Tension in Tolerance

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. — Jesus, Matthew 10:34

I had a very interesting discussion with one of my professors last week about the changing meaning of the word “tolerance.” We got on the topic by discussing Henry David Thoreau, a guy who in the early years of America went and lived in a cabin by a pond for a year, just to see what he could learn about how a person can live a full life. He wrote a book about it, titled Walden, that is currently included in most undergraduate American literature reading requirements.

Discussing Thoreau’s writings in my grad school class, my professor was astonished to find that most of our group wasn’t offended or annoyed by the book. She admitted that the longer she has taught, the more her undergraduate students seem to hate Thoreau, claiming that he is “pushing his ideas of how life should be lived” and “preaching” and “judgmental.” My professor was confused, she said, since my generation had no problems with Thoreau, but that each successive freshman class has gotten more and more rabid toward Walden. What was up?

I suggested it might have something to do with changing ideas of tolerance in the modern world. Tolerance used to mean that even if you didn’t live a certain lifestyle, you didn’t tell someone else that their lifestyle was somehow bad or less good than yours. In that generation, my generation, you could live your life however you wanted as long as you didn’t say it was best (of course, for Christians, this definition of tolerance poses problems, but I think you can figure them out on your own without a rabbit trail of an explanation). I suppose that is why we had no problem with Thoreau back then; to us, he was just another guy trying to find the best way to live his life, whether we thought he was going about it in the right way or not.

But recently, I said, tolerance has seemed to take on a slightly different meaning. The more the term is pushed, the more it seems to imply that even choosing a way of living, that picking a side, so to speak, automatically makes you intolerant. I suggested that this is what has happened with Thoreau: where my generation could read his ideas and reject or accept them, younger generations are offended just by the fact that he chose a direction. Just by living his life in a certain, deliberate way, Thoreau seems to offend the modern idea of tolerance. Indeed, my professor sardonically laughed, it seems that “every man for himself” has become “every man is everything,” meaning that the idea of “tolerance” is actually intolerant by enforcing a vision of neutrality.

Now, I was at first distressed by this increasingly anti-Christian cultural philosophy. (Everything is just getting worse! The whole kit and kaboodle is going to H-E-double hockey sticks!) But I remembered that somewhere Jesus might have said something about this, and I turned to Matthew.

Though I’d read it a million times over, I was surprised to find Jesus directly addressing my concerns not just in one verse, but in several. (But not in the way I wanted: “Hide! Run away! Darn them all to H-E-double hockey sticks!”) In fact, it seemed like Jesus actually knew that the world was going downhill and that we would be hated. That being disliked was a necessary result of our faith.

Most shocking, though, was what I read in chapter 10: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

Okay, what?

We talk a lot about Jesus and peace, and I’m not saying I think that’s wrong. The hope of the gospel is that Jesus will come and reign again and cure us and the whole world of sin, destroying the very thing that has destroyed peace since Adam and Eve ate the fruit. But what Jesus is saying in Matthew about his ministry then and there, and the ministry of those who follow him until he returns again, is that it causes division, not peace. Strife, not resolution.

Again, what? And what does this mean for tolerance?

We live in a world that grows more and more antagonistic toward Christianity. Not just the existence of God, not just the morality we promote, not just our general political leanings or preachings or missions or worship or community. It is growing more antagonistic toward anyone who not only says that their beliefs are truth, are best, but also toward anyone who chooses a direction.

And when we choose Jesus, whether we like it or not, it means choosing a direction. We pick a side. We take the narrow way, instead of the wide one. We are different.

In a world where “tolerance” and “getting along” are the highest goals, what are we to do? The idea of making people mad makes us cringe (I’m a huge people-pleaser, so it makes me want to vomit), but we read these verses about how our beliefs might even separate families and we get confused. God, what do you want? Division? Or peace?

God of course loves peace. I don’t think Jesus is telling us to literally take a sword (paintball gun, mace, two-by-four, spray paint…) to people who don’t believe what we do. I think he is simply telling us the truth: when you chose a side, my side, there will be people who are on the other side who don’t like you. By choosing a direction, you will be going against the neutrality, the anti-confrontationalism, the passivity of the world.

Jesus didn’t bring peace when he came the first time. He brought a dividing line.

You see, the world thinks that peace will come if we all just water down our beliefs enough that really we won’t be different anymore and we can all just be friends. Just Jesus knows that we will only have peace when we all are united under one belief: our belief in him. But that won’t come until later. So for now, by choosing a direction, we’re going against the grain.

Should this get us down (oh, hooray, a whole life of people hating me!)? After reading Matthew, I was actually really encouraged to know, first of all, that none of this is a surprise to Jesus. But secondly, I think Jesus wants us to see how this is the way it was always meant to be and it gives us a great place from which to proclaim his name.

Indeed, most of his metaphors for us talk about standing out. We are salt and light, not dirt and twilight shadows. We were never meant to blend in. So as the world gets more “tolerant,” the more we stand out. Yes, this means we will catch more flac, but it also means more questions will be asked, more opportunities for conversations will come about, more light will shine in the increasing darkness.

Really, it makes our jobs easier. While before we had to preach loudly, explain how our religion is better than others, explain why Christianity is not disproved by science, now all we have to do is…choose. Choose a direction. Have an opinion. Commit yourself to God’s directions for living.

Follow Jesus, and the tension with tolerance will find you.


2 thoughts on “Tension in Tolerance

  1. This is really great, Julie. I love your insight here, and it has been my conviction for some time now that our age is becoming increasingly like Jesus’ own time in that our lives have clearly become the most effective and powerful witness to the wisdom of God. When we actually follow him, we prove both God’s wisdom and love, and rather than pointing out every minute error in the philosophical commitments of those who disagree with us, perhaps the best thing we can do is evidence the poverty of competing worldviews by living out what many have called a “more excellent way.”
    Great thoughts here, and very challenging to me today. Thank you!

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