Seeking transformation through the renewal of our minds
When tolerant Christians can’t tolerate the intolerance of tolerant non-Christians
Why Christians need to give up on tolerance in favor of grace
by Jeffrey A. Schooley
To whatever degree titles are useful (and I suspect they aren’t all that useful), my life story goes something like this: I grew up a non-Christian who became an evangelical Christian who turned into a progressive Christian. Now, to be clear, I never chose a title and then tried to live into it. Instead, I woke each day, prayed, studied, lived, failed, communed, and did it again the next day. In this process, the titles used to describe me have changed, but all of it is nothing more than a result of my trying to live faithfully.
One of the neat results is that my Facebook news feed is populated with a vast diversity of opinions. I’m not in the habit of blocking or de-friending people, so I get to see many opinions that both make me laugh and boil my blood. And yet whatever the stripe, persuasion, or title of my friends, I find a unifying theme: they all love to point out intolerance.
Take, for example, a recent post by my dear friend Josh. Now, I love Josh and his family dearly. They were instrumental in my coming to faith during high school, and I admire the ways in which Josh resists easy titles; his beliefs are far too complex for simple categorization. Still, Josh caught my attention when he posted to Facebook an article with this headline: “Liberty University Survived the Unsafe Space Created by Bernie Sanders and His Pro-Choice Views.” Josh then wrote this status: “Ironic that a university full of people the Left considers the most intolerant and narrow minded allows people to speak on campus with wildly opposing moral and political views, while liberal state and private universities routinely cancel speakers who might make their students uncomfortable.”
Josh is correct. Many university students and faculty have protested, and sometimes derailed, commencement addresses by noted conservative leaders. And there may be some irony there. But what good is this sort of irony?
Of course, I’m just as easily going to find another friend posting, for example, a meme about the intolerance of right-leaning Christians when it comes to immigrants or the poor. A wildly popular one comes from the second-most-famous Catholic in the United States, Stephen Colbert (assuming that he is still in second place behind Pope Francis). I’m sure you’ve seen this meme.
Back and forth each side goes, trying to point out the intolerance of the other side. And, really, what they’re trying to point out is the hypocrisy of the other side. That tolerance/intolerance is their means of doing so only demonstrates how both sides have bought into the belief that tolerance is the chief virtue in both faith and society.
My claim, here, that progressives and conservatives alike value tolerance is bound to rile people on both sides of the aisle. The progressives will see tolerance as under their exclusive care, while the conservatives are bound to bristle at being compared with progressives. Yet when I hear my conservative friends rail against, for example, the abuse Kim Davis received, I hear them quietly trumpeting the “virtue” of tolerance. If tolerance is not a thing (or not a valuable thing), then it should not matter to my conservative friends that Davis was treated intolerably (or, I suppose, that she acted as such). Instead, I hear them cry for tolerance.
Now, their cry for tolerance may be their way to attempt to communicate with their progressive kin, but I don’t buy it. I think it is much more likely that tolerance has snuck through the back door of their ideology. I think this because to identify as progressive or conservative is to embody a cultural politic that already values tolerance as a mainstay of democracy as a political system.
For all of these reasons, I think it is time to give up on tolerance. And this is especially true for those Christians who have decided that the best method to demonstrate their Christian faith is to point out how others are failing at a cultural virtue. Such an activity can only be the gargling death-rattles of a church in its last days as cultural force.
A much more fruitful activity might be to recognize that part of the human condition is the failure to live up to any virtue. It does not matter if the bar is set high or low; being human means failing to clear it. Christians, most of all, should be aware of this. Indeed, they should have the most compassion because they have failed to hurdle not only the great commands of their faith—“love God with your whole self,” “love your neighbor as your self,” “love your enemy,” “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”—but have failed at a whole host of easier commands: don’t gossip, rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn, keep the Sabbath day holy.
A great space is created between ourselves and the God who places such a high bar in front of us. And this chasm is overcome not by our learning to leap better, but by the grace of Jesus Christ. This is, as best I can understand it, the centerpiece of our faith. This is what it means to think like a Christian.
Christians (tolerant or otherwise) who spend time pointing out the intolerance of those who identify themselves as tolerant (and, thereby, only reaffirm the intolerance they are accused of) need to hop off this silly merry-go-round. And, in fact, Jesus Christ already broke that cycle when his body was broken. (Thanks be to God!). Instead, Christians need to give up on tolerance in favor of the gift of grace. Saying as much reminds us all that any home-made salvation (such as tolerance) will always fail us in the end. What we need is not so much what we make, but what we receive.
Jeffrey A. Schooley is a teaching elder at Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania. He is also a PhD in Theology candidate at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Biking, Netflix, reading, teaching, and spending time with his wife and dog round out the rest of his life. He can be reached at ThinkLikeChristians@gmail.com.