Tolerance, Eh?

In a display of the sort of tolerance that we can grow to expect more and more of in the coming years, our church was defaced today.  I’m assuming that it happened in the wee hours of the morning, when our quiet town of 65,000 or so is pretty well dead quiet.  

We had received two complaint calls in the last week about the sign – both people unhappy at messages on the sign that professed in varying terms that Jesus is the way of salvation.  I think the sign most recently read “Give Jesus a try – if you don’t like Him, the devil will always take you back”.  Neither caller wished to leave their names or talk with me.  Both were irritated that we would be so closed-minded as to assume that there could only be one Way towards heaven/bliss/nirvana/moksha/whatever-they-think-is-out-there.  They didn’t wish to dialog, they wished to instruct.  We were being intolerant, and they needed to instruct us as to how to be more tolerant.
I’m of the opinion that it was one of these open-minded, tolerant folks who sometime last night or early this morning painted the glass over our sign black on one side, blocking out the message that they had found so offensive as to be intolerable, despite their assertions that we needed to be more tolerant.  A bored teen likely would have just destroyed the sign – put a rock through it, or some other means of violence.  But to paint over it in black paint demonstrates not boredom, but dissent and disagreement.  
This is the form of tolerance I expect more of in the future.  Tolerance for anyone and anything except anyone or anything that dares to make a definitive statement about the nature of reality, and the nature of our existence in this world.  Believe what you want, in other words, just don’t dare believe anything exclusively, and don’t dare believe anything to a point where you would express it to someone else.  This is intolerable.  We can’t debate any longer in a civilized fashion (is that something we were ever very good at as a species?) Tolerance is for anyone except those who refuse to turn off their brains and worship tolerance as some sort of global panacea.  Because it’s pretty clear that there are some tolerant folks out there who aren’t going to take any guff, and who feel more than justified in shutting others up if they don’t feel they’re being properly tolerant.  Or aren’t being tolerant in the right way.  Or, more accurately, just happen to disagree with their particular interpretation of what tolerance means and why it ought to be practiced.  It’s rather clear that tolerance isn’t.  It’s clearer each day that being tolerant isn’t enough – you must be the proper persuasion of tolerant.  Or you will be silenced.
Which doesn’t sound overly tolerant to me.  Which is why I much prefer the Biblical injunction not to be tolerant, but rather to love God with everything you are, and to love your neighbor as yourself.  Jesus understands what a scam tolerance is.  The Romans claimed to be tolerant – allowing their conquered peoples to retain their own pantheons of gods and goddesses.  Oh, but that pantheon had to include the emperor.   Tolerance wasn’t really tolerance – tolerance was do what we tell you to do, and if you do that, we’ll allow you – for the time being – to do other lesser things as well.  
Tolerance is a sheathed knife.  Tolerance is an uncocked pistol.  Tolerance is the thinly veiled threat that said tolerance will be withdrawn and obedience will be demanded in a more naked and brutal form.  Tolerance is an indulgence, and when boredom sets in, or when patience runs out, that indulgence is withdrawn.
Love, on the other hand, isn’t like that.  Love is not the checking of hate.  Love is not a temporary permissiveness.  Love is an action.  A decision.  A commitment to that other person that is not withdrawn, is not demanding, and is not an indulgence.  Love is a sacrifice, and love is hard.  
We’ll have the glass on our sign replaced within a few days.  And I’m torn on how to move forward.  I haven’t specifically requested that all the messages be vetted by me prior to being placed up.  Probably not wise.  But I’m not sure I would have asked that this one be changed anyways.  There’s another church sign in town, and they simply put up the title of the sermon on Sunday and the pastor’s name.  Our sign has attempted to amuse, to provoke thought, to exhort, to challenge.  That means some people won’t like what it has to say from time to time.  Is our duty as a church to placate people, on the off-chance that perhaps they’ll find us so tolerable that they’ll want to come and sit in with us some Sunday morning?  Is it to deny the truth we claim to hold more dearly than our lives themselves, on the off chance that others won’t decide that our sign needs to be painted over?  To avoid a next time, since next time they may just destroy the whole sign instead of just painting it over?  If a sign is so innocuous in it’s message as to be easily ignored, is there a point in having a sign in the first place?  
These are the questions I juggle in my mind.  Not worriedly.  Not anxiously.  This is to be expected.  In many ways, it’s a relief – it means that we’ve struck a nerve with someone.  I pray that someone reconsiders their actions in the future.  That they’d be willing to sit down and talk like adults.  I’m not hopeful that will happen.  But I pray it will.  For all our sakes.

3 Responses to “Tolerance, Eh?”

  1. JP Says:

    I agree with your assessment of tolerance, or, in this case, the lack thereof. I think people often confuse tolerance and privatism. They tolerate you having your views, as long as they are kept to yourself. True tolerance does not paint the sign black, but allows the sign to exist even though it is offensive. The bigger question, which you begin to address, is whether tolerance, even in its true form, is what we really want or need. Is it right to tolerate all things? Are there some ideas or actions which should not be tolerated? Where is the line? Who decides the line? Governments? Inter-governmental organizations (like the International Criminal Court)? And if we are not to tolerate certain ideas or actions, then what is the proper response? On a side note, I don’t really like your sign, either. But I suppose I will tolerate it.

  2. Paul Says:

    Hi JP -No, tolerance isn’t what is needed or wanted. And no, tolerance is not universal or unilateral – as the painting of the sign demonstrates. Tolerance is not extended to anyone or anything that does not meet the criteria for tolerance – in this case, the appearance of intolerance (as arbitrarily defined by some specific individual, in this case). Tolerance can’t be unilateral or universal – we don’t tolerate pedophilia (yet), but we’ve decided to tolerate – and promote – other sexual choices that until the latter third of the 20th century were considered completely unacceptable and undesirable (homosexuality, libertinism, etc.). Tolerance is a moving target that is defined *for* the majority, by a minority, and doesn’t apparently need to take into consideration traditional views on the subject, whether cultural, religious, or even evolutionary (for folks that claim that point of view). As we can see today, government doesn’t decide the line, but is called upon to enforce the line – or to move the line if people are ‘foolish’ enough to set the line in a place that supporters of tolerance don’t find tolerable. I know what you mean – I’m not sure I’m thrilled with what the sign said either. It’s not my personal style, for certain. On the other hand, the sign – and similar witticisms and Christian humorisms – are a staple in our community. People all know our sign – though many don’t actually know anything more about the church. I tend to think that the church sign is an anachronism, a throwback to a time when the community wanted to know what a church thought or was going to be teaching/preaching on. Those days are gone, but people still like to be amused by the sign – unless it offends their sensibilities. Any thoughts on what sort of uses a highly visible sign could be put to that would be less likely to cause vitriolic responses, or that might be helpful or useful? And any suggestions about what our next message should be? The vandalism attack has apparently gotten people’s attention – and I’m trying to craft the next message, since the community is literally watching!

  3. Michael Says:

    How about this: “Sometimes the truth hurts…Jesus said: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me’ John 14:6.”

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