Clarity on Tolerance

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The public school system in Fairfax County, Virginia is currently going through a storm of controversy. The disturbance is based on the school board’s recent vote to add gender identity education (and corresponding sex education) to their curriculum, starting as early as Kindergarten. Furthermore, the school board is attempting to move this portion of the curriculum from “Family Life Education,” which parents have the ability to opt out of in the state of Virginia, to “Health Education,” which they do not.

While this issue is perhaps isolated in Fairfax, Virginia at the moment, you can all but guarantee it will spread.

I personally would not be okay with my child receiving that specific education. But, for voicing my belief in God’s biblical design for marriage and a biblical sexual ethic, I might very well be labeled intolerant.

While I don’t mind being called names, what I don’t like is poor logic.

To not accept my position on something because you view it as “intolerant” is, in itself, intolerant. You’d be guilty of the very thing you’re accusing me of.

In social theories, this is referred to as the paradox of intolerance. Harvard philosopher John Rawls said that a just society must tolerate the intolerant. Otherwise, the society would itself be intolerant, and thus unjust (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, pg. 220)

On both sides of the debate, lost in today’s arguments of “You’re unloving for not supporting gay marriage” or “I shouldn’t have to provide these services for these people,” is the actual definition of tolerance – seemingly the one moral absolute that continues to exist in our society.

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So, says that tolerance involves showing kindness to those who differ from you. Furthermore, if you glance through the synonyms, you find additional insight.

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Tolerance apparently also carries the idea that you must endure something you don’t like. It means you don’t always get your way. In fact, the word civilization comes from the word civil and it means to be respectful and polite. The entire basis for civilization then is the idea of being gracious to someone with whom you differ.

So let me show you where I think many people miss the concept today:

Many Conservatives Don’t Understand Tolerance

I’ll say it again, tolerance means that you must endure something you don’t like.

Though some, cringing at the mere sound of the word, view tolerance as permissiveness towards sin (and it could become that in some cases), tolerance itself is nonetheless a fully godly trait. The Apostle Paul, writing to some (hypocritically) self-righteous and judgmental Jews, said, “Do you show contempt for the riches of (God’s) kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4) 

Within the premise of the gospel is the idea that God doesn’t merely send lighting bolts down upon me when I’m behaving wrongly. He’s patient with me. He stays with me. And he seeks to win my heart over to the truth. He doesn’t just shut me down and cut me off. If he did, while my behavior might change, there’s nothing to suggest that my heart would change. Instead, God tolerates me, guiding me to repent of my untruth, see the beauty of his mercy, and voluntarily conform to his will.

Many Liberals Don’t Understand Tolerance

You can’t force someone to like anything, let alone something they must endure.

Since the 1930s, political psychologists have argued that liberals are more tolerant. Thus, the grand irony in the gender identity and same-sex marriage movement is a seeming spirit of not only wanting people to accept it as law of the land, but to approve of the behavior. This is the impulse behind the recent wave of lawsuits against Christian bakers, florists, photographers, and adoption agencies. But are these lawsuits indicative of tolerant behavior?

Say, for instance, I was hosting an event which clearly revolved around core Christian beliefs like the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – a baptism, a confirmation, a funeral, etc. – and I walked into a bakery owned by a Muslim and asked for a cake with a Christian cross and Bible verse on it. If he refused to provide service, I’d probably say, “I understand (that this puts you in a difficult situation, one which might conflict with your beliefs).” And I’d find another bakery.

Please note: I’m NOT saying that I think it should be legal to deny non-inherently religious civil services. That’s a dangerous avenue to go down. What if our country became a Muslim majority? Would it be okay for a gas station owner to deny me service because of my attachment to Jesus? What I am suggesting is that our nation would be a better place in which to live if we possessed a common courtesy that allowed us to not always get our way, grace that allows for some personal inconvenience – grace to go find another bakery.

I can appreciate that homosexuals have felt a great deal of social rejection and hate for a long time. But an attempt to force others to accept a behavior that they’re morally uncomfortable with would make you guilty of the very thing you supposedly despise in intolerant people.

Biblical Tolerance

Christians have to understand that theological tolerance is logically impossible. All beliefs CANNOT be equally valid and correct. Someone’s gotta be wrong about something here. Therefore, Christians who are compromising biblical truth regarding human sexuality (i.e. tolerating theological untruth) for the sake of societal peace are doing the Christian life incorrectly, because compromising God’s revealed will is never loving.

Nonetheless, while theological tolerance is impossible, civil tolerance is absolutely within reach.

Amazingly, Jesus’ teaching is not only that we be civil with those who differ from us, but he has the audacity to actually say that we should LOVE them!

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you … you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:27-29, 35-36)

Because Jesus didn’t write you off, because he tolerated you while you were dead in your sins and offered the grace to bring you to life, you have the promise of forgiveness and salvation.

The gospel of Jesus – this is a great basis for civilization. And I think it’s possible for both believers and non-believers can see the wisdom of that.

Life in Babylon. Love for Babylon. And a few more thoughts a week after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

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I’m starting to think that many, myself included, are perhaps getting a little exhausted with the dialogue concerning the SCOTUS marriage decision. Maybe it’s because same-sex marriage has already been a reality in my state for several years. Maybe it’s because I’m well aware of my generation’s overwhelmingly supportive opinions about same-sex marriage. By the way, some of that support is, in fact, because many young adults feel romantic relationships between same-gendered persons are perfectly legitimate. On the other hand,  some of that support is because many young adults, while they don’t agree morally with same-gendered relationships, also don’t believe it’s morally appropriate that homosexuals should be denied other rights/privileges merely based on sexual orientation.

Practically, it makes little difference, because Millennials are set to become the nation’s largest generation soon, which seemingly would suggest that same-sex marriage is the new norm for the foreseeable future. While the footnotes of our country’s history may remember Friday as a historic date, the Supreme Court’s decision didn’t actually move the idealogical needle all too much. It merely publicly declared what we, as a nation, already believed.

Human sexuality is a major issue, and needs to regularly be addressed, so I do so once or twice a year. But, in recent years, I’ve already given my personal thoughts on what I believe the dynamic between Christians and same-sex relationships and the government needs to be here, and here, and to a lesser degree, here. So, I want to change the focus a little this week.

I get the impression that what the Obergefell v. Hodges same-sex marriage ruling did, as much as anything, was shock some Christians into the realization that America is not their home. We’ve had hints in this direction since WWII, but I think for the first time on Friday, American WASPs started to feel like a minority. That’s not at all a bad thing. Generally speaking, wasps are awful. Furthermore, Christians who hold to the Bible as inspired, inerrant revelation from God, while a minority now, shouldn’t feel too sorry for themselves, because they aren’t the only minority here. In fact, our nation, as perhaps evidenced by the marginal 5-4 Court ruling, is basically non-majority. We live in a highly fragmented civilization, where it’s almost as though majority opinions – about religion, morality, worldview, etc., are nonexistent. Almost every idea is coming from a relative minority viewpoint.

What the Supreme Court ruling also is doing, however, is forcing us to reevaluate how we, as Christians, engage a post-Christian society. So, today I’d simply propose that the two false avenues to go down would be to 1) avoid and condemn the culture completely, or 2) over-assimilate to the culture.

Perhaps the most helpful biblical text on the matter is what God says to the Israelites through the prophet Jeremiah.

“Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 29:7-9)

After being conquered by Babylon, many of God’s people, the Israelites, had been carried away into exile in Babylon. Much like ours, Babylon was a fairly fragmented society.

The Babylonians were sharp. In the ancient world, after you defeated a nation in battle, there were basically three options of what you might do with them. First, you could drive them out of the land. Often, after regrouping, the defeated party would later storm back more hostile than before. Second, you could subjugate the defeated nation as slaves. While the cheap labor sounded nice, nations figured out quickly that afflicted, humiliated people groups often find resilience in their common cause to overthrow oppression. The third option, which the Babylonians preferred, was that of separation and assimilation. In this case, the defeated nation was divided, and the best and brightest were often actually educated in the mother nation’s ways and given opportunity for a good life, so long as they assimilated on major cultural issues.

Under the Babylonian’s rule, the only time you’d potentially face genuine hardship is if you refused to play ball. This is precisely what we see, for instance, in the case of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, i.e. The Three Men in the Fiery Furnace (Dan. 3) and in the case of  Daniel himself, i.e. In the Lion’s Den (Dan. 6). A refusal to assimilate meant opposition from the state. Nonetheless, Daniel and his friends held their ground because they considered the fires and lions of hell much more dangerous than those of earth. Stated differently, the thought of offending and thus being separated from their gracious LORD was much more horrible than the thought of offending and being separated from sinful man.

So, for the Israelite believers in exile, one option was to fully assimilate and break their faith in God. Another option was to stand their ground on issues of faith and potentially face persecution.

A third option was to rally together in their own little group, avoid Babylonian culture and people at all cost, and hope and pray that God would soon rain down judgment on this wicked, sinful people. A number of Israel’s false prophets, like Hananiah, were encouraging this sort of self-righteous tribalism (Jer. 28).

Again, the Israelites naturally thought they had two options – compromise their faith and selfishly take as much as they could from the city OR selfishly avoid sharing their faith (and their God) and eschew the city and culture entirely. But God intervenes with a thought that doesn’t come to us naturally, a third option that comes to us only through his Spirit – “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.” (Jer. 29:7)

The Israelite exiles were supposed to love Babylon as they functioned as salt and light for Babylon.

How does this all apply to same-sex marriage?

Let’s remember what the gospel is.

Michel Foucault was a French philosopher and perhaps the most commonly cited social theorist of the postmodern era. Speaking about identity, Foucault believed that we all have some factor that makes us feel good about ourselves. We tend to build our identity on this factor. The inevitable problem, however, is that we begin to despise the people who don’t have that same factor. We treat them as inferior. Furthermore, we also tend to be intimidated by those who appear to have that factor to a greater degree than we do. We feel excluded by those who seem superior. So, for instance, if you find your identity in your personal beauty, your intelligence, your wealth, your personality, your moral performance, etc., you will always find reason to hate those beneath you AND those above you. In other words, Foucault is suggesting that the way we humans naturally go about forming our identities invariably causes humanity to wrestle with issues of inferiority and superiority, abuse and oppression, me against you.

Is there another option?

What if your identity is cemented in a changeless fact that exists outside of you – like the fact that you are a redeemed child of God? And what if that reality was equally available to everyone? How does that status – that of a child of God – come about? Through the grace of Jesus Christ. The gospel says that when I was not doing a single thing right, not thinking a single thing right, fully selfish and headed for destruction, Jesus loved me enough to die for me. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8)

If that’s the foundation of my identity and the hope for my life, how might it change the way I look at a nation that is filled with people who think the wrong things, do the wrong things, a nation of people who are headed for destruction just like I was?

Jesus loved me, he died on the cross for me, even though I differed greatly with him. And if I realize that this is what liberated me, such grace now empowers me to also love others, even die for others, who differ with me.

Because of what Jesus did for me, I’m not afraid to die. And only when you’re not afraid to die will you be courageous enough to stand for truth AND selfless enough to serve in love.

In practice…

What will this truth & love dynamic look like in your life moving forward?

It’s easier to say what it can’t look like.

As a Christian, you can’t just assimilate to Babylon. In the context of the Supreme Court’s ruling, you simply cannot be a Christian and pretend that God’s clearly revealed will for human sexuality does not exist. I am yet to meet the Bible interpreter who believes BOTH that the Bible is fully the inspired Word of God AND that God is supportive of a homosexual lifestyle. I know some people who call themselves Christians and think that God’s will for human sexuality has perhaps changed over the years or that the Bible’s stance on homosexuality is nebulous, but these people unequivocally do NOT consider the Bible to fully be the inspired Word of God. The person who has 1) seriously studied the Bible, 2) believes it’s fully inspired, and 3) draws the conclusion that God is supportive of a homosexual lifestyle would be like the unicorn of biblical interpretation. This stance would be so self-evidently illogical, that no one holds it. Point is, if you’re actually a Christian who has read your Bible and believes that it’s inspired, you absolutely can’t approach the same-sex issue the way the majority of your peers in America now do.

On the other hand, as a Christian, you can’t just avoid Babylon. In the context of the Supreme Court’s decision, you simply cannot be a Christian and ignore Jesus’ statements about believers functioning as the salt (an integrated, flavor-inducing preservative) and light (a more beautiful option pointing towards truth) of the earth (Matt. 5:13-16). God said to the Israelites “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.” (Jer. 29:5) You can’t do that from a distance. You’ve got to get in there and show costly, sacrificial love.

So how do you show this community-transforming truth & love? Sounds daunting. Carrying out the will of God is always an enormous goal. Goals are intimidating. I just read a great piece on productivity that encouraged focusing on sound systems rather than overwhelming goals. For a Christian, the goal of being the salt of the earth and light of the world comes only from the system of having your heart broken and fixed by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

G.K. Beale’s thesis in We Become What We Worship is that we all develop the qualities of the person/thing from which we find our greatest hope in life. Well, what if Jesus was not only what we say we put our hope in, but he actually is where we find our hope?

Jesus was so filled with truth that he’d rather die than compromise a word of his Father’s will. Jesus was so filled with love that he’d rather die for those who were killing him than let them see harm. Focus your life on that guy, you’ll become more like that guy, and I guarantee you’ll figure out how to apply truth and love in whatever your context.