and then tolerance of others….

    I fail to see how one is really tolerant without engaging. How is “you can be here, but I/we are going to ignore you,” tolerance? It’s defining it down to the level of merely not abusing and excluding.

  3. Jeff Wilson on Tuesday May 13, 2008 at 7:38 +0000 said:

    Hey David, in case you’re not aware of it, I thought you might find interest in Russell Simmons’ 1937 Meadville MA thesis “The Military Chaplaincy.” You also might know of other folks who’d like to take a look at it, they have a copy in the Meadville-Lombard library.

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