In a recent report by school inspectors concerns have been raised about certain schools seeking to impose particular beliefs on their pupils. This has resulted in the education secretary calling for “British values” to be promoted in all schools and that, among other things, pupils need to be made aware of “mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”
And, at least to me, this all seems fine and reasonable although some people in the education world are asking questions about how this can actually be done.
Yesterday, I was listening to a radio phone-in where this was being discussed and I was interested in how the word “tolerance” was being used and the recurring comment that religious groups were often seen as intolerant. Two things struck me:
- Tolerance was totally accepted as something which couldn’t be challenged, the only question was how do we go about it
- There were calls for religious groups to go and practice their beliefs in private without trying to affect anyone else. This is the way in which those without faith were prepared to tolerate those with faith! (I have written earlier about the importance of Christians engaging publicly so not planning to go into that again here)
And so I started thinking about tolerance and whether the term was being used appropriately.
According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, “tolerance” is defined as:
the ability, willingness, or capacity to tolerate something.
with “tolerate” being defined as:
allow the existence or occurrence of (something that one dislikes or disagrees with) without interference.
So tolerance is the willingness to not interfere with something which we don’t like or disagree with. And, in one sense, this is important and appropriate and good. It is linked to other things which we are all called, and expected, to demonstrate such as openness, being welcome and inclusive. And these are all good things as well.
But I believe, in a Christian context, there needs to be some limit to what we welcome, what we are willing to include and – in some sense – what we are prepared to tolerate.
Wider society would say the same thing, of course. We are not expected to be tolerant towards those who break the law, abuse other’s rights and so on. We are expected to be tolerant towards those who conform to a set of values – maybe the “British values” which the education secretary is calling for but which seem so difficult to define.
But Christians are called to live in step with Jesus and so it is important to understand how this works out in practice – and so it’s worth looking at some examples from his life and his engagement with people.
- He was totally prepared and willing to speak out against religious leaders who were misleading the people (Matthew 23:1-38)
- He was prepared to speak against the political leaders of his day as they tried to oppose him (Luke 13:32)
- He spoke about outcasts coming into God’s kingdom (Matthew 21:31-32) which shows how he welcomed people but he also looked for a change in their behaviour (John 8:11)
- He expected commitment of those who chose to follow him and didn’t try and hang on to them if they weren’t prepared for it (Matthew 19:16-22, Luke 9:57-62)
Jesus spoke out against what was wrong in society and expected certain things from those who were seeking to follow him.
And it seems that this establishes two principles which are important for Christians to reflect on and practice today:
- We have a responsibility to speak out against those things which are actually intolerable, and to challenge when tolerance is called for when it is not appropriate
- We need to speak truth in our churches and communities regarding what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and not be prepared to accept things which he would not.
What does this mean in practice?
One of the things it means is that we should welcome anyone into our believing communities but we should continually be challenging each other to be changed to become more like Jesus. We shouldn’t “tolerate” non-Christian attitudes and behaviours within our churches, rather we should lovingly and gently call people to follow the example of Jesus, and seek to model it in our own lives as well.
Another is that while we should defend the rights of all to believe and worship as they wish (or not) we should be prepared to speak about the good news of Jesus in a positive and engaging way with those we meet and spend time with.
So I think tolerance is generally ok – but if it becomes syncretism:
the amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought
then we have a problem.