What Does Real Tolerance Look Like?

Tolerance is one of the great virtues of our age. But what does it really look like? If you read ESI, or watch the Point of Focus videos, you know this is a topic we touch on, because it’s such a big issue today.

What passes for tolerance is often not so tolerant. Keith blogged yesterday on an article from The Atlantic by Brandon Ambrosino, a student who came out as gay at Liberty University (founded by Jerry Falwell). The article is so thought-provoking that it’s worth exploring further.

What does real tolerance look like? It’s having a genuine conviction about right and wrong and matching that with a genuine love for the person you disagree with. It’s the ability to give space to someone else, who is genuinely, even confrontationally, different from you. Tolerance is about having different viewpoints and not having to coerce the other person.

Tolerance looks like Dr. James Borland in Ambrosino’s story. The story begins with his theology professor calling five times and then leaving a message, and it closes with his encounter with this professor, James Borland. Here’s how he describes Borland:

This guy was in his 60s, and was one of Jerry Falwell’s close friends. He was a biblical fundamentalist, and a systematic theologian. I was sure he and I had very different ideas about religion. I was also sure he knew a thousand more anti-gay Scriptures than I did, and that he would effortlessly recite them to me in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, and Egyptian Hieroglyphics. 

We can add even more. Dr. Borland was the long-time secretary for the Evangelical Theological Society. To join you have to affirm the inerrancy of the Bible. Surely, here is a representative of the bastion of fundamentalism, one of the chief theological gatekeepers for all that is reactionary and backwards. Here’s where the condemnation rolls in.

Yet Borland welcomes Ambrosino into his home. They chop firewood, have tea, talk theology. And before Ambrosino leaves, Borland quietly affirms that he loves him, considers him a friend, and gives him a bear hug.

That’s genuine tolerance. That’s an inspiring, and as Keith put it, perhaps a not so exceptional, picture of how a Christian should love someone who is different.

And Ambrosino recognizes not only what Borland and others have done, but he calls out the false tolerance of those who would accuse all Christians of being bigots.

Not tolerating someone for his narrow-mindedness is perhaps the epitome of intolerance. I learned from my time at Liberty that this bigotry happens on both sides: not only were there some Christians who wanted to stone some gays, but there were even some gays who wanted to stone a few Christians. Just the other day, I saw a man driving a car with two bumper stickers. One was a rainbow. The other showed a picture of a lion, and contained the caption “The Romans had it right.” Just another open-minded gay man, I suppose.

We shouldn’t be under any illusions about the difficulty of living out our faith today. In some ways it’s not at all hard, especially compared to Christians in North Korea, Eritrea, and other places. Yet, we do need to cultivate more a counter-cultural mentality that lives for Christ in a culture that doesn’t necessarily share our values, because it believes a different story. But let’s do so without defensiveness, or a bunker mentality, but instead with genuine tolerance, like so many of the Christians at Liberty University.

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