I am thankful to live in a society that allows most people to say most of what they are thinking without fearing for their lives. Even those who speak horrible and offensive things may face a social or legal penalty, but it will not be in fear of government taking their life. We need to be reminded of this constantly. The reason we can accuse each other of being intolerant is because we live in a tolerant society.
Tolerance does not come naturally to us. It must be taught and learned. New people, new teaching, new religion (or variations of the same one), new discoveries, and new technology are all threats to our personal stability and understanding of life. If I have life figured out well enough for me to live it, I do not need anything that will upset it. If my religious or political beliefs work for me and I am convinced that I am correct in such beliefs, anything or anyone that challenges that is a threat.
On the other hand, I may decide to see life differently and become certain that the old ways of thinking and doing are not just different but wrong. In this case my patience with those who refuse to see things my way may grow a little short.
Our nation is also large enough and diverse enough that we have people with different views of the world and different cultures living next to each other. This creates a necessity for tolerance, which can be hard if one is convinced that those people hate your people, pose a real or perceived threat.
Our nation has a deep and rich history of tolerance. Such tolerance has several threads, but one of them is courageous men and women in our colonial history speaking up for religious tolerance. Religion in general and Christianity in particular, are often criticized for being sources of intolerance. I would argue quite differently. People, in general, tend to gather themselves into groups. We call this tribalism. And tribes tend to be intolerant of other tribes. What happens in a nation where Christianity is still socially acceptable and the dominant social and religious force is that fallible people, still not ready to let go of their tribes and the rightness they represent, make up most of the church.
That means much that is seen to be "Christian" does not represent Christian teaching at all, but people claiming it while not fully understanding its implications. This group includes everybody. But sometimes there will be a person or group of people who remind us that Christianity is inclusive and tolerant of others. The teachings are always there, we just need to begin to take them seriously. I would argue Christian teaching is the greatest contributor to our being a tolerant society, even if we do practice it poorly.
In colonial America, the Quakers were often the recipients of religious intolerance. Roger Williams in Rhode Island was among the first to argue for acceptance of Quakers and came to blows over it with Massachusetts. In New Amsterdam (later called New York City), there was a proclamation against the Quakers followed by harsh treatment. Here is part of a letter from a courageous group of citizens of Flushing, Long Island, arguing for toleration in 1657.
"For our part we cannot condemn them ... neither can we stretch out our hands against them to punish, banish, or persecute them, for out of Christ, God is a consuming fire, and it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. We desire, therefore, in this case, not to judge lest we be judged, neither do we condemn lest we be condemned, but rather let every man stand and fall on his own. ..."
Later it says, "The law of love, peace, and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks, and Egyptians, as they are considered sons of Adam, which is the glory of the ... state of Holland; so love peace, and liberty, extending to all in Christ Jesus condemns hatred, war, and bondage. ... Our desire is not to offend his little ones in whatsoever form, name or title he appears in, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist, or Quaker. (We desire) to do unto all men as we desire all men should do to us, which is the true law of both the church and the state."
What is remarkable about this letter is that there is not one sentence that does not refer to a scripture. It is a remarkable example of Christian teaching correcting Christian practice.
Sean Niestrath lives and ministers in Madisonville. You may contact him via email at email@example.com.